Blaming our past for our problems seems like an immature way to deal with life. We are told to move on, let go, and focus on the future.
I agree with that, but with one important step beforehand. We first need to blame. Then we can see about moving on.
People who have suffered traumas are often told they are unnecessarily fixated on the past. Even they themselves feel guilty and weak for how consumed they are by it. They often believe that their pain and fear should have evaporated by now, and they blame themselves for remaining stuck. Most of these victims have tried hard to move on, but the past keeps haunting their minds.
When trauma hits people, it is often so shattering that they cannot assimilate what has happened to them. It is just unthinkable. This is especially true for children, who are too young to understand or fully process catastrophes. If no one is around to help them come to grips with the horror of it all, the experience remains locked inside, like an ironclad trunk, only to unexpectedly reemerge later in symptoms of post-traumatic stress syndrome.
When abuse or disaster comes at the hands of someone close to us, it is especially hard to get over. This is because not only is the experience itself injurious, but also our innocent trust has been broken. Blaming is a crucial step in extricating ourselves from the profound confusion that reverberates in such betrayal.
Pete Walker’s book, The Tao of Fully Feeling, explains this need for blame. I recommend it to anyone who is trying to recover from childhood abuse. He explains that blaming is necessary in order to recover one’s soul from past mistreatment by others. He points out that forgiveness is meaningless if we have not allowed ourselves to fully realize what happened to us. The practice of forgiveness is nice in theory, but it’s an impossible ideal to impose on anyone who struggles with the after-effects of physical, sexual, mental, or emotional abuse. Walker encourages healthy blaming as an essential step in getting free from how the abuser has undermined our lives and life choices.
Blame also supports anger, a healthy and appropriate emotion that infuses strength and self-respect while replacing fear and shame. We should be angry with people who hurt us. Why the rush to forgiveness? What’s the hurry? Are we trying to use forgiveness as an attempt to repress our painful memories? If so, that never works. Pain is pain, and it holds onto our reality with deep-set hooks. We need to feel the pain, know what happened to us, and lay the blame at the correct person’s feet.
If you are still skeptical that blaming can be a good thing, consider the fact that all children automatically blame themselves for whatever bad things happen to them. They can’t think objectively yet and are so helpless and dependent that they have no safe place from which to evaluate or blame their abusers. Any abuse immediately entangles children in a strong relationship with their abuser because abuse of any kind is an intimate boundary violation. It gets under our skin whether we want it to or not.
Blaming is how we disentangle ourselves from people who have hurt us because blame is the first step in getting the story straight. Sometimes taking responsibility is the wrong thing to do. It is bad for our self-esteem, and it sickens the soul.
But won’t we get stuck in unproductive blaming and use that as an excuse to run away from the necessity of creating our own future? No, because unprocessed trauma and vague, unwarranted guilt are the true culprits that hold us back. When you blame the right person for exactly the right reasons with full emotional awareness, it is unbelievably liberating.
Once you get the story straight about what happened to you and who was responsible, something better than forgiveness occurs. You find yourself living your life for longer and longer periods of time without the intrusive memories of trauma. You will never forget it, but it will have less and less to do with your current life.
You will move on, and it will move on with you, now like a trunk holding neatly folded, fully examined memories that can sit up in the attic unobtrusively until you are occasionally reminded of it or just want to go take another look. This is so much better than pretending the trauma trunk of memories doesn’t exist, only to have it spring open like a jack-in-the-box at the worst possible times.
Blame packs and repacks the memories in a more accurate way, allowing us to throw out distorted conclusions and worn-out guilt each time we go through what’s in there. You may or may not forgive or understand. That part is not really your choice. It is an organic process that evolves naturally and unpredictably. But please choose to blame when blame is due. We have to get the past straight before we can see clear to the future.
Lindsay Gibson, Psy.D., is a clinical psychologist. For information, call 757-490-7811.