The question of “Why?” weaves over and under and through all the other reactions to trauma. Why did that happen? Why did it happen to me? Why didn’t anyone help? Why couldn’t I change it?
“Why?” engages our spiritual beliefs about the world and our own worth. If we believe in a Higher Power, we wrestle with why that power allows harm to continue. If not, we wrestle with why harm happens at random.
“Why?” can also be specific and personal. Why didn’t my mother see I needed help? Why did my neighbor intentionally hurt me? Why didn’t I avoid the car crash? While these questions could carry neutral curiosity, they are usually agonizingly judgmental.
Explaining with self-blame
“Why?” can be an urgent matter of survival, especially for children enduring abuse. We need to make sense of our world to continue functioning, and we often come up with an explanation that makes other people’s cruel behavior all our fault. We accuse ourselves of “being too needy” or “wanting love” or “being seduced” or “should have known better” or “needed to learn a lesson.”
Lesson: it’s not your fault
When we experience trauma, we ask “What’s the lesson here?” as if everything is planned in advance like a school curriculum, as if some people are in supporting roles for other people’s story lines, as if we could avoid pain by being good enough. I believe we are each the star of our own story, and our stories interact in unpredictable ways.
Some people find comfort in the idea that we choose our parents before birth. I cannot believe that any soul or higher power would be so cruel as to choose some of the abusive and neglectful parenting out there. Everyone deserves and expects attuned, loving parents.
We can choose to learn from everything that happens to us even though the lesson is not planned in advance. Sometimes, the lesson is that it is not our fault and we cannot afford to internalize other people’s bad behavior. Blame is like a hot potato being passed around, and we can simply refuse to accept it.
Sense of brokenness
Each of us is valuable simply because we exist, our unique selves worthy of cherishing and protection. When we blame ourselves for abuse, a core sense of our intrinsic value gets overlaid with a painful certainty of brokenness, badness, and deserving harm.
That certainty gets locked into an untouchable kernel, radioactive with shame. We flinch away from it defensively, and yet each loss or failure brings us back to the heartbreak of believing we are broken.
When we set out to welcome and eventually integrate that isolated part, we might find another part that strongly rejects the kernel of self-blame. “I want nothing to do with you.” Both parts are doing their best to protect us and survive. We can make gentle contact to say hello and let them know we hear them. The contact can be as brief as we need it to be. This process requires as much permission to be exactly where we are as we can scrape together.
In some ways, the rejecting part is right. It is not true that the abuse is our fault. No one deserves abuse for any reason. The shame we carry belongs to the perpetrators, and to the people who failed to protect us. When we acknowledge the shame, we can also drop it, return it to the earth for recycling.
Shame vs. guilt
In her TED talk, Brene Brown defines guilt as, “I made a mistake,” and shame as “I am a mistake.” We all make mistakes, large and small. We choose our behavior, and we can choose to change it. No matter what we believe we did wrong, we can learn new patterns. We are not doomed to continue being hurt because of some inherent flaw.
We can ask a different set of questions. Why did I survive? Why do I search for healing? What helped me from inside? What helped me from outside?
Maybe humans came through and helped in all the right ways. Maybe humans completely fell down on the job, and that seems normal because that’s how it was. What non-human help came through? It might be a pet, or Spirit, or Nature, or music, or books.
Abuse is visible
To children being abused, it seems that the world is determinedly oblivious to their pain. It is an easy leap to assume that their pain does not matter, and they do not matter, to anyone.
From an adult’s side, it looks different. An adult may suspect or even be certain that a child is being abused, but not be in a position to intervene. Calling Child Protective Services is a gamble, since they might not improve the situation. If we see an adult hurting a child in a grocery store, sometimes all we can do is give the child an acknowledging, loving look and move on. Even as adults we are afraid of abusers, and our cultural narrative is that it is none of our business.
Infrastructure for intervention
In a better world, we would have cultural narratives for how to intervene in abusive situations. There would be immediately accessible safe places for children and adults who are being hurt. There would be mandatory, compassionate, effective education for abusers to learn how to treat people with respect. We would all know that abuse is the fault of the perpetrator, and we would stop rewarding abusive and controlling behavior as a society.
It’s not you
The heartbreak we feel in response to the sense of being broken tells us that underneath we remember wholeness. No matter how much we surrender to feeling at fault, we have a light inside that knows better.
I have a longtime dear friend who consistently tells me, “It’s not you,” when I share yet another interpersonal tangle. I finally posted the note you see above to remind myself of his kind wisdom. Other people’s cruelty is not our fault. What note can you post for yourself to ease the heartbreak of “Why”?
When we sit with “Why?” from a place of neutral curiosity rather than self-blame, some answers might float up about other people’s stories. Maybe she was too afraid to confront him. Maybe he was too dissociated from his own child-self to treat a child with care. We each have to make our difficult peace with the question of “Why do people behave in evil ways?”
Brene Brown researches shame and vulnerability. “Vulnerability is not weakness. Vulnerability is the most accurate measure of courage.” Brene Brown: Listening to Shame (TED Talk)
She has written several books on the topic. Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead summarizes some of the previous ones.