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Blaming, Understanding and Forgiveness: Three Very Different Things

Posted Jan 09 2012 11:18am

When I was an intern I worked in a community mental health center that treated primarily women with Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD). As many of you know, this can be a very difficult population with which to work, given the disorder’s remarkable ability to lash out in anger and fear with very little catalyst. And, given that approximately 75% of women with this condition have also been the victim of sexual abuse, male therapists can often bear the brunt of a client’s fury as she attempts to make sense of what has happened to her.

The treatment of choice for BPD involves both individual and group work. In the group treatment, skills are taught to help clients regulate their emotions and successfully navigate through the interpersonal chaos that dominates their lives. In essence, the group work is really more of a class than a therapy, designed to give the clients a psychological toolbox with which to deal with the world.

As co-leader of the group – you may remember in ‘Crazy’ that some groups use two facilitators – I began a discussion about interpersonal effectiveness. In a group with about 10 participants, there are often one or two who are extremely vocal and actively involved, another few who remain completely silent while the remainder vacillate between both ends of the spectrum. So when the topic of dealing with difficult people arose, one person had very strong opinions.

“These types of people, the ones in stores who give you a hard time at the register, remind me of my dad: uninvolved, disconnected. They don’t listen! They don’t want to help!”

Others nodded in agreement. This is usually reinforcing, so she continued.

“People need to be held accountable for their actions. They are supposed to be at your service when you’re there!”

Group work of this sort is rarely helpful when it becomes a forum for airing grievances, but at that of my training I wasn’t skilled enough at the art of subtly shutting down diatribes.

At that point other women began to chime in, drawing parallels between their current lives and the situations that lead up to them. This often produced intense anger toward the abusers in the women’s lives. However, this type of dialogue was discouraged in group; rather, it was meant to be saved for individual sessions, if for no other reason that it could trigger negative emotional reactions in other group members with no viable outlet to process the experience.

However, at that point my co-therapist and fellow intern spoke up, albeit with the same lack of wisdom and clinical skill I possessed at that time.

“Ladies, it’s important for us not to play the Blame Game here,” he said. “Not toward the cashier or toward your abuser. Mental health is about understanding, not blaming.”

At that point one of the women moved into the conversation in with an interesting point. “No. No matter what reasons my stepfather had for abusing me, or whatever bullshit excuse a store worker has for not helping me out, it’s not my job to accept it. They are both scumbags. I don’t have to forgive, and don’t think you can make me!”

Notwithstanding my colleague’s misguided attempt at restoring order in the group by opening up a new can of worms, what are the flaws in the woman’s position? She’s not wrong about forgiveness. Why should anyone be required to forgive such a heinous act like sex abuse? That’s not the issue. Her problem is that she is equating understanding with forgiveness. My colleague was right: mental health is, in fact, about understanding, both yourself and others. Without understanding, there is merely finger pointing and an endless parade of victimization. But that does not translate to accepting what others have done or not holding them accountable. The healthiest people around you are the ones who can say, “I get why he did such and such. He was a drunk, or depressed, or was abused himself as a kid, or even just fucking crazy. But that doesn’t excuse it, it doesn’t make it okay. I understand it and hate it, but that is how it was and how it will be. I now choose whether or not I want to forgive him.”

Far too many of us make an important cognitive error: we believe we are assigning a free pass for people who have wronged us if we take the time to understand the psychological underpinnings of their actions. It’s almost as if that person defeats us in some way by attempting to comprehend their behavior (“if I accept what he’s done, then he wins”). It’s actually the opposite: by psychologically turning away and simply labeling them as wicked, we are the ones who suffer more. The anger, anxiety and depression remain as strong as ever, and we often carry it over to other relationships. That’s never good.

It’s psychologically mandatory that we hold people accountable for what they do, lest we blame ourselves for every possible thing that goes wrong in our lives. But without that understanding, that ability to try to peek into the head of the other and say “why?,” you don’t grow. And when you can understand another person while still recognizing that accountability is present and forgiveness is not required, your mental health improves.

Tip of the day: don’t be that woman in the group. She never did understand what I’ve just described to you, and I can virtually guarantee that, unless something drastically changed, she is just as miserable now as she was almost 15 years ago.

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