The worst guilt is to accept an undeserved guilt.
—Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged
Embarrassment, a sense of culpability, a feeling you should have been able to stop it, shame because there is something inherently wrong with you, humiliation, remorse, even the sense that you were somehow the cause—these are all variations of one of the biggest and most pervasive lies we tell ourselves after living with domestic violence during early life—that we are somehow guilty or that we have something to be ashamed of. That it was our fault. As Rick Warren, author of The Purpose Driven Life, writes, “Many people are driven by guilt. They spend their entire lives running from regret or hiding their shame. Guilt driven people are manipulated by memories. They allow their past to control their future.”1
Part of the problem stems from the underdeveloped logical thinking centers in the developing brain, which lead children to create impossible childhood expectations—like summoning magic powers to make things better or being able to protect a parent by challenging an adult three times their size.
“When you’re young,” neuroscientist David Sousa explained to me recently, “the neocortex, which is responsible for rationale thinking, is still growing. Our instinctive, emotional limbic system just outguns the kind of logical, rational thinking that might come from a more mature neocortex. As a result, children cannot rationally understand their situations as an adult can. Out of desperation to protect their parents, they invent impossible ideas. And when they can’t live up to their imaginings, children feel horribly guilty.”
Later in life, that guilt and shame simply become fact and they hold us back in so many ways. They are heavy burdens that slow us down and stop us from taking action, an invisible bondage that weakens willpower. We start something, then fail or quit, only to reinforce that sense of blame. Finally, we give up. We don’t even try, becoming prisoners of this lie.
As bestselling author John Bradshaw writes in Healing the Shame That Binds You, “Abuse creates toxic shame—the feeling of being flawed and diminished and never measuring up. Toxic shame feels much worse than guilt. With guilt, you’ve done something wrong; but you can repair that—you can do something about it. With toxic shame there’s something wrong with you and there’s nothing you can do about it; you are inadequate and defective. Toxic shame is the core of the wounded child.”2
But there’s a way to break these bonds of guilt and shame—action. Action is freedom made visible. Freedom is not something you can actually see, but those who are free—free of guilt and shame—choose to use their freedom to take action in ways that move them closer toward their full potential.
As someone who has lived with domestic violence as a child, you started out with tremendous resolve. You, like so many of the men and women you will meet in this book, had the courage to take action and deal with situations beyond the imaginations of most adults. But the layers of untruths you learned as a child cancelled that willpower along the way.
That was the case for British actor Martin Rayner, who was so consumed with guilt and shame over not being able to stop the violence in his home that he became physically ill, spending much of his boyhood barely able to lift himself off the couch.
When I asked him to describe his childhood in post–World War II England, Martin doesn’t hesitate: “Bleak.”
Born into a home plagued with violence, Martin was mentally and physically crippled by shame and guilt stemming from the poverty, violence, and neglect that defined his circumstances. For him, the memory of not being able to prevent the violence between his mother and his father was by far the worst.
His parents, who were childhood sweethearts from an industrial and coal-mining region in the middle of England, came from a working-class background that was steeped in ignorance and superstition.
It was a time and place of gas lamps, horse-drawn carts, coal soot, and violence in the home that was never talked about. Ever wonder where the phrase “rule of thumb” comes from? An archaic British law that allowed man to beat his wife with a stick no wider than his thumb. What a man did in his home was nobody’s business.
Except that in Martin’s house, it was the reverse: his mother viciously beat his father. As Martin remembers it, she suffered from violent mood swings, exacerbated by her menstrual cycle. As a girl, no one told her about her body and what would happen when she went through puberty, so when her period first came, she screamed uncontrollably, believing she was dying, or cursed, or both, and she never got over the trauma and no one stepped in to help her understand. There was probably more to her upbringing that left her scarred and prone to violent outbursts, although the violence was rarely directed at her children.
She attacked Martin’s father, with knives, broomsticks, coat hangers, or whatever else she could get her hands on, as Martin watched, horrified. In the eyes of Martin, this frail, almost effeminate man was a saint. It wasn’t until later that he realized his father was a full participant in the dysfunction, taunting and manipulating her with insults out of some twisted desire to appear like a martyr. He deliberately provoked her, hoping her fury would lead to an attack.
For their children, these scenes were deeply painful to witness. On some level, Martin felt responsible, and it pained him that he couldn’t do more to protect his father. Although Martin, his brother, and his sister were rarely at the receiving end of their mother’s physical blows, her verbal threats, screams, and insults were a constant, especially when Martin would try to intervene to protect his father by jumping on his mother’s back to pull her away.
Not that he was much of a match for his mom. Health problems, including ulcers, severe constipation, and malnutrition plagued Martin as a young boy, causing intense physical pain and frailty. He was so stressed that he had trouble swallowing his food. School lunch was a torment, because if he was spotted wasting food he’d be punished, and yet he sat at the same table as the head of the school. “It was a fearsome thing to do, so I had to go through the motions of chewing my food, and then spit it into a handkerchief when he wasn’t looking.”
His digestion was so bad; he had to excuse himself from class to hide in a closet.
“I didn’t know what to do with myself; I couldn’t go to the bathroom and I couldn’t swallow. I was a mess,” he told me. It is not uncommon for people who grow up with domestic violence to suffer ill-health as we will learn later.
THERE WAS SOMETHING I COULD HAVE DONE
At five, Martin moved with his family to southern England, where his father found work as a hall porter at a mental hospital. The irony was not lost on Martin, even then. “We had our own madhouse.”
The institution provided modest housing for the working families on the grounds, and gardens where they could grow their own vegetables. But even with that help, there was nothing left to pay the bills. His father earned so little and was so deeply in debt from a failed business venture, that they were barely able to survive. Back in those days, everything was delivered to the home—milk, coal, even bread—and the tradesmen would come knocking every week to collect their fees. Martin and his siblings were told to stay away from the windows and hide when they heard the clacking of the horse’s hoofs—a warning that the bill collectors’ horse carts were approaching the house. Entire afternoons were spent with the lights out and the curtains drawn while various angry men banged on their front door.
“It was terrible for us kids, because we developed the idea that the whole world was after us and we were not acceptable,” Martin recalls.
Martin was so ashamed of his living circumstances—the filthy home littered with broken furniture and wallpaper that stopped at the top of the sofa—that when his school friends came calling he never invited them in.
“The idea of someone coming in and seeing what my life was really like was so awful to me that I would even keep my best friend talking at the door,” he recalls. “I felt I had a part in what was going on, a part in a family that was no good.”
Even worse was what Martin describes as “benign neglect,” based on ignorance, poverty, and extreme dysfunction. Martin wanted to die from embarrassment when his older brother, who was deeply disturbed, used to change his trousers in the middle of the living room, in front of company. It was as if they had been raised by wolves. The children didn’t even own a pair of underwear or a toothbrush. It all added to Martin’s profound feelings of guilt and shame.
IT WAS MY FAULT
Martin felt responsible, as if his parents’ ignorance and neglect was his fault. As Sousa explained in our interview, it’s hard for an adult to understand why a child would feel this way because as an adult we have a fully developed rational brain. But what drives a child of seven or eight is their emotional brain, which is the part that is fully developed by then. So “if they are present and it’s happening or they cannot stop it, they can very easily and often conclude it is their fault or that there is something wrong with them,” he says. It can lead to depression, social withdrawal, and all kinds of damaging internalization, resulting in Martin’s childhood ulcer, for example.
Physical effects are not unusual. According to the research, over the long term, induced feelings of guilt or shame may even cause immunological problems, and inflammatory conditions. A recent study by the department of psychology at the University of California, Los Angeles, found that participants in a condition of self-blame showed increased levels of pro-inflammatory cytokine activity, those molecules or antibody proteins associated with cell signaling to promote an immune response. In other words, prolonged guilt can potentially bring about a host of chronic, stress-induced diseases if we don’t get it under control.
As James Pennebaker professor and chair of psychology at the University of Texas recently discovered in his research, keeping these experiences locked away inside you, never discussed, can do even more harm and may even be more damaging than the actual traumatic event.
It is an extraordinarily traumatic event for a child to see his or her parent get hurt. As Renee McDonald, a leading childhood domestic violence expert and associate dean at Southern Methodist University, explains, children’s nervous systems are acutely attuned to their parents. Mirror neurons, which under ideal conditions are designed to help children feel empathy and learn imitative behavior, instead deliver suffering. The child actually feels physical pain just by observing the violence inflicted on a loved one and learns to feel a twisted kind of empathy—guilt.
Behind most childhood feelings of guilt is the conviction that the child could have changed the outcome. Many secretly hold on to this belief for the rest of their lives. But the simple truth is that it is never the fault of someone who grew up living with domestic violence. They are never to blame. Any guilt they inherit is a lie.
Children can never control the actions of an adult; nor should it ever be expected of them. But this truth is rarely shared with children and by the time they become adults the lie is so established, it goes unquestioned. It’s just who they are. When they were young, they needed to be told the truths and if they were not, then they had no way of unlearning what was learned.
SHARING THE TRUTH THAT WE COULD NOT SEE
Sometimes it takes another—an adult outside the situation, to reveal the truth. That was the case for Martin. As much as school was a struggle for him, at a prize-giving ceremony he was shocked to hear his name called out. He was asked to come to the stage, where his headmaster shook his hand and gave him a book with the inscription, “For Cheerful Helpfulness.” Others had recognized his kind and compassionate spirit, his willingness to pitch in and help others despite the misery of his circumstances. Thankfully, Martin had a couple of affirming moments as a child—just barely enough positive reinforcement to keep his inner light shining and put him on a more hopeful path. “Until then,” he says, “I’d had no awareness of myself in this way.”
That truth helped set him free. It was one of several moments in a process that lifted him out of guilt’s grip.
He began acting in ways that filled others with love and happiness. On some subconscious level, he was trying to create a world that was the exact opposite of the one he was living in. He was given a reputation to live up to.
At eleven, another moment came. He then began looking for examples of why he was free from the guilt—ways that he could express himself. And his brain began finding evidence of why it was true. In the English school system students finishing up primary school took a life-altering exam known as the eleven-plus, which determined whether a child went on to a grammar school, which could give them access to a university education, or was to be enrolled in a technical or a general education school. In his isolation, Martin knew nothing about the exam until a friend happened to mention it. With just a couple of weeks to study for something the other kids had been preparing for over months, Martin passed the test, something no one else was expecting of him. Because he believed he could and because he thought he was worth it, he felt free and took action.
“Well that’s a surprise, but a nice surprise I suppose,” his father said, rewarding him with some toy soldiers instead of a badly needed school uniform.
But on his first day of grammar school, Martin was plucked out of class and told that his mother, who’d been suffering from cancer, hardened arteries, and several other serious health problems, had died at age forty-three. His father was inconsolable, wailing beside her coffin like an infant and forcing his children to participate in a séance, standing by their mother’s open casket as she lay in wake.
“The idea that this waxen figure lying in a casket was talking to us was just mind boggling; I had nightmares for years after that,” recalls Martin.
Seeing that Martin’s father was in no mental state to take care of his kids (not that he ever was), Martin’s Uncle Chick took them into his home, buying them their first sets of underwear and toothbrushes, introducing them to the basics of personal hygiene and personal care, and giving them a glimpse of what life could be.
“He became a sort of hero to me; my beacon in the storm.”
For a moment, Uncle Chick became yet another One, helping Martin see the truth. While the amount of time Martin’s uncle and teacher spent in Martin’s life was brief, it was enough to reinforce the truth and reverse the lie of guilt and set him free. An inner flame was lit, and Martin vowed he was going to leave to pursue a career in acting as soon as he was old enough to strike out on his own.
At age nineteen, he took a job polishing brass and cleaning toilets in a theater in London’s West End, where he quickly learned that was not the correct path into acting. A year later, to save money for drama school, he headed south, to the Isle of Wight, a tiny tourist island in the English Channel, and took a job in a restaurant. Martin thrived in his new life, eating well, swimming, and being outdoors. Physically, he transformed from a “puny, pale, nervous thing,” to a strapping young man.
HIS CHOICE TO TAKE ACTION
Emboldened by his newfound strength and energy, he moved back to London to start his training at the Drama Studio. But for the first year he wouldn’t even act. That old reflex of shame and shyness was holding him back.
“I just assumed that everyone else was better than me and I couldn’t act.”
Old beliefs sometimes come back to us when we are facing key challenges. When we are in doubt, we go back to what we know—the lie. But Martin unconsciously knew the antidote—action!
He kept at it, accepting each challenge that came his way in drama school. When he was asked by his acting teacher to play a guy who was badly burned, he blew the room away. The accolades he received from his peers proved yet again that he had nothing to feel guilty about.
“In a way my spirit was coming out; it was a mysterious thing,” recalls Martin. There was no stopping him. The recognition he got from his work fuelled a confidence he’d never experienced before. The fellow acting students he roomed with became like the family he’d never had, and their constant praise and positive reinforcement was “incredibly liberating,” says Martin. “For the first time, I felt like I belonged.”
Martin knew he was different. His new friends had families who sent them money and care packages, while he had to survive by pumping gas. But he started to see his own childhood experiences as a gift. He realized what it was like not to feel guilty, not to feel that there was something wrong with him and those feelings became a trigger for him to take action. This action turned to practice, liberating him to pursue his passion. This practice led to him becoming exceptional at his chosen profession, earning praise from his colleagues. That praise and encouragement helped him build from strength to strength and gave him a glimpse into a successful future.
“I began to realize that what developed in my imagination from childhood was not only acceptable, it was special and rare. I would think it was just a legacy of how I’d lived, but I didn’t appreciate what a gift it was until my career was well under way.”
Martin has since gone on to play a string of roles in Victor Victoria, Talk Radio, Star Trek, Dallas, Dangerous Curves, and Law & Order. He’s won acclaim as a stage actor at New York’s Shakespeare in the Park, the Public Theater, and on Broadway. Most recently, he earned raves for his off-Broadway role as a dying Sigmund Freud in Freud’s Last Session. He is a working actor, rich in friendships, who has a close relationship with his grown son, who admires his father for “achieving so much with so little.”
Today, Martin’s freedom burns so brightly that it’s enabling him to beat an advanced stage of prostate cancer well past his prognosis—but that’s another book! Martin also credits the inner strength he developed as a child on his ability to heal himself both emotionally and physically. All those years of being bent down in guilt and shame as a child taught him to revel in his freedom as an adult to push his limits and try new things. The guilt that caused him an ulcer as a little boy has led to the sense of freedom that is allowing him to beat cancer.
“I feel blessed. Those terrible years were precious to me.”
IF SHE CAN BE FREE, SO CAN I
The guilt that children who witness domestic violence feel is so insidious, cropping up in unexpected ways, no matter what their rational minds tell them. Even after they find a greater sense of self-worth and a deeper faith in the purpose of their lives, it can be difficult to shake the feeling that there is something inherently wrong with them or that they could have done more to stop the violence they experienced. Deep down, at key times, it may come back. Just as it did for Martin, until he took action to get out of that pattern. But if you continue to buy into the illusion of guilt, it is hard to act. Why? Guilt is like an addiction that sticks with us and eats away at our self-esteem and willpower. Guilt can cripple you, and become the most subtle source of stress in your life.
Self-expression, or indeed any form of sharing, helps release the guilt. Sharing helps us understand our experience through the eyes of another. Faith, a mother of four from Windsor, Ontario, eventually freed herself of some of her burden through writing her story, which she shared with others as a cautionary tale. But hers is an especially heavy load because, like many who grew up living with domestic violence, her choices as an adult and parent helped perpetuate the cycle.
As far back as she can remember Faith’s mother was a source of constant abuse. First, her biological father was on the receiving end of her rants, putting him down with vile insults until he couldn’t take it anymore. By the time Faith was five, he left, and her mother used child visitation as a punishment, telling Faith and her younger sister he didn’t want them and promising visits from her dad only to cancel them at the last minute. He eventually gave up trying and disappeared from their lives altogether.
Within months of her father’s departure, Faith’s mother found a new man, a kind of soul mate, if you will, as he was just as much of a hothead as she was. Each night, Faith and her sister would go to bed afraid and to the sound of screaming and wake up the next morning to find projectile objects, like clocks and phones, smashed on the floor. But her mother kept him around. He was a good provider who did her bidding.
“From the outside everything looked fine. We had a nice home, went on great vacations. But inside it was hell.”
Faith not only watched all the violence between her parents but was subjected to it as well, as are about half of all children who grow up with domestic violence. But the violence she endured was extreme. Faith, who admits “I had a mouth on me,” was singled out in the family. She was subjected to regular beatings by her stepfather while her mother looked on, not only refusing to stop the abuse but encouraging and often ordering him to dole out the punishment.
As she got older, the beatings intensified. And because it fell upon her to do all the housework and childcare, looking after her younger brother and her new half sister, Faith became more defiant and angry. In retaliation, she talked back and stole money. . . and caught hell for it—a cycle of rebellion and retribution that became routine. But the abuse was about to get much worse.
IF SHE CAN SHARE, SO CAN I
Faith’s stepfather used to restore antique furniture in the garage that adjoined the house. When she was thirteen, she walked in to get something and stumbled upon a huge hydroponics system for growing marijuana. She started snooping and came across deep freezers filled to the top with the drug. While Faith always knew he was a pothead, constantly rolling and smoking joints around the house, she had no idea he was a big-time drug dealer.
When Faith’s stepfather caught her looking, he went berserk, slamming her against the garage wall and threatening to kill her and anyone else she told. “I was petrified,” she told her mother. And her mother responded, “Shut up, you are just causing problems.” And from that day forward, Faith became an outcast in her own home, a fact highlighted by the much kinder treatment her siblings received. She was barely tolerated because “I was there to work, with no reward or praise for good behavior. I felt like their slave.”
Two years later, at fifteen, Faith had finally had enough. It was bedtime and she’d just finished cleaning up the kitchen and was climbing down the stairs to her room when her stepfather yelled at her to get back in the kitchen to resweep the floor. Apparently she’d missed a spot. When Faith snapped back, “Do it yourself,” he grabbed her by the hair, dragged her into her room. She tried to call the police, but her mother had disconnected all the phones.
She couldn’t take another day in that house. A few friends were aware of her situation, and one of them offered to let her sleep in a camper in the back of his house, which gave her the peace and quiet she craved. But the reprieves were only temporary. After her grade nine graduation, Faith needed a more permanent plan. She’d seen a show on television about teenage mothers, which gave her an idea. Her country’s generous welfare system pays single mothers and offers them heavily subsidized housing.
“In my young and naive brain, that was the solution.”
So Faith ran away from home to hide out at the home of her boyfriend’s family, who welcomed her. Because he went to a different school and wasn’t known to her parents, there was less risk of her parents finding out where she was. As far as she knew, her parents didn’t even attempt to come looking for her.
But almost immediately after she became pregnant, she discovered that the situation at her boyfriend’s house was as chaotic as it had been with her own family. His parents were completely dysfunctional, both addicted to drugs, with several cousins in the extended family cycling in and out of foster care. Still, Faith noticed, “everyone pulled together to help one another out; there was no judgment and they treated me like a part of their family.” Her boyfriend’s mother was also “the very first person to tell me that she loved me, and mean it.” Her boyfriend was a sweet guy who did his best by her, although he was constantly in trouble with the law.
Still just a kid herself at sixteen, Faith moved out, got herself onto financial assistance, found her own place in government-funded housing, and enrolled in a school for pregnant teens. Unfazed by the idea of looking after a baby, having single-handedly raised her younger siblings, she was looking forward to the unconditional love of her own child and determined to make a better life for herself. “For the first time in my life,” she says, “I felt in control of the situation; I had managed to somehow balance the dysfunction.”
WHY SHOULD SHE FEEL GUILTY?
Still, Faith felt guilty. Seeing how other families were together, even how her own siblings were treated in comparison with her, Faith always wondered if she somehow deserved to be the target of her parents’ anger. On some level, she thought the violence must somehow be her fault. She recalls thinking, “If I’d been more obedient or complained less about missing my birth father or hadn’t discovered all those drugs in the garage, my parents might have treated me better.”
As a young adult or adult reading this, you see how illogical this is, don’t you? Perhaps some of your beliefs concerning what you are falsely guilty about are equally as illogical. A child’s brain finds evidence, false reasons, to confirm guilt. Children can’t see that they’re blameless, that they are not responsible for the actions of adults who should be protecting, not injuring, them. They can’t see that they are inherently good. Instead, they feel they’ve failed and are left feeling profoundly sad and regretful, even as adults. Can you fathom how it must feel to consider yourself at fault for not preventing one parent from hurting another?
Even those who were obviously not guilty can believe this lie. It’s a common theme. As clinical psychologist Richard McNally explains, although a person who suffered as a child may find it difficult to recall details from each particular occurrence, they will never forget what it felt like.3 So as an adult we remember the feelings of guilt and shame quite well, but we don’t recall all the details and really don’t want to bring up all of those memories again, leaving us to go on believing the lie as adults.
Faith was still in the cycle, trapped in that lie of guilt. When she moved out of her boyfriend’s family home it seemed at first as if she were on her way. She was doing well in school and staying focused. But she was still a teenage mother living on her own who craved love and acceptance. She was isolated and vulnerable, and that made her a walking target. By nineteen, seeing all her peers get married and have babies, she was feeling lonely. She met a guy at a keg party who said all the right things. He was four years older, employed, and instantly told her she was meant to be with him forever. He promised marriage, more babies, and protection from her estranged family.
I DID THE UNTHINKABLE
But almost immediately the violence started. And within three weeks of meeting him, she was pregnant. “He was basically my stepfather,” admits Faith. “And although we never married, I stayed with him for the next four years, and had two more children by him. I know now that I thought I didn’t deserve better. I’d convinced myself that no other man would want me. He never hugged me; he never told me he loved me. It was basically the same relationship I had with my mother.”
Even though her own children were now growing up with domestic violence, she thought that she was protecting her kids because they were not being physically abused. But we know that the psychological impact is just as damaging. An astonishing nine out of ten parents believe that either their kids don’t know or it won’t affect them, but nine out of ten children do know, and there is plenty of evidence to confirm that the impact is profound. It reached the point at which Faith could no longer deny this truth: “The last thing I wanted was to repeat the cycle with my kids.”
She finally reached her limit when the violence escalated to a level at which she truly feared for her life. It took almost dying to set Faith free.
“Lying there, with his hands around my neck, I started to think of everything I had to live for, all the things that, at twenty-two, I still wanted to do, and an amazing feeling went through my whole body, a sense of knowing that I would be OK.”
“Still, I remember my seven-year-old punching him with his little fists and crying. I wished I could make this all go away—my son should never have to defend me.” It was just one more layer of guilt for Faith.
Sometimes you have to reach your breaking point before you let yourself be free. Faith was already there.
“I knew I had to show my kids that this was not acceptable, and the only way to do that was to never let this happen again,” she says. She had to be the One for her kids.
And finally she moved, changed her number, and enrolled in college to get her nursing degree. Other than contact over care of the kids and attempts at co-parenting, Faith stopped calling him and gained sole custody of the children.
As psychologist Sonja Lyubomirsky explains, action is critical: “The next step after acknowledging regrets is to move on by committing ourselves to new pursuits.”4
For the first time in years, Faith built up a social network outside the home. By befriending and mentoring other women who’d shared similar stories and by opening up about her own life, she realized she was not alone. It all helped her shed some of that shame she’d been carrying with her for so long.
Faith was discovering what it was like to feel truly free. Within the year she was earning a comfortable living running a day surgery unit in a hospital, and through that accomplishment, she gained self-confidence. She slowly started to date again, although she was cautious about letting any new men into her life.
When she was twenty-seven, she met Gregory: a gentleman who was patient, loving, and kind. She waited six months before introducing him to her kids. She gradually allowed herself to be loved. They married and moved into a nice home in a safe, middle-class neighborhood on the other side of town.
Now, when those old lies creep back into Faith’s consciousness and the guilt weighs her down, she knows what actions to take: “I have to talk about it; I have to get it out. It makes me feel so much better.”
To that end, Faith began journaling. And when she heard about CDV on the Dr. Phil show, she decided to share her story on the CDV website. “It was scary to tell it, and weird, but it felt so good,” she says. “It’s one of the best things I have done since all this happened.”
WHY TAKING ACTION AND SHARING ARE KEYS TO FREEDOM
Faith figured out something that the experts have known for years. As Lyubomirsky reminds us, “Putting our emotional upheavals into words helps us to make sense of them, accommodate them, and begin to move past them. It ultimately prepares us to share these upheavals with close others.”5
Psychologist and trauma expert William Stiles says the desire to talk after going through situations of distress is a natural and healthy impulse, and the mind’s way of healing itself, “like a fever after an infection.”6 Talking through experiences with others allows us to convert upsetting, traumatic experiences into forms of post-traumatic growth. In his book, What Doesn’t Kill Us: The New Psychology of Post-Traumatic Growth, Stephen Joseph likens the process of talking it out to our hands shaping a piece of modeling clay. In the same way, our words help shape the meaning that we make of an experience.7
Sharing our stories exposes the false logic behind the lie. It reveals all the erroneous, unquestioned assumptions that children make. As brain expert David Sousa explains, “These children are also drawing false conclusions . . . they think that their mere presence at the scene of violence somehow makes them responsible. They say to themselves: It only happens when I’m around, so I must be the problem, I must somehow be to blame.”
STAYING AWAKE SO I COULD TAKE ACTION
Guilt and shame are things I’ve always struggled with. I felt responsible. It was my fault, I should have stopped it. I felt great shame because I believed there was something wrong with me. I was no good. I wondered if I was the only one who felt this scared. I was weak. But I couldn’t bear to admit any of it. I would do anything to avoid blame, to the point of trying to prove that others were wrong, be it a waiter in a restaurant or a colleague at work. And today I can see that it all traces back to what happened when I was just a skinny little kid trying to stop two grown adults from hurting one another.
I was certain that it was my fault that my mother got hit. On nights when Keith came over, I made it my job to creep out of bed to listen and sometimes wait from the top of the stairs as they argued, gripping the spindles tightly. I never quite knew how bad it was going to get.
From the top of the stairs I would watch. There was always a moment, like a calm before the storm, when Keith would back away and stop talking, because he’d finally had enough. His fingers would start twitching, hitting the soft part of the palm, making a sound like someone just learning to snap. That was my cue.
I would sprint downstairs and put myself between the two of them. Sometimes it worked and my unexpected appearance created just enough of a distraction to stop their fight. But on other nights, I just got pushed out of the way—hard. I’d bang my head against the wall and be lying on the ground. He would turn away for a moment as if he were trying to stop himself and then suddenly swing his hand into her face. It always got worse from there. I got hit only as an afterthought or if my mother snapped at me.
Whenever my mother got hit, I felt the blow inside me. It was like a knife being jabbed into my stomach. Like so many children of domestic violence, I wished that I could have been the target instead of being a helpless witness. It hurt me so much to see her struck, and I blamed myself every time, because I hadn’t come down in time or I wasn’t strong enough to stop it. I could invent any number of reasons; I was utterly convinced that it was my sole responsibility, even as a small child, to defend her against this enormous man
SHARING WITH A STRANGER
It was something I never discussed with anyone until well into adulthood, when I shared what happened in a random conversation with a stranger. I don’t know why I chose to share. Perhaps I was guided to do so. Perhaps I was at such a low point that it couldn’t get any worse. Whatever the reason, it was one of the best decisions I ever made in my life, because it was only after I shared that I was able to launch into action.
“I let it go on for all these years, even though I had the opportunity to stop it,” I told the stranger. “Because of that I lack confidence. I wonder how a man could let that happen. I let the fear inside stop me.”
The fact was I hated myself for not acting, not realizing at the time that guilt destroys your willpower to act. Sharing what I viewed to be a terrible weakness, I felt ashamed. But the guy looked at me like I had two heads and said: “What do you mean? You were six years old! I can’t imagine the courage it took to live through that.”
The moment I heard that, I can’t say I fully believed it, like a compliment you don’t accept, but I did begin to find more and more evidence as to why that statement was true. That conversation came flooding back to me when I heard our experts discuss guilt as one of the ten lies.
Sandra Graham-Bermann, professor of psychology at the University of Michigan, founded Kids’ Club, a prevention and intervention program for children coming from violent homes. Through her work, she discovered that speaking and hearing the truth that they are not in any way responsible for the fighting between their parents can be transformational to these children. Their entire demeanor changes after they hear that truth.
“It’s like a mantra—we have them chant it out, sing it out, draw it out,” says Graham-Bermann. “We put a lot of energy into that message, and when they hear it you can see them grinning from ear to ear.”
Who knows the impact on my life if I’d heard those words earlier? But how could I? We never discussed; we never shared; no one ever talked about it. It was taboo. But the fact is I did finally hear them, and now I understand. I’ve accepted the core truth that it’s never the fault of a child when their parents fight. There was nothing we could have done differently that would have led to a different outcome.
SHARING HER STORY SETS MY MOTHER FREE
A few years ago, I asked my mother if she would talk to a researcher who was helping me with this book. After much discussion, she reluctantly agreed.
I listened to the recording of the interview with some preconceived notion of what I’d hear, never expecting the revelations to come.
After the initial pleasantries, the interviewer asked my mother, “If you were to use one word to summarize your childhood what would it be?”
“Violent,” she said.
Frustrated, I said to myself, “No, Mom, he said your childhood, not mine!”
As the interview continued, I listened in amazement. It was as if I were the one answering the questions. She had experienced the same things I did—some worse, some not as bad.
It never even occurred to me that she could have experienced the same thing I did. I learned so much in that conversation, I had to stop the tape a few times, to cry. I felt so bad, as though she were my child, not the other way around. I wanted to take away the pain.
She described how my grandmother and grandfather and Keith had all experienced the same thing, which I would later learn is common.
At the end of that conversation for the first time I felt liberated. Why? Because the truth was so clear: She was repeating a pattern that was instilled in her. She did not have the knowledge to break out of it.
I couldn’t believe that I didn’t ask her about her own childhood experiences so much earlier. I simply never knew to ask. I never knew this was so critical.
FREEDOM IS MADE VISIBLE THROUGH ACTION
As McGonigal reminds us, guilt, like other forms of stress, is “the enemy of willpower.”8 Guilt makes it almost impossible to act with any consistency. But now that you are free from the guilt you can take steps toward fulfilling your potential.
All it takes is action. As mentioned at the beginning of this chapter, freedom can be made visible through action. When you were young, this was second nature. You were conditioned to take action when you needed to most, even if that action was simply to find a safe place.
Think of all those actions you took to protect not only yourself but your younger sibling, mother, or father. I spent most of my childhood sitting at the top of the staircase watching, deciding whether I should act or hide. Yet I spent most of my adult life beating myself up for not taking it further, when I was already doing more than any child should.
Over these next pages, you’ll meet others who took action as children, like Olivia, who would run to the phone to call 911 over and over again, or Chelsea, who, when her parents were arguing at night, made a tent out of a baton and blanket and sang songs to her little brothers and sisters to distract them and make them feel safe. These are actions no seven-year-old should have to take, much less think about, and yet she did.
Remember those many times as a child when you did the same, when you acted instinctively. Even inaction was action because it was the smart decision that kept you safe. Maybe it crushes you inside because you felt you should have done more. No, you did exactly what you should have, because putting yourself in harm’s way could have made it worse for everybody. Maybe you look back on those moments you acted decisively, beyond your years, and you still think to yourself, “But I had no choice.” Yes, you did. Those were actions you did not have to take, but you chose to do things that took courage and strength at a time when you should have been sleeping safely in your own bed. Even if that action was to hide, you showed resolve. You did something. Keeping yourself out of harm’s way took a strength and awareness that was beyond your years.
For most adults, willpower is about knowing you have to do push-ups and eat healthier to lose some weight. That doesn’t even compare to what you had to face as a child. Somehow, you had to find the resolve to survive at a time when you should have been protected and nurtured instead. More than anyone, you were conditioned to take action. But since then you’ve learned a lie that’s held you back. Remember, guilt makes it almost impossible to act with any consistency.
Now that you are free from the guilt and shame, you can rediscover that willpower you had as a child and take those necessary steps toward fulfilling your dreams—whatever they may be.
These can be small and simple actions, such as putting your thoughts and experiences into words. This tool comes from trauma expert James Pennebaker’s groundbreaking “writing paradigm,” in which expressive writing helps bring understanding and perspective to traumatic experiences. It’s just enough of a time commitment to have an impact without being overwhelming, and it works.
These steps will lead to greater actions that will help get you closer to reaching your full potential. How? You are freeing yourself from the very things that have been holding you back—guilt and shame—and that freedom is made visible through action. From now on, you’ll be able to move forward, because nothing is holding you back from making and acting on the choices that lead you closer to your full potential.
By working through our false shame and exposing the false sense of guilt that hides behind it, we can learn to see the past through a different filter and free ourselves to act, and act consistently.
Remember, children think emotionally, not rationally. When you experienced domestic violence as a child, your brain drew the wrong conclusions: “I couldn’t stop it, but I should have. I was there, so it must have been my fault. There must be something wrong with me. It happened because of me.” But now, as an adult, you know that violence between parents is never a child’s fault.
Your adult brain is now developed and you understand this rationally. But have you truly allowed yourself to feel this truth emotionally? Whether it’s writing in a journal or simply having a dialogue with a stranger, unpack the baggage of self-blame by sharing your story with someone else. Rediscover your past through their eyes. This works, because conversation helps transform the meaning. It was never your fault, so now it’s time to allow yourself to really feel that way.
Today you are free from that environment. You have taken that first critical step toward freedom because you are aware of the truth. You know what you were never told, that a child can never be held responsible for the actions of an adult, ever. Your adult brain needs to hear that! When you were young your child brain wrongfully concluded that you were at fault, that you should have stopped it, and sadly, your adult brain that controls rational thinking was not formed to help you see the truth.
Now as an adult, it is so much a part of you, that you don’t even question it. But question it you must because you know it is a lie. As an adult today, would you look at a young child and think that he or she was truly responsible for your actions? Of course not! As of this moment, you are free from the illusion of guilt and shame that has held you back from reaching your true potential—free from the lie.
From the Lie to the Truth
You are somehow responsible for the violence you lived with during early life. It was somehow your fault or you could have stopped it.
As a child the emotional brain is fully developed, but the neocortex, the logical thinking center, is not fully developed until adulthood. As a child you felt all the emotion fully but you did not have a developed, rational part of the brain to understand what was happening—to understand the truth. Thus as a child, you falsely concluded that it was your fault or that you could have done something differently to alter the outcome. This belief then becomes part of you and becomes true and is not challenged in adulthood. It is simply fact.
I am free. I am free from the environment of my childhood. It is now my time to be free from the illusion of guilt and shame.
I embody this freedom, this truth and act as such, by remembering that taking action is a skill I worked to develop early in my life. I use that skill to my benefit, and I act when others do not.
Freedom is not something I can physically see. But freedom gives me the choice to take action. So my freedom is made visible through action. I now know that guilt and shame destroy willpower and this false belief has held me back long enough.
I act in ways that move me closer to my full potential.
You have already taken the first step toward who you were meant to be. And how did you take that step? You acted. You took action by picking up this book and reading it. Reinforce this truth by taking some or all of the following actions.
1. Throughout the day if a thought triggers a feeling of guilt or shame, or if you have a desire to blame something on another, pause and breathe deeply and remember this important truth: A child is never responsible for causing or stopping the actions of adults.
2. Share. But before sharing with another, share with yourself. Once we understand what happened we can be fully free.
3. For the next four days, spend fifteen minutes each day in a quiet place and write out what you would share with someone. You can write whatever you wish. No one else will read it, so don’t worry about grammar or making it sound perfect. The secret is just to write. Here are a few questions and actions to help you along.
· What was your childhood like?
· What memories trouble you the most?
· What did you believe about yourself because of these memories?
· Now, as you look back, would you conclude the same about another child in that position? Was he or she really guilty? Could he or she really stop it? Was it truly that child’s fault? Was there something wrong with that child?
· So what is the truth?
· With this truth in mind, what does your life look like?
· What do you want to have happen this year?