“You'll know someone is recovering from bereavement,” the course leader told us, “when they start taking back the power they gave away to the relationship.” It stuck in my mind. I have watched widowed friends slowly struggle back to life and, yes, they did reclaim lost parts of themselves. Perhaps only small things like driving, rather than being a passenger, or programming the VCR, but often they found buried talents. They became different people.
But suppose this renouncing of self runs deeper? What if we give away parts of ourselves as children in order to survive? What do we suppress? And what do we learn that we incorporate into our understanding of life?
What of kids who face, say, death of a parent, divorce, bullying? How do they make sense of it? How in our lives do we make an explanation we can live with, a coherent whole? And some of us don't. We get stuck in fear, self-blame or, like me, survivor guilt.
As a baby, we have to explain life to ourselves. After all, what is this hand waving near my face? How do I know this is a door or a cat – and if so, is it friendly? We build up our world from our reactions to life as it unfolds, from associations of pleasure or fear. We need to survive, so we code things as safe or threatening. Sometimes we are frightened of our reactions. We think we are bad to feel this, or that it isn't normal. We are afraid things are “our fault.”
Add to this that we don't even start with a level playing field – our very temperaments are wildly different. We may be more sensitive or anxious than the average, so our first impressions are more likely tagged fearful. I know mine were.
So I am wondering what bargains we make with life to get by – and how these mental deals build on themselves. So that gradually, we approach each situation with wariness or unconscious bias. A friend told me she always knew she, as a girl, was less valued in the family. Yes, I know that one, and also how that can build, abetted by society, into the common female habit of putting ourselves last.
My question is: can we take off our tinted specs and see life straighter? How do we know our bias? Perhaps one way is to look at our soap opera – that is, our repeating story.
We all know people who only have to go on holiday for it to rain for a week; whose bosses, every time, are tyrants; or who never can get reliable staff. Or the woman (or man) who consistently picks losers. And then yet again, the charmed person whose life unrolls from best seller to blockbuster.
So, long hard look. Yes, I do have patterns, including self-sabotage, and a belief that I don't deserve a break. Why have I never asked, “Why me?” with my pain, but rather “why not?”
OK, I can see where it came from: survivor guilt going back to age nine. I remember coming home from school every day and having to “confess” trivial things I had built up into sins. I was afraid, survivor guilt, that something bad was round the corner. Why not? I had learned very young that bad things happen – and they happen not to other people, but to us. Perhaps if I got in first and punished myself, I would at least have some control.
That is my story, but I am sure that many of us have an equivalent. So if we have given away that part of ourselves that deserves good fortune or affection or whatever, how are we going to approach life? How guarded will we be? How will we unwittingly perpetuate our soap opera?
How do we take back our hopes, our possibilities, our wholeness? I don't know, but holding my patterns up to the light, tracing them back to their source (usually recognized by a feeling of dread) and seeing with an adult eye how they are built on the misconceptions of a child, may be a healthy first step.