I just ended a session with an intelligent, eminently sane woman whose mother too often became a raging witch who did things she would be punished for if seen today, and whose father was a passive bystander. The client thanked me for listening and for believing her.
When her previous therapist said, “They did the best they could,” (referring to the parents) it was a signal to Donna (not her real name) that there was nothing more to say. Conversation closed. That was pretty much the end of therapy too.
I don’t know if it was “the best they could do,” but it certainly doesn’t look that way to an adult child who has grown up and decided, through much effort, to do things differently.
The struggle for Donna and everyone who suffered from parental abuse as a child is to heal herself of the self-blame that is both natural to a child’s self-centered view and which is reinforced every time someone minimizes or dismisses their experience.
To make things worse, if the parent denies responsibility or even denies what happened (e.g. verbally denying or acting as if nothing happened after a violent assault) victims don’t know what to do with the experience. They are left to bury it in the unconscious, conceal it, or risk being labeled a problem. It is crazy-making.
One of the worst things you can do to someone is create a rupture in the continuity of their being where they have to disown part of their experience. It’s like creating a crack in their soul. Any time we minimize someone’s experience, essentially telling them, “don’t feel that way” or “that’s not the way it was,” or “you have no cause for complaint,” we make that crack bigger.
What those who have gone through deep suffering need is someone who they feel is on their side, not someone shutting down their process.
Now I know some people think we’ve gone too far focusing on wounds, but I see too much of the alternative, where people leave the dirt piled up under the carpet and trip over it their whole lives. Or, worse yet, pass the injuries on.
I know in some circles blame is out; but from my perspective, blame is part of a process. Not good to spend your life in, but often absolutely essential.
Those who are healing are often admonished to forgive, but it is usually premature and can impede the emergence of a more genuine and whole forgiveness. Forgiving at the beginning, before ever ‘opening the book’ makes it likely that any “forgiveness” is an imitation plastered on top of a mountain of “stuff” that you can’t get to now because the book has been closed.
It’s interesting that this line, “They did the best they could” is so often said about parents. I never hear it used with politicians or CEO’s. Yeah, the company went under, there was massive collateral damage, the people at the top were paying off their buddies and hiding information, but “they did the best they could.” Really?
There’s a larger philosophical issue about whether we all are doing the best we can at any given time (re to determinism and free will) that I will not get into. I’m pointing out that 1) we apply this position selectively, and 2) it’s not helpful!
It strikes me more as something we say when we’re uncomfortable and want to foreclose the pain in the room.
Let’s allow people their experience, meet their pain when we can, and trust that those who are sincerely and honestly engaged in their process are right where they need to be.
P.S. Thank you for reading. If you enjoyed this article and want to receive others like it, please sign up for more. If this piece sparks something in you, please let me know by sharing your thoughts below.