Recently, I’ve been noticing how often we covertly and probably unconsciously seek permission from others where we are the only ones with the authority to grant ourselves permission- to be ourselves, to live our lives, to acknowledge our wounds, to heal.
A few weeks ago, a wise man whose knowledge of the human heart and psyche I value greatly, said to me, “You know, it’s a testament to the human spirit that, given your early wounding in life, you are not mad.”
I was surprised and alarmed. Surely my early wounds are no worse than most and not as bad as many. Seeing my confusion he assumed the word “mad” needed some explanation and talked about the ways madness manifests in modern life (addiction, disassociation, the inability to be in relationship, make a living, raise a family etc.)
But I’d understood what he meant by madness and, although I am all too familiar with my own neuroses, I’m generally pretty functional. I’ve done my therapy and other forms of psychological work and like to think I am pretty well known to myself.
What stunned me, and no doubt caused the deer-in-the-headlights look to which he was responding, was the implication that my childhood wounds were severe. I’d taken my ability to function in the world as evidence that these wounds were relatively slight. No, that’s not true. I had seen- been taught to see– my childhood as relatively free from any serious wounding and had used my ability to cope with life as evidence that this mythology was factually true.
Somehow the implication that I had suffered severe wounding as a child, coming from someone who knew many of my childhood stories, set off my inner alarm bells. And that got me wondering: Why? If I was so certain that I’d had a “normal” childhood (whatever that means) why did this implication feel so dangerous? I suddenly felt the urge to poll my friends on parental abuse, neglect, neuroses and psychoses to gauge how serious my wounds were. Again the question was: Why? Rationally I know that comparing heart and soul wounds to determine whose are “severe” and whose are “fair to middling” or “slight” is not particularly useful and potentially harmful. Although some forms of neglect and abuse are clearly worse than others, on the whole there is no “objective” scale that determines how much harm is done because there are countless factors that affect the depth of the wound (parental intention, other support, age of the child, personality traits, cultural context etc.) I also know that loving parents, doing their best, make mistakes that affect their children because they are human beings.
But I was suspicious of my own reactivity. Why all the fancy inner footwork to reassure myself that this man, as wise as he was, was mistaken about my past? Why such a charged response of alarm and confusion? Because, his acknowledgement of the stories I had shared gave me an opening I didn’t really want. It was a question of permission. Was I going to give myself permission to recognize the depth of my own wounding? I could feel my fear. Could I? Should I? Who should I ask? I don’t want to create a victim identity and/or blame my parents for not being more conscious or able to cope with the demands of child-rearing than they had been. I don’t want to wallow in the wounds of the past. Wow- can you hear the fear, denial and misrepresentation of the healing process in that statement!?
Here’s where it’s tempting to misuse spiritual teachings and practices, pushing for premature acceptance and forgiveness before the harm done has been fully acknowledged within. I’ve often warned those studying or doing ceremony with me that they cannot use the spiritual life to avoid psychological work. Jeff Brown, author of Soulshaping, calls the effort to do just this, a spiritual bypass. It won’t work. But that doesn’t keep us from sometimes giving it a try. And if your spirituality overtly or covertly tends toward simplistic magical thinking (ie- if I think it is so I will make it so, even retroactively) there’s even more incentive to avoid acknowledging past trauma in the hopes that denial will just dissolve the whole thing. This is not rational, but even those of us who do not include this kind of thinking in our spiritual understanding or practice may be susceptible to it if the things we want to deny happened when we were young. Children tend to have an inflated sense of their own power to cause things to happen. If stepping on a crack will break my mother’s back surely thinking the most powerful people in my world- my parents- are doing something harmful, tempts disaster.
No one else can tell us how deeply events in our childhood have affected our psyches and shaped our present strategies in life. We have to discover this for ourselves, although we rarely do it alone. A good guide or teacher or psychotherapist is invaluable. But at some point, we are the only ones who can give ourselves permission to see what was and is true- without trying to preserve our family mythologies or protect our ideas about our parents, without worrying about what will happen next. This takes faith because it’s pretty natural to fear that uncovering old wounds will lead to bad things. What if we discover we are wounded beyond healing? What if digging up this stuff buried in our bodies and unconscious makes us collapse in a permanent puddle of pain?
I have faith that healing really can happen when we can give ourselves permission to see and feel the depth of our own sorrow. You can’t heal a wound you don’t even know is there (even as it is directing and effecting many of your choices) and wounds don’t heal without cleaning them out- physically or with the light of consciousness. Permission to acknowledge our wounding is just one of the many things we need to do to consciously receive the gift of a human life- and only we can give ourselves this permission.
Oriah (c) 2010