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Another Session in Confession

Your Turn - Reader Submitted Articles

By Bonnie Burton

Updated July 28, 2006

Considering the amount of time I spend confessing my mistakes and shortcomings in therapy, I often think the doc missed his true calling. And therapy would definitely be easier if I could step into his office, confess my sins and leave the rest of the work to God until my next session. I’d leave every session cheerfully if it were that simple. But it isn’t that simple, and the doc doesn’t let me off the hook that easily. He forgives readily, but he doesn’t let me forget that my behavior needs work, so he always seems to have other plans after my confession, plans to talk about and explore the behavior that led to my latest confession. I rarely embrace these discussions enthusiastically because they are difficult and painful. But I usually comply nonetheless, albeit with discomfort sometimes, because my journey with the doc has taught me that there’s more to therapy than talking about my own pain.

I also need to do something on this journey that few people want to do, and many people never do. I need to face the pain that I inflict upon others, and as much as I would like to believe that doing this is entirely altruistic, it is for my benefit as well as theirs.

I never look forward to these conversations, but I have grown accustomed to them, because we have them regularly. Facing the pain that I inflict upon others remains a daunting task for me, primarily because of two nasty little details: I hurt others more often than I care to admit, and it isn’t always unintentional. It’s the latter detail that often causes me to wince these days, particularly since the person I currently target most often is also the person who’s trying to help me understand and change my behavior: the doc. And he does not subscribe to the belief that it’s enough to simply recognize when we hurt others, apologize, and try not to do it again. While that’s a good place to start, it is too easy to make promises we don‘t or can‘t keep, and simply “trying not to do it again” is a lesson in the illusion of responsibility, neither one conducive to therapy with the doc. It’s easy to say, “I won’t” or “I’ll try not to do it again,” and when I’ve made that promise in the past I always intended to keep it. But a lifetime of not understanding my behavior and being caught off-guard by powerful feelings have left me with some serious deficits in impulse control, particularly in my close relationships with other people.

Taking Responsibility

Making promises without making serious attempts to understand my actions leaves everyone around me frustrated and angry, so much of my therapy consists of figuring out why I do what I do. My long-time favorite and usually truthful answer to that question, “I don’t know,“ invites the doc to challenge me as we begin the task of figuring it out together. But I’ve come to appreciate his expectations of hard work, responsibility, and honesty, just as I appreciate his forgiveness and understanding when I make mistakes, because I make plenty of them. That’s a hard-to-beat combination of values, and knowing I can count on him to uphold those values makes facing the truth about myself less formidable.

It is less distressing now, but it still isn’t easy. I am a trauma survivor, and we trauma survivors often blame ourselves for the pain and abuse inflicted upon us, but we generally find it extremely difficult to accept that we too are capable of hurting others. We tend to hold firmly a belief that we are incapable of hurting others due to knowing and experiencing the pain and terror of abuse. This belief is a protective measure, and its primary purpose is to protect us from the threat of identifying with those who abused us. If we can identify with them in any way, we might be like them, and the last thing a survivor wants to be like is an abuser.

Painful Truths

And so, upon realizing a few years ago that I had indeed hurt people, I was quite upset but not as shocked as I thought I would be. In my attempt to protect my self-image as one who would never hurt others intentionally, I reminded myself that we all hurt people inadvertently sometimes, and, pleased with my acceptance of "the truth" I was content to believe that my behavior, while hurtful at times, was never abusive because it wasn’t intentional. And as long as it wasn’t intentional, there was little I needed to do except try to avoid making the same mistake again. But that acceptance was short-lived, and whatever discomfort I felt at the time paled in comparison to the shock I felt upon my later discovery -- that at times I had hurt people intentionally.

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