Bad things happen to us sometimes. And if something really bad has happened to you it is likely that you will remember it. If the event was particularly traumatic it might be that your recollection of it is confused, not to mention painful. Some bits of what happened to you may seem dreadfully clear and impossible to get out of your mind. Other bits may be hazier or make no sense or the whole thing might seem fragmented. This can be as true of memories of ongoing abuse or mistreatment as it can of specific traumatic events.
We take negative messages from such experiences, whether they are one-offs or instances of repeated mistreatment, neglect or indoctrination, and whether they are delivered to us physically, verbally or more subtly. This is particularly so if such instances occur during our early lives.
Sometimes, in trying to make sense of what happened to us we can even find ourselves justifying it, because that’s the only way we think it can be explained. We come to believe that those negative messages are true, convinced that we are in some way lacking, or that we brought the event or mistreatment upon ourselves. It adds up to our not feeling worthy or of value.
Part of our struggle is working out just how it was our fault, because we don’t doubt that it was. It’s a classic example of starting with the answer and working backwards to its justification. And this struggle continues because, actually, it wasn’t our fault.
An important step in this process is developing an understanding of the context in which the bad stuff happened. This inevitably brings in other players who have to bear responsibility. But this is so difficult to accept where, for example, we have suffered at the hands of those we have loved or been dependent on.
Broadening the picture in this way can help us to recognise that we can suffer at the hands of those who are in some way also wounded, and who – for their own very personal (and likely hidden) reasons – carry their own sense of injustice, indignation, anger, frustration, and so on. That doesn’t make it right and it doesn’t mean it was fair, and it doesn’t mean we even have to fully understand it. Also, it doesn’t mean others should avoid responsibility for what they have inflicted on us. But hopefully this process can help us shed, or at least diminish, our own self-blame and restore our sense of self-worth.