this is a continuation of my blog post a little while ago on helping a person overcome guilt.
clara’s and my exchanges were a conversation, with a thread going through it of questions (on my part) and replies (on carla’s). at the end of our process, i asked clara to tell me which questions were most useful to her in helping her lift most of the burden of guilt that she had been feeling, and to say a bit about those questions. (of course, names and identifying characteristics were changed.) i will also make some observations. so let’s continue:
how exactly have the people in your life been harmed by the specific things you feel guilty over, e.g. your eldest witnessing you taking getting drunk?
much of the guilt i carried over this particular incident has been reckoned with. i now understand (and accept) that what my children choose to do as adults has little (or nothing) to do with that isolated event.
comment: one of the reasons why i asked that question is that when we are plagued by guilt for a long time, there is usually what i call a “movie” associated with it. i call it a movie because it often has that intense and clear quality, with a complete memory of colours, details, even smells and textures. it is also often a “movie” out of context, i.e. just a snippet. paradoxically, what perpetuates the guilt is keeping that movie inside, never talking about it. so telling another person about it AND putting it in context are often very healing moments.
you weren’t even 18. how well prepared for motherhood do you think you were? how well prepared do you think ANY 16-year-old is?
i have looked at myself (objectively) as a 16 year old who was quite immature emotionally, even for the average 16 year old. i was looking for acceptance and love through sexual contact, probably due to the crisis in my family when i was 12. in retrospect, being a parent at 16 was an unbelievable challenge for me, as i also worked a full time job to take care of us. i was literally a child who was suddenly thrown into an overwhelming situation. though i do (somewhat) carry guilt over what my daughter had to go through. though i always wanted to be a good mom, i just didn’t have the skills i needed to make that possible
comment: when we look back at our behaviour in horror (and guilt), we often assume that we should have known then what we know now. we’re usually not aware of that assumption. so we walk around with thoughts like “how could i have done that! what an awful mother i was!” when really, in this situation, for example, it was a case of not having been ready at all for the task.
the words “objectively” and “in retrospect” show that now, carla is able to look back at the situation with much more balance and compassion for herself.
did you know about the abuse your children were experiencing?
i truly did not know about the sexual abuse. the guilt is over how i handled it afterwards, because though i did believe my children when they told me about it and turned it over to the authorities, i feel i should have left my husband then, instead of putting the family through years of counselling only to have him attempt to reoffend. i feel i gave the wrong message to my children, two of them who have struggled with abusive relationships.
comment: as indicated before, our conversations, while significantly lessening the burden of guilt, did not magically resolve everything. this seems to be an area that needs a bit more resolution.
have your children forgiven you?
this is a question i have thought a lot about. in my heart, i know that they have forgiven me, but i also hear from my youngest child different references made in regard to their upbringing, for example she was talking just the other day to someone about issues with her husband regarding their relationship and her children. she made the statement that nobody will ever come before her children. a few months ago, she told me that she felt i put my husband before her and the others. while i am glad she is able to be outspoken about her feelings, it does hurt that she feels this way.
i am still working on this. thanks for bearing with me, isabella. and by the way, the last time you wrote, your words were so encouraging, and i will never forget how much they helped me. i can now visualize myself sending guilt to the back of the bus (along with all the other riff-raff!)
comment: again, this is an example about an issue that hasn’t “gone away”. and many of them will never completely vanish. i don’t think that is the goal of therapy. therapy cannot erase scars, and it can rarely prevent or take away pain. what therapy can help with is to live with the scars – at times even proudly – and to remove or reduce suffering. it’s one thing to say, “geez, i guess i still feel guilty over that”, and another to lay awake at night playing the scenes of guilt over and over again, going down into an ever deeper spiral of suffering. it is the former that is normal – a quick pang of remembered pain, perhaps even the healthy guilt that serves as a reminder to avoid certain behaviours. the latter is torture, and torture serves no one. we could say, then, that one important goal of therapy is to end self-torture.
image by floato