In Part I, we discussed how we can tell ourselves either contamination stories or growth stories about our past. Contamination stories suggest things are fixed. We label ourselves as being losers, broken or undeserving of love. Growth stories, in contrast, suggest that things are not fixed: we experienced a difficult loss (instead of being a loser), we feel disappointed (instead of being broken), and we don’t currently feel connected (instead of being undeserving of love). Growth stories mean we can learn from our past and develop despite (and maybe even because of) our pain. Contamination stories, however, mean that we are screwed, and we live in perpetual fear of being re-screwed. The previous blog also discussed how, if no one takes responsibility for our hurt, our sense of justice may go unsatisfied. See figure below.
As a result, contamination stories may cause us to unintentionally get stuck in a loop of continually rehearsing old pain and injustice.
A Way Out: Breaking the loop
What if no one comes forward to take responsibility for our pain? What if no one comes forward to make things better? Does this mean – by default- that the blame is forever ours? How do we find a way out of this unresolved – and seemingly unresolvable – loop?
To answer these questions, we must first be willing to develop acceptance. But let me be clear about what I mean when I say “acceptance.” Acceptance, for instance, isn’t short-hand for “quit-whining” or “it’s no big deal.” Here are some of the major concepts that need to be accepted:
- 1st: Your pain was (or is) real
- 2nd: You may not be completely responsible for your pain – even if you feel like you are ₁
- 3rd: You don’t have to like your pain
- 4th: The question as to why you endured your pain – while a completely understandable question to ask – may never be fully answered.
The last concept may be the most difficult to accept. Our brains are designed to focus on the why question. This has helped us to survive as a species, but sometimes it gets us into trouble. As noted by LDS apostle, Robert D. Hales:
“I have come to understand how useless it is to dwell on the whys, what ifs, and if onlys for which there likely will be given no answers in mortality… The questions Why me? Why our family? Why now? Are usually unanswerable questions [and] detract from our spirituality…”
If we can gently work on accepting the four concepts noted above – even if doing so takes repeated practice and patience – then the mental energy we used rehearsing the loop can be used for something else.
Nature abhors a vacuum and so does the human mind. Therefore, we have to fill the vacuum left by the absence of our whys. Old stories of contamination so easily fill the vacuum. After we accept our pain, we need to make sense of our pain. But how do you “make sense of the pain” without answering the why question, which – as we’ve already discussed – may be unanswerable? If “finding meaning” isn’t answering the “why” question, what is it? Holocaust survivor Victor Frankl gave an important suggestion when he said:
“Don’t aim at success- the more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it. For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue…as the unintended side-effect of one’s personal dedication to a course greater than oneself.”
If you want to be successful and happy, you must – paradoxically – make your life be about something other than being successful and happy. Similarly, if you want to redefine your past, make it be about something other than how you are broken. Instead, leverage your past into a cause worth doing; a course greater than oneself. Doing so can give life balance, perspective, and – most of all – a feeling of growth. With a growth mindset, we can generate a different set of personal stories. We can find magic tricks in chemotherapy. We can rediscover our hope and our vitality ₂.
Decontaminating Yourself: A practical approach
The following seven steps can help you find magic in chemo by re-writing old, contamination stories into something that inspires growth. You may wish to journal your answers to the following questions.
Questions for Self-Reflection
- Identify something from your past that seems to define you. (It may be wise to start with something small the first time you do this activity.)
- What are your triggers and how do you know when you are triggered? In other words, what kind of situations in the present trigger the baggage from the past? Once you are triggered, how would you describe your state of mind. For instance, what bodily sensations do you have? What memories do you experience? What feelings do you have in your gut? What thoughts automatically come up?
- What is the contamination story you tell yourself when you are activated? You may not always believe this contamination story; it may operate silently in the background until one of your triggers shows up and you are activated. (Hint: you know you are doing a contamination story if you refer to yourself with some kind of fixed label, like “loser”, “horrible” or “broken”)
- Is there anything you do that keeps the contamination story alive? Do you re-tell it to others? Do you re-tell it to yourself? Do you endlessly seek restitution (“He must pay!”), or do you endlessly dole out self-blame? (“What did I do wrong?”)
- How could this story be re-written into a growth story? Remember this is not denying your pain or telling yourself something simplistic, like “suck it up” or “get over it”. Your growth story should include the acceptance principles found above ₃.
- Instead of endlessly looping on why something happened (which is a question that may go unanswered), what cause can you take up as part of your growth story? This should be something you can directly control and influence; it doesn’t depend on others.
- What are some small steps you can take on a daily or weekly basis that move you towards this cause?
Here is a quick example of how someone else may have completed these seven steps.
Background: Margaret was the oldest child in a large family. She worked hard to take care of her younger siblings, but her father was always rejecting of her. She felt as if her feelings were continually discounted. Now as an adult, even Margaret’s brothers and sisters remembered how Margaret was silently excluded from the emotional connections that were freely made available to other family members. As we talked, she wanted to know why. Why did her father treat her this way? Something about her may have reminded him about his relationship with his own mother, which was very negative. Margaret’s father may have unconsciously disavowed her, but this was only speculation.
Her father, who was still alive and with whom she had infrequent contact, never admitted to doing anything wrong. When asked about why he treated her the way he did, her dad would invalidate Margaret’s pain by saying, “You had it good. Didn’t I feed you? Didn’t I send you to school? Did I ever beat you? A lot of people had it a lot worse than you!” Margaret’s dad seemed incapable of taking responsibility. This would cower Margaret into submission, as she would experience invalidation all over again.
Here is how Margaret completed the activity above.
- Identify something from your past that seems to define you.
“My father never accepted me. I was like a mini-parent that was never allowed to be a kid and was never really heard.”
- What are your triggers and how do you know when you are triggered? In other words, what kind of situations in the present trigger the baggage of the past? Once you are triggered, how would you describe your state of mind. For instance, what bodily sensations do you have? What memories do you experience? What feelings do you have in your gut? What thoughts automatically come up?
“Being around dad and seeing him treat my younger siblings better than me. When this happens, I either feel numb or sick. Thoughts like, ‘Am I invisible?’ and ‘What did I do wrong?’ run through my head. I want to either shout at him or shut down and withdraw from others. Either way I feel ashamed.”
- What is the contamination story you tell yourself when you are activated? You may not always believe this contamination story; it may operate silently in the background until one of your triggers shows up and you are activated.
“I must have done something wrong, or I must be unlovable. Otherwise, why would dad accept my siblings and reject me? I don’t know how to connect with other people. I am better off alone.”
- Is there anything you do that keeps the contamination story alive? Do you re-tell it to others? Do you re-tell it to yourself? Do you endlessly seek restitution? (“He must pay!”) Or do you endlessly seek out self-blame? (“What did I do wrong?”)
“I still try to make dad like me. I am extra solicitous of him and his feelings, hoping that one day he will acknowledge all the good I do and tell me how proud he is of me. Unfortunately, dad – for whatever reason – seems incapable of demonstrating this level of responsibility.”
- How could this story be re-written into a growth story? Remember this is not denying your pain. Your growth story should include the acceptance principles found above.
“Once upon a time there was a girl named Margaret, who sadly had a father who treated her more like a maid than a child. Margaret did everything she could think of to make her father recognize and accept her, as he did his other children. Margaret hurt so bad and for a long time believed it was her fault. It was easy to blame herself since she could easily remember all her mistakes, like times when she was jealous of her younger siblings. Even as an adult, she searched in vain for a way to make her father accept her. Then, one day, she realized that her father – while a good man in other ways – was not capable of this. She may never understand why her father treated her like he did, but this was no longer her responsibility. She acknowledged her pain, but let go of her old contamination story of being unlovable, realizing that her father – even if he didn’t acknowledge it – had some responsibility for their relationship.”
- Instead of endlessly looping on why something happened (which is a question that may go unanswered), what cause can you take up as part of your growth story? This should be something you can directly control and influence; it does not depend on others.
“Rather than continuing to appease her father or search in vain for explanations that would never come, Margaret decided to devote herself to others. Specifically, she wanted to help neglected children, who may feel as isolated as she felt.”
- What are some small steps you can take on daily or weekly basis that move you towards this cause?
Margaret started volunteering at the local Boys and Girls Club. While volunteering, she made a point of really connecting and listening. This was sometimes difficult because it was painful and reminded her of her own past, but – over time – she found a powerful sense of meaning that helped to reinforce her growth story. Eventually, her contamination story, while never completely gone, began to fade into the background because there was a growth story to replace it.
Eventually, Margaret – and others like her – can move into a state of forgiveness. But the proverbial cart can’t come before the horse. When you’ve been repetitively abused, neglected or violated, these seven steps need to come first. Premature talk of “forgiveness” only serves to re-invalidate your pain. You can’t let go of something that you’ve never really owned.
₁ What if you are convinced that you are to blame? First, most persons who have been victimized assume they are to blame because they feel their emotions so intensely. This is called emotional reasoning. Emotional reasoning basically says something, like “If I feel like I suck, then I must really suck”. This is an example of a fixed mindset. But our feelings are not infallible. They are valid, but they aren’t always 100% accurate. We look at our feelings as if they are absolutely infallible. Nevertheless, since it usually “takes two to tango”, we may share part of the blame.
₂ Hope is an expensive commodity, isn’t it? Most of my patients resist letting go of old stories. After all, they don’t want to be disappointed again. Finding stories of growth takes far more energy than casually coasting along on a story of contamination. Letting go (cue Disney music) is surprisingly difficult and threatening. But what exactly are we letting go of? When you tell someone to “let go” of something horrible from their past, it feels as if you’re telling them to deny their pain. But their pain has already been denied. The justice circle is broken, remember? But we aren’t denying our pain. Instead, we are letting go of fixed contamination stories and attempting to replace them with something that inspires growth. We can replace old stories consciously, or we can live life perpetually damaged. Yes; replacing fixed contamination stories may feel risky, but what is the alternative?
₃ If you find this difficult to do on your own, you may need to talk with someone you trust that can be a little more objective, like a trusted friend or a qualified psychotherapist.