How Protecting the Guilty Keeps You Stuck

"Protecting the guilty" is a phrase I use a lot in therapy.  To be honest, I didn't coin the phrase.   I learned it from a very wise local psychologist named Patricia Tollison.  So what does "protecting the guilty" mean, and why do we do it?

First a little background.  As children, we are extremely vulnerable.  Without the love and protection of our parents, we would not thrive or, in some cases, even survive.  Regardless of the amount of severe abuse or neglect they've suffered, clients will often report that they had "good parents."  They go on to say that there was always a roof over their head and food to eat. "Some people don't even have that."

Why are we so willing to protect people who have hurt us?  As I've said before, children are in a very vulnerable position.  They need to stay close, both physically and emotionally, to their caretakers to survive.  Even in extremely chaotic or abusive situations, children will idealize their parents.  One way they accomplish this is to justify whatever treatment they receive.  They believe that since the parent can't possibly be at fault, they themselves must truly be bad. They internalize what they hear and feel.  And often in these families, other available adults are not questioning the status quo.

This pattern is so ingrained that, fast forward a few decades, they're still living it.  This way of thinking is internalized:  "I am bad."  "I will never amount to anything."  "I don't deserve to be treated well."  "I don't even know what healthy relationships look like."  The way to break the cycle is to stop protecting the guilty--to stop justifying bad behavior and to see your younger self for who she/he was.  The process involves acknowledging your anger, hurt, and sadness, to put the responsibility for the abuse, neglect, or chaos where it belongs.  Easier said than done--it requires seeing old relationships in a new light, which feels like separation anxiety and loss.  This does not, however, require you to confront your parents.  You can do this work with yourself.  

Due to their own unresolved issues, not all parents love or have their children's best interests at heart.  Letting go of the need to protect and justify abusive behavior allows you to break the old patterns and negative beliefs about yourself, and move forward with a new sense of self-worth and confidence.

Finding the Courage to Grow Toward Complexity

Two ideas have been swirling around in my brain this week:  courage and self-soothing.  How are they related?  I've been thinking about courage as I watch my clients struggle through life's big dilemmas.  Often there are no immediate or right answers, there's just the courage to sit with and explore difficult and complicated emotions.  Answers usually come, but not until you've done the hard work.  I define courage as walking towards what is hard and painful, when you really want to walk away or avoid.  Maybe that's where self-soothing comes into play.

Last week, my 4 year old didn't want to go to school.  She said her knee hurt.  Historically when her leg hurts, it's because something or someone has upset her, and she wants to stay home where she feels secure and loved.  My husband asked her why she didn't want to go to school. She said it was because her teacher told her to stop screaming and to stop sucking her thumb. The redirection on the screaming I can understand, but I had a very strong reaction to the teacher allegedly telling her to stop sucking her thumb.  

Children can be intense, sensitive people.  One of their life tasks is to learn (with the help of the adults around them) how to manage their feelings.  One way my youngest manages her very big feelings is by sucking her thumb.  This is her form of self-soothing.  Why would anyone want to take that away from her?  It's her coping strategy.  It's her way of self-regulating.  As she gets older, she will develop other age-appropriate strategies, but this works extremely well for her now.  What I think is most important here, is that in difficult, emotionally-intense situations, she has found a way to comfort herself.  When I told her that we would talk to her teacher, and that she can suck her thumb whenever she wants to, she angrily said that she will never suck her thumb at school again. Now that would be the real shame.

So I guess I'm saying is, that in order to manage life's difficulties, we need courage to face what is uncomfortable and ways to soothe ourselves when we feel overwhelmed.  To paraphrase Daniel Siegel, M.D., our goal as adults is to move toward complexity, and to learn how to tolerate and manage the intense and often conflicting emotions that come with it.  Those incapable of looking at those emotions are left with black and white, right and wrong type of thinking as well as limited problem-solving skills.  If you can't see a situation from multiple, well-developed perspectives, your options are limited.  It's a coping strategy that may inhibit your ability to grow and adjust, to life's ever-evolving demands.


Self-Regulation and Increasing Your Emotional Bandwidth

I've been talking to clients about feeling overwhelmed by both their own emotions and the emotions of others close to them (partners, children, friends).  One way of dealing with how overwhelmed we all feel is to check out.  This is evident in the prolific use of screens.  You go to a restaurant and two people sit across from each other texting on their phones.  You hang out with your kids in the evening and you're talking to them while catching up on email or surfing the web.  You're halfway listening to your partner and playing Candy Crush while she's unpacking an emotional experience from the day.  We can acknowledge that this behavior is at least rude, but I think there's a bigger price we pay.  

So what is the price?  It's hard to have intimacy in relationships if you're not present emotionally. In this way, all of our relationships suffer.  We don't feel connected, seen, or understood--fundamental aspects of being in a solid relationship.  I also think your relationship with yourself suffers.  If you're always avoiding, you become fragile and brittle, less resilient in the face of life's inevitable hardships.  How can you trust yourself or believe you'll be OK, that you'll figure out how to negotiate life's complexities, if you're overwhelmed by the day-to-day?  And of course, our kids need to be mirrored.  They need to feel heard, seen, and understood, and they need you to help them process and make sense out of their experiences.  So clearly being emotionally available and present to yourself and others is important.  So how do we do that?

The first step involves making some structural changes.  As a psychologist, I take in and emotionally and intellectually process a lot of experience during the course of the day, both good and bad.  This brings up a lot of personal feelings that I also have to work out.  At 5pm, I leave work and go home to a very vibrant family life.  Needless to say, it's hard to fully engage all that greets me at the door, even if it's positive.  I need transition time.  I use the drive home and the first few minutes after I walk through the door for that.  On the drive home, I review my day and give myself a chance to check in with myself emotionally.  What am I feeling?  What's unfinished from the day?  When can I give myself time to sit with those feelings? Phase two involves walking into my house, giving everyone hugs and kisses, and going to my room to change into "play clothes."  In those moments, I'm making the symbolic shift from Karen the psychologist to Karen, partner, and mother.  This reminds me of when I was working at a university counseling center just out of grad school.  At that time, I could only see 15 clients/week without feeling totally overwhelmed.  It was partly because of all the other adjusting and work I had to do as a new professional, but also because I hadn't exercised my brain in that way and to that extent before.  What structural changes can you make?  Do you need to simplify or take in less, or do you need to build in some transitions?  One of my clients takes off early from work a couple of times per week and goes to yoga before he walks through his door.

So how can we increase our emotional bandwidth?  Step one is changing how you take information in and respecting your limits.  Implied in the first step is step two:  take time out to process your feelings.  Don't avoid.  That's how people stay overwhelmed.  Journal daily, talk to friends, meditate, talk to a therapist.  Do something that allows you to acknowledge what's been going on in your life.  This is how you begin to increase what you can tolerate.  Spending time with feelings builds a sense of competence and self trust, and allows you to be more comfortable with yourself and your internal world.  This, in turn, lets you sit more comfortably with other people's emotions.

Step three in the process involves learning how to soothe yourself when you do feel overwhelmed.  It's important to know when you're feeling overwhelmed.   Notice when you feel like you need to check out?  Is there a pattern?  What's going on during those times? What are you feeling?  Once you've identified what's going on and why, you can begin to think about changes you want to make and ways in which you can soothe yourself.  At first you may have to be very deliberate in monitoring your ability to self-regulate.  Over time you'll learn to regulate your emotions automatically, and increasingly feel more in control.  It's much easier to be available to yourself and others when you feel in control of your own emotional experience.

The Soul-Killing Nature of Shame

I hesitate to write this because it's such a huge and overwhelming topic.  Unfortunately, it needs to be talked about because shame is so pervasive and so destructive.  Maybe I'll just begin talking about it today and add to it over time.

Two non-personal memories of watching and hearing others being shamed still haunt me.  One time years ago, I was with a friend at an outdoor festival at Laguna Gloria.  A little boy had apparently done something that was upsetting to his parent.  The parent berated this child for several minutes, going on and on about how unacceptable his behavior was, and how he was such a bad person....  The child's face was so painful to watch.  I could see something slowly dying in his eyes.  The hostile and cruel nature of the parent's intense focus and the child's despair still haunt me today.

More recently, I was at a multi-family play date, and a young girl was acting out.  Her behavior was out of control and disruptive.  Again her parent, in front of everyone, started yelling at her. Her behavior was "unacceptable," and the parent was "disappointed" and "disgusted."  The child had a sad, glazed look in her eyes, was clearly very embarrassed, and put her head down on the table and cried.  Now don't get me wrong, her behavior did need to be reigned in, but there was probably a better way.

Shame is that super-caved in, worthless feeling we all sometimes have.  It's paralyzing.  It's different from guilt in that guilt is about remorse--feeling bad about hurting someone.  Shame is about harshly judging or verbally abusing yourself.  As far as I can tell, there's nothing positive that comes from shame.  It's soul-killing.  Imagine how those kids must have felt, and what those non-isolated, I'm sure, interventions had on their sense of self.  Every time we shame ourselves, we destroy a part of our self-worth and efficacy in the world.  It's hard to be a positive, productive, creative person if you feel bad about yourself.  

How do we dismantle shame?  The best advice I've heard is that shame, much like depression, is anger turned inward.  So we must find a way to either neutralize or externalize the anger.  In the above examples, both of those kids probably walked away from the interactions, having internalized the message that "I'm a bad person."  Kids don't have the psychological sophistication to challenge shaming messages.  But as adults we do.  

The first step is to try to remember where the shaming messages of "I'm not good enough,"  "I'm stupid," or "I'm worthless" come from.  Are there specific memories that you can identify?  How did you feel at the time?  How do you feel now thinking about it.  The problem with shame is that it's traumatizing, therefore sadness, hurt, anger as well as other feelings are cut off.  You go into survival mode.  Remembering allows you to have the feelings you didn't then, which will help you heal the old wounds and let go of the negative thoughts.

The second step involves externalizing the anger.  Yes, those kids may have behaved inappropriately.  But did they "deserve" to be verbally humiliated?  Do you?  Fight back.  Redirect the anger to where it belongs.  Be angry with the people or situations that are negatively affecting you, causing you to unfairly judge yourself.  

Matching Your Child's Intensity--some thoughts

Children come into the world with different levels of emotional and energetic intensity. Intense children are often seen as brilliant, precocious, creative, and sensitive, on one hand, and/or needy, oversensitive, dramatic, and quick to act out, on the other.  Where they fall on this spectrum depends, in part, on how well their experiences are reflected in their important relationships.  Mental health professionals use the terms empathic attunement to describe the quality and depth of the connection.  Children who don't get the right level of attunement may feel unanchored and lonely.  

This makes me think of my friend, Dr. Elizabeth Sylvester who runs Austin Child Therapy. When she comes to my house, she greets me and my husband, and even the dogs, in a calm, affectionate way.  But when she greets the girls, her energy level and focus increases, her eyes open wider, her manner is more animated, and her attention is often on small, positive behaviors and efforts the girls are making.  The children love her!  They clearly feel seen and valued, and brighten up when she walks in the door. Elizabeth sees and matches their intensity level.  

Wherever they fall on the intensity spectrum, children (and adults for that matter) need accurate mirroring from their adult relationships.  What happens when high intensity children don't get the right kind of positive attention?  That's when you start seeing an increase in acting out.  All children need to have their feelings and experiences reflected back to them in a meaningful way.  If they can't get the attention they crave in a positive way, they'll get it negatively.

So what does this mean for the parent of an intense child?  I think of it in two ways. One way is about matching the child's emotional energy.  This involves responding to the child using words, body language, and facial expressions that acknowlege and mirror what they're trying to communicate.  When this is done well, the child will calm down. But if you try to ignore or minimize their experience, chances are they will escalate their behavior until they get what they need.  So, for example, yesterday my intense child was crying because she missed her dad while he was taking the dogs for a walk. Typical dog walks last 20 minutes, but for whatever reason, my daughter really missed her Dad.  I started off with, "He'll be right back."  "He won't be gone for long."  "He always comes home."  Let me just say that none of this was helpful.  When I earnestly sat with her and hugged her and talked to her about how sad she was, and how much she misses her Dad, she began calming down.  I then praised her for being so brave and strong in the face of her sad feelings.  This brings us to response number two, which I have learned from Dr Sylvester.  

Response number two involves consistently articulating and praising the behavior you want to continue seeing, and ignoring (unless it's dangerous, or extreme) behavior that you don't want to encourage.  Negative attention can be as reinforcing of behavior as positive attention.  So on a good day,  I might calmly ask my daugther to stop throwing the ball in my face.  When she does it again, I might take the ball away and remind her that we don't throw balls at people's faces.  If she manages to redirect her attention to something more positive, then I jump on the opportunity to praise how well she listens and how much I appreciate her response.  If her father is there, I might tell him what a great listener she is as well.  It ends up being a mini celebration that reinforces and teaches children how to get their need for attention met in a good way.  If she picks something else up to throw, I would turn and walk away and let her know that I'd be happy to play ball with her when she stops throwing things at my face.  Again, a mini-celebration when she cooperates.