Violence, self-destruction, despair and human rights violations are rampant in our world. We can choose our favorite flavor: Climate change, racial and ethnic problems, gender ideology, immigration issues, terrorism, food production and diet, religion, capitalism and the economy, and a multitude of other issues clamor for our attention.
Who is to blame?
Everyone? No one?
Our global social problems overwhelm me. They’re too big for one person to deal with.
As I explore blame, I’ll zoom in to an example from my own life.
A long time ago I married an abusive man, and he abused me. (Big surprise, right?) My experience of abuse was quite real. I realized his behavior was not okay. I realized domestic violence is a huge problem, and I realized it can happen to anyone.
I found a way out, and I could have stopped there and just carried the identity of a victim of domestic violence and an abusive man. It’s a big club. I could find validation, support groups, therapy and other assistance. I could compare stories with other victims, seek revenge, stalk his Facebook page, bad mouth him, have bad dreams and feel ashamed every time I flinch away from a sudden movement a man makes in my vicinity.
I could have turned my experience as an abused woman into a demon, a chronically bleeding wound, a source of darkness, fear and impaired trust. I could run from it, avoid it, try to forget it and stay stuck in power loss. I was victimized. It was unfair. That’s how the world works.
But what’s underneath that reality of being an abused woman? Why was I an abused woman?
Because men prey on women, men are entitled, it’s a man’s world and women are not granted equal power, recognition or rights.
It wasn’t my fault. I was a victim. End of story.
A victim is a person harmed as a result of a crime, accident, or other event or action. Notice that powerlessness is not part of that definition, which is paraphrased from Oxford Online Dictionary.
I was an abused woman because I thought that’s what I was worth. That’s my truth. I don’t shame myself over it, but I own it. All men do not prey on women. All men do not feel entitled. Men do not define the world unless women allow them to, and the only person who can give away my power and ignore my rights is me.
And, at various times in my life, I have.
Blaming is easy, and we all do it. Managing personal power is a lot of work, a daily practice if we want our lives to work well. Blaming is quick and socially acceptable, especially in this age of hyperreaction to any hint of victim shaming.
The problem is that blame is a dead end. It keeps us firmly fastened in what has befallen us rather than what we’re going to do now. We can blame all we like, but it doesn’t bring us justice, resolution or healing. It doesn’t help us understand the complexities of our situation. We can’t learn from blame. It’s not useful or productive in any way. Blaming is an abdication of responsibility, power and resilience.
This is even more true when we blame ourselves. Blaming myself is what put me in an abusive relationship in the first place. I am not responsible for the behavior and choices of the man I was with, but I chose to be with him – for a time. I believed it was what I deserved because of guilt and shame over previous choices.
If we are victimized by a crime, accident, or other event or action, and all we can do is blame, we’re effectively embracing a victim mentality, and that kind of thinking goes nowhere.
Sooner or later, we’re all victims of something. Sometimes our own choices lead to our victimization, sometimes we get hurt through no fault of our own, and often the situation is a complex mixture of choices, actions, and events that’s impossible to disentangle.
It’s what we do with our experience that counts. Are we going to blame someone or something and stay stuck, or take appropriate responsibility for ourselves and problem-solve?
We’re not responsible for what other people do or random events we’re caught up in, but we’re always responsible for what we do in response. Healthy boundaries help us discern the difference between the places we have power and the places we have none.
Taking responsibility is not the same as blaming. Responsibility is a powerful tool for problem solving. It’s forward-focused. Blame is backwards-focused and solves nothing.
Being or feeling victimized is no fun, and it’s not a place I want to pitch a tent and call home. I refuse to identify as a victim, and I don’t victimize myself or others. When I catch myself blaming, I know I’ve stepped out of my own power.
Being victimized is a teacher for me. It’s not about blame and shame. It’s about using the feelings and discomfort of the experience to learn, to grow, to find new resources and to reach out to other victims in a supportive, constructive way. Making a healthy contribution out of our experience of victimization heals our wounds and helps other victims find their way to healing. It helps us reclaim our dignity and power.
It’s a lot more work than blaming, which any toddler can do.
Blaming signals disempowerment, and I refuse to go back down that road. In a perfect world, we’d all be held accountable for our victimization of others, but it’s far from a perfect world, and the only choices I’m in charge of are my own.
I may be, at times, a victim, but I’m always in charge of my own power.
On Monday, I drove my old Subaru to work and parked. It was unusually warm, so I decided to leave my insulated winter gloves and parka in the car. I got out, used the key fob (as always) to lock the car, put the key in my right-hand pants pocket, and walked into the building.
I went down the stairs and entered the pool, met by the bright light and lovely (to me) smell of a clean and well-maintained indoor pool. I exchanged greetings with my coworkers, set my bag down on a chair (a bag with a couple of handy outside pockets the hospital gave to every employee), removed my jewelry and put it in a small pouch, and took off my boots and socks while chatting with my friends.
I went into our small “break room,” which consists of a towel rack, a handful of lockers, a sink, a fridge, and a microwave, and set my bag on the floor between a plastic chair and a crate in which we collect bottles for recycling. I fingered the key fob and key in my pocket. I usually keep that key in my coat pocket, but I hadn’t brought my coat in. We only have one key to the Subaru, so I’m careful with it. I could leave it in my pants pocket, but things frequently slide out of my pockets as I change in and out of my clothes at work, so that didn’t seem safe. I decided to put the key in an outside pocket of my bag. I tossed it into the pocket, stripped off my clothes, folded them hastily, and dropped them onto my bag. I put on my lifeguard shirt and shorts, got my gear out of my locker, and went to work.
During the following five hours, I taught a private lesson,
contributed money towards buying flowers for a recently bereaved colleague,
lesson planned for my group swim lesson later in the week, lifeguarded, worked
at the desk, did some cleaning, and checked chemicals.
It was a good day.
We had a couple of late families come in, so closing was a
little chaotic. We went through closing procedures, put on our street clothes,
clocked out … and I couldn’t find my key.
I couldn’t find my key.
Where was my key?
I emptied everything out of my bag (not much). No key. It
wasn’t in my pants. It wasn’t in my coat, because my coat was in the car. It
wasn’t on the floor.
Where was my key?
I remembered tossing it into the outside pocket of my bag, which I hadn’t moved all shift. Nobody but staff had been in the break room. I know with absolute certainty none of my colleagues would ever deliberately take anything that didn’t belong to them. However, most of us do use the same bag, although we’ve personalized them in small ways with pins, colored carabiners, etc.
My colleague checked his bag, which hadn’t been near mine.
It was late. I was tired. We wanted to go home. My coworker has a long commute and had worked a much longer shift than I had. He offered to take me home, but it would have added miles and time to his already lengthy drive, which I was unwilling to do.
There was nothing for it but to call my partner and ask him
to come and get me.
What, you’re asking, is the point of this long, rambling,
boring story? We’ve all lost keys.
The point is that losing the key sent me right over the edge so completely and so quickly that it wasn’t until hours later that I realized losing the key was a trigger for a much deeper upset.
For much of my life I’ve doubted my own perceptions and experience. I’ve internalized a lot of gaslighting and projection. I’ve accepted that I’m hypersensitive, dramatic, attention-seeking, too intense, too curious, too imaginative, too sensual and too passionate.
My second husband (not the father of my children) was abusive. During that marriage, when I was in my 30s and the kids were pre-teens, I reached a point of despair and desperation that led me to find a therapist, ostensibly for marriage counseling. My deeper, more honest agenda was that I wanted a professional assessment of my parenting.
My husband had me convinced that I was bad with money, I
fantasized and made up stories about things that never happened (like being
abused), I was frigid and/or a nymphomaniac (he could never make up his mind),
and I was impossibly difficult to live with. I got a lot of the “you’re an unfit
parent” routine from the boys’ father and his family, too.
My own experience of myself was quite different, but it
didn’t matter, because I’d given up trusting my own experience in childhood.
In spite of being an “unfit parent,” I loved my children
more than anyone or anything, and I was willing to give their father full
custody if that was best for them.
I didn’t think that was best for them.
But I couldn’t trust what I thought, or felt, or remembered.
I knew that.
So, I thought I would get an objective, professional
We went to the therapist. We went. Once. My husband spent 50 minutes telling the therapist how difficult and crazy I was. I said I wanted an evaluation of my parenting and some guidance in healing our troubled marriage.
The therapist told my husband he need not return, (implying that I was clearly the problem), and rescheduled with me. I spent the week steeling myself, finding a lawyer to draw up paperwork to transfer custody, and otherwise trying to wrap my head around losing my boys and whether it was worth it to try to help myself. Could I be healed? Was I worth fixing? Did anything matter anymore? What would I say to the boys? How in God’s name could I go on without them?
When I walked into the second session, the therapist was angry. I deserved it. People were frequently angry with me. He pointed to a chair, sat knee-to-knee with me, and demanded to know why I was with a man who was destroying me.
I was blinded by the realization that he wasn’t angry with me. He was angry for me. He actually cared. About me!
“Do you want to live or die?” he asked brutally.
“I want to live,” I said without thinking, the warrior in me
suddenly coming to life. I hadn’t known until then that it was true.
We spent the next six weeks planning an exit strategy from my marriage, and then he cut me loose. He told me I was fine; I didn’t need his services. What I needed was to get away from my abuser.
From the moment I lost that key at work, I went obsessively
over every move I’d made from pulling into the parking lot to the realization
the key was gone. I thought I knew exactly what I’d done. I could remember it,
see it in my mind’s eye. I’m a creature of habit. There was nothing new or
different about that day and my routine. I wasn’t tired, sick, or distressed.
Yet the key was gone.
I was at once plunged back into that old feeling of madness, that I live in some kind of sick alternate reality that others don’t inhabit. I remembered every mocking or contemptuous comment I’d ever heard about my sensitivity, my intuition, my imagination, and my drama. I thought about how disconnected and isolated I’ve often felt; crazy people are, after all, impossibly difficult to deal with. I remembered the terrible confusion of having a clear memory but being told it never happened, I made it up. And what kind of a monster would make up such disloyal, ugly lies?
All the work I’ve done in the last decade; my creative life; the processing, healing, and reclaiming of myself and my power, were swept away as if they’d never happened. I was not to be trusted, and I couldn’t trust myself. In fairness to my coworkers, students, pool patrons and patients, and most of all my partner, I should crawl away, institutionalize myself, disappear.
Because I lost my car key.
While all this emotional chaos was going on, my partner and I made complicated plans to get a new key programmed for the Subaru (towing the car to the nearest dealership an hour away, dealing with the $100 cost for said programmed key, etc.), and my teammates scoured the office and break room at work looking for the key. Meanwhile, a major winter storm is looming on the horizon, adding more pressure around timing, scheduling, and the necessity for winter driving.
All the while I watched myself, wondering if my memory is to be trusted, if my intention is to be trusted, if any of my perceptions are to be trusted. How could I remember every step of what I did, and yet the key was not there? What did it mean? What had I done? Do I have black holes in my memory and don’t even know it? Did I make up a story about what I did that had nothing to do with reality? Was the key still in the car after all? Had I not locked it, though I remembered doing so?
Had all those voices in the past been right, and I’ve been
living in a fantasy for the last few years, believing myself to be rational,
sane, even well-balanced and intelligent?
Maybe I should have given up the kids, after all? Maybe I
was (am?) an unfit mother. Perhaps I shouldn’t be working with children.
Yesterday afternoon, my partner drove me to work. I went to
the Subaru and stood by the locked driver’s door. The key was not in the car.
My partner verified it, as I no longer trusted the evidence of my own senses.
The car was locked, just as I remembered. My parka and insulated gloves were on
the passenger seat, just as I remembered. My partner and I walked across the parking
lot, exactly as I’ve done hundreds of times before, with me reciting each
action along the way. We went in the building, down the steps and into the
No one had found the key. Everyone was concerned. Nobody
seemed to understand that I was crazy; no longer to be trusted. We talked about
where we’d looked. People asked questions. We looked in various places again.
Wearily, I said that I’d thought I’d thrown the key into the outside pocket of
my work bag. Everyone rummaged in the outside pockets of their work bags
without much hope.
A shriek from one of my colleagues. Unbelievably, she held
out the key on its fob in her palm.
For a moment, I had an intense sense of vertigo. It seemed unreal. What was real? Was that my key? Was I really seeing it? Or was I making this up, too? But every face around me was filled with relief. They were all smiling. They saw it, too. I took it, held its small, familiar weight in my hand. The key was there. It was found. It was real.
So, maybe, I thought dazedly, I’m not crazy? I’m okay?
We realized that my coworker’s bag had been sitting on a chair in the break room. I had tossed my bag onto the floor next to the chair. In a moment of non-crazy but very normal human inattention, I tossed the key into the outside pocket of her bag rather than mine. The bags, as I said before, are identical. I got in the pool for a private lesson, my coworker went home with her bag, and that was that.
The key wasn’t there because the key wasn’t, in fact, there. I didn’t make anything up. My memory was true. My reality was real. I simply tossed the key into the wrong bag.
Today I feel exhausted, vaguely embarrassed, and relieved
beyond words. I’m not crazy. I can trust myself. My perceptions and experience
are real. I’m rational (most of the time—but I recognize my own irrationality
when it’s happening!). I know the difference between reality and fantasy.
I’m okay. Again. Still.
On the other hand, it didn’t take much to knock me
over—hard. It’s difficult to overestimate the power of our old wounds. My confidence
is not as strong as I’d like it to be. I don’t know if it ever will be.
My partner was the first person who ever told me to trust myself. It sounded cruel the first time I heard it. Any number of people could have told him I’m not to be trusted. I certainly didn’t trust me. I could speak in detail about my perceptions and experience, but I didn’t, because to do so resulted in an emotional beating, and I believed the people around me could see ugliness and abnormalities that I was too (stupid? crazy? arrogant? confused? cowardly? mean? selfish? disloyal?) to identify. Yet my partner (fool that he is) stubbornly persists in trusting me, even after living with me for five years.
In his eyes, all I misplaced was a car key. I felt as though I’d permanently lost myself.
Last evening, I was part of a remarkable conversation about
I’ve written before about my hunger for touch and the shame that goes with it. A longing for touch is something that’s always with me to some degree, ebbing and flowing with my social context, but I hide it and rarely speak of my need. Keeping it secret is, of course, self-protective. I’m ashamed of my need and what others will think of it, but we also live in a culture that distorts much of our rightful and healthy sexuality and sensual expression. A woman who craves physical affection and reassurance is exceedingly vulnerable and very likely to be misunderstood.
I’m also respectful of the boundaries of others; unfortunately, many people are badly wounded around unwanted and/or inappropriate touch. I myself am confused about the interaction of abuse, touch and sex, and I know many others are as well.
Yet I maintain that touch is one of the core needs we all have, and I know touch deprivation is a condition that has been extensively studied. As human beings, we don’t develop normally if we’re touch deprived or otherwise dislocated from our neurobiological need for skin-to-skin contact.
This is an issue I deal largely with inside my own head, although I have mentioned it in writing. I haven’t discussed it among friends. If we reveal how ugly and pathetic we are, we won’t have friends, right?
Sigh. No. Not right. We all have secrets like this, and true friends don’t turn away from our warts and scars. Also, I get bored by my own fear and the tension between being real and being accepted. To hell with it.
Last night, I found myself standing outside in the early winter evening with two others talking about, of all things, hugs. The harsh light at the apex of the barn roof fell on us, making strange, stark shadows on our faces,
I was stunned (first) and amused (later) to discover that a hug meant something entirely different to each of us. I’m constantly poking at the different meanings we have for words and concepts, and I’m acutely aware of the confusion and conflation of things like respect and agreement. Why should the experience and interpretation of either giving or receiving a hug be any different?
I suppose it’s such a deep, painful and private issue that
I’ve simply never given it enough airtime to realize that touch, too, has many
different meanings. The only meaning I’ve been able to see is my own, and I
realize now my meaning is very unsophisticated and black and white:
Touch means love. If there is no touch, there is no love. If my touch is rejected, my love is rejected, which I take personally and make into a rejection of me, naturally!
So there we stood in the icy driveway, having just disembarked from the car. I said (and realized as I said it how true it is, though I never expressed it this way before) that a hug is the best “I love you,” that I can express. I’ve always been able to say (and hear!) far more physically than I can with words.
My friend (another woman) said that she learned to think of
hugs as a sign of weakness.
Another friend (a man) said that to him a hug, or most other
kinds of physical contact, are a threat of pain, violence or abuse.
Wow. The three of us stood there, looking at each other. I was reminded of how little we know or guess about what goes on below the surface of others, even others we know and care about. I was humbled by their honesty, touched by their vulnerability, grateful for the reminder that we’re all carrying around pain and confusion over something in our heads and hearts. I wanted (of course!) to take them both in my arms, but refrained (also of course).
It’s amazing to understand that the best, most compassionate and loving gift I can give another might feel to the recipient like a threat, or endanger their sense of strength and independence. My intention may be completely lost in translation.
When I think about the times I’ve felt rejected or rebuffed as I interact with people who aren’t comfortable with touch, I suddenly realize their discomfort is likely not about me at all. I no longer get to be the star in my soap opera (nobody loves me, I’m old, I’m ugly, I’m untouchable). Maybe, in fact, others don’t want to make me feel weak, or threatened, or who knows what else!
I can’t help but giggle about this.
I can’t say more about my personal thoughts and feelings right now. It was one of those brief but amazing conversations that I can’t stop thinking about. It didn’t lead me to a grand and glorious conclusion, it just revealed aspects of touch I hadn’t been aware of before.
Social touch is extremely complicated and essential to healthy human functioning. I discover, as I research, that the discipline of psychotherapy is beginning to look at the importance of touch as a tool for connection and emotional healing. We know touch can play a role in physiological healing. Touch is an essential part of nonverbal communication. Different cultures have different social rules about touch. A couple of generations of American parents were taught to avoid holding or cuddling infants and children (don’t spoil your child); thankfully, we are changing our beliefs about that now, but that doesn’t help the generations of disbonded and attachment-disordered children who are now adults and struggling. Skin hunger and touch deprivation are a huge problem for elderly populations.
We also live in a #MeToo atmosphere in which the previously hidden pain of thousands of victims of inappropriate touch is becoming visible. As healing and validating as our recognition and outrage over this kind of abuse is, it leaves many people nervous about giving or receiving any kind of touch from anyone unless it’s sexual (as in consensual between two adults), making us ever more isolated, ashamed, and skin hungry.
I wish I had answers for myself and others, but I don’t. Somehow, we have to find a way forward with healthy boundaries, consent, communication and respect as we honor our deep physical, emotional and neurological need for nonsexual touch.
Sharing hugs. My daily crime.
Crystal Casket by Rowan Wilding
Innocent, yet somehow run afoul of a jealous queen A sly drop of poison introduced A taint that could never be erased. So polluted, then, they built me a crystal casket, Protecting the world from my touch. I rise and clothe my outcast body, day by day Concealing shameful curse But at night I return naked to my crystal casket. The moon bathes me in her cool silver milk Ebbing and flowing like a slow heartbeat in the ravishing night. I lie with my hands folded on my chest (Their small warm weight comforts my empty heart) And watch the sky storm with stars Galaxies in my eyes. Neither shroud of rain nor quilt of snow can touch me, shut away But I love them from within my crystal casket. No faithful guardian watches over me, a lighted lantern at his feet. No prince arrives, seeking a poisoned kiss. I was never black as ebony, red as blood and white as snow. Now I’m spiderwebbed with age and moon-milk Cool inside my crystal casket while midnight passions wheel around me Dark flowers and fruits, musk and nectar, texture and taste and scent