There have been so many great authors who have accompanied me on my path. They have helped me move stones, rocks and boulders that were blocking my way to an authentic healthy life. Maya Angelou, Alice Miller, Dr Scott Peck, Carl Rogers and Brene Brown to name but a few. They have provided the foundation but I have also found some amazing therapists who have held my hand and helped me to navigate some brutal terrain.
At the moment I am working with a great psychologist through the Community Mental Health Team. Today she was my ‘enlightened witness’ Alice Miller defines this as ‘someone who is aware of the consequences that neglect and cruelty in childhood can have. Enlightened witnesses support these harmed individuals, empathise with them and help them gain an understanding of their feelings of anxiety and powerlessness….’ Miller, 2001.
I am well acustomed to the mental health services in England being chronically underfunded, and I have felt the effects of this from all angles, being a service user, a relative of mentally unwell family members and as an employee for the mental health service. I am pleased to report that my treatment from the service I’m currently using has been great. The Consultant Psychiatrist, the CPN’s and the Psychologists have been second to none. Today I reflected on how lucky I am to access this treatment through the NHS, free at the point of delivery, Aneurin Bevan would be proud.
Although I’m 47 and I always thought I would be ‘fixed’ way before now, I am finally understanding that its not about reaching some sort of idealised self. Some challenges will be bigger than others, but there will always be challenges. Always ways to tweak oneself and shape oneself into someone a little healthier, a little stronger, a little kinder. Today I spoke about about things I had never told another living soul. Words that had been trapped in a shame ridden wound, that was growing deeper, darker and more infected. I spoke with great vulnerablity and courage and my enlightened witness held out her hand. Due to Covid 19 our consultations are online. Still, she conveyed to me, with unconditional positive regard, that she would not judge me and I would be safe in her hands. It was only our third session together. I am no novice to therapy, but I dont trust easily. I trust her.
It was another brilliant therapist who directed me to Brene Brown and her work on shame and vulnerabilty. Shame is where we feel that something is intrinsically wrong within us, whereas when we feel guilt, we know we’ve done something wrong but its the action, not ourself that is wrong. You can see why the two have very different outcomes. When I feel guilty I can make ammends. When I’m ashamed of myself theres no fixing things because I am bad, broken, defective in a permanent way.
When we keep secrets, they are usually linked to shame. When its a really dark secret, you’re in trouble. Like the wound I mentioned earlier, you will end up with sepsis as the infection spreads. You cant see it, but it is there holding you back from health. Sorry, but I’m not sharing my secret with you because its no longer a secret. Its a painful relic from my past and like a wounded animal I dont need prodding or poking. Thats the beauty of the enlightened witness he or she is providing a safe place for you. Ridding yourself of shame means being prudent with who you share with, or you run the risk of making things a whole lot worse. There are people who will collude with you and as Brene Brown said ‘What we dont need in the midst of struggle is shame for being human’ I dont think I ever used the phrase ‘you should be ashamed of yourself ‘ when raising my boys. I hadnt come across the psychology then, but I knew that the adults in my childhood used shame as a weapon, and it didnt sit well with me.
Perhaps this is why Catholics still go to confession. Sadly the priests in my life made a mockery of this sacrement when they colluded with my abuser. The enlightened witness will also safeguard the vulnerable, they can empathise, but they should never collude if someone is being harmed. The person you confide in must earn your trust, it is an honour for someone to bare their soul. I was the worlds biggest over-sharer and probably still overshare (I’m working on it – I didnt tell you my secret!) I now know I was looking for acceptance, sympathy, belonging in the wrong places. I do share less than I used to and its a direct correllation with my ability to trust, to accept and to rely on myself. A bit of struggle, as said earlier 47 years and counting.
I will end with this quote from Alice Miller, The truth will set you free: ‘ I sincerely believe that we not only have the right to know what is good and what is evil, we have the duty to acquire that knowledge if we hope to assume responsiblity for our own lives and those of our children…only in this way can we free ourselves from the fears and anxieties we knew as children…’ She’s not talking about a biblical good and evil, but human characteristics that we all experience from the cradle to the grave.