Pressure to forgive

There is more than one way to be a good person. If your religious/spiritual beliefs, personality, and brain chemistry lead you to be someone who wants to forgive abusers and other assholes, go for it. (You do you!!!) But forgiveness is just one option. Ultimately, we should all be judged on the good in our actions; how we privately think/feel about what happened in our past is our own business.

Not forgiving doesn’t necessarily mean one is stuck in the past: one can walk away from a bad experience without forgiving the perpetrator. Not forgiving doesn’t mean one is harboring or attracting hate: one can still choose to detach from the situation from the perspective of there being a greater good in detaching than in continuing to engage.

Personally, I reserve forgiveness for those who show they’ve changed (which may or may not include efforts to make amends), and those whose harmful behaviors can be better understood by unfortunate circumstances rather than deliberate, unapologetic cruelty. But that’s just my own way of handling it. Everyone deals with past interpersonal trauma their own way on their own schedule and I’d never try to force my own beliefs about this on anyone else.

Unfortunately, the religious/cultural pressure behind forgiveness is so strong that many people have never even considered this decision from the perspective of someone who feels differently, and as a result, they cannot see what is wrong with pressuring others to forgive. The problem is that pressuring others to forgive, by implying that they are bad/damaged if they don’t, is a form of victim-blaming and it helps no one.

If you’re facing pressure to forgive but aren’t so sure forgiving is the right answer for you, know you are not alone. Hopefully our friends of a more forgiving nature will one day learn to respect our differences and not be so judgmental.

Riding the wave

My silence here lately isn’t for a lack of things to say, but because I’ve been so busy doing something really different.

When last semester ended, I realized how long it had been since I had taken a real break from work. Although tenure-track professors with children may be perpetually busier than those like me without children, they typically feel justified in devoting time to their kids in their daily lives. In contrast, I had felt unable to justify taking time for anything but work, and couldn’t stop feeling bad about it long enough to enjoy doing other things anyway. Even my vacations have been working vacations, full of anxiety/guilt about the time I didn’t spend working. Facing my first between-semester break after receiving tenure, the pressure was lifted. It was suddenly clear to me that I need and deserve time for things besides work, just like everyone else.

I started doing very low-stakes craft projects:  things that serve no alternative purpose and that are inexpensive to make, so that if something is not working out I can stop and discard it without hesitation. These projects have involved a lot of experimenting, and problem solving as I go along; nothing has been from a kit, or with predetermined rules. Working on these projects, I get totally absorbed in what I’m doing, and my mind is clear of everything else. Psychologists call this a state of “flow,” a term that reminds me of lots of surfing metaphors for being open to the present moment. I don’t surf and can’t even swim well enough to try, but I can readily imagine that it would feel similar to the new and completely exhilarating sense of freedom I’ve been getting from bending wires or spreading paint.

When I was a child I was making things all the time, but as I got older my enjoyment of these activities was ruined by feelings of shame and fear.  My visual arts projects were an embarrassment to my father for as long as I could remember. (Ever give your parent a handmade gift and have them say “What the hell is this?” or “Why would anyone want this?”) He’d yell at me and criticize/insult me when he saw me working on crafts, and I remember my mother saying things like “Daddy will be very unhappy if he sees you playing like this.”

In part, I think my father hated my craft projects because he is so competitive and saw my record of accomplishments as a reflection on his. In other words, if my creative endeavors could have gotten me recognized as a child prodigy or something else I could use on my college applications, I’m sure he would have been all for it. In fact, when I was 12 my father encouraged me to submit my short stories/poetry and musical compositions for review for publication. But these weren’t adult-quality, publishable things — just private, personally meaningful endeavors, and therefore a shameful waste of time in my father’s eyes. Don’t get me wrong, though, my father doesn’t see all leisure activities as shameful. For example, he has always spent plenty of time watching sports events on TV (an activity that isn’t going to create anything prize-worthy), and he really wanted me to enjoy watching sports with him. But he saw watching sports as the kind of activity that normal, healthy, popular kids do, whereas he saw my craft projects as something only a “backwards” child would do. He punished me for my non-competitive creative hobbies because he cared enough about me to try to stop me from being so “backwards”.

I didn’t join the literary magazine club as most of my friends did in high school, because I felt so much shame about my writing. When friends said that although I wrote a lot, I wasn’t a “real” writer like they were, I assumed they were right to exclude me, and it didn’t even occur to me to question letting a bunch of self-appointed teenage writers decide whether or not my writing was “real”.  In college I continued to do creative writing, piano, and various crafts – but for no one but myself, and by this point largely in secret.

After I got married and went to graduate school I no longer had the private space/time I’d needed for my creative work, and moments taken away from pursuing my academic/career goals became harder for me to feel good about.  I sometimes found disguised ways to be creative – such as making window shades and other things for the household that I could tell myself had a practical purpose that made them worth doing.  But eventually these practical crafts felt more like pressure than fun, and I largely stopped doing them when I became able to afford store-bought or professionally made items instead.  It has really been decades since I have done craft projects for their own sake, as I have been in the last couple of months.

I’m needing to learn to budget my time better to fit creative projects into my schedule, and I’m also needing to find ways to keep my work space better organized to accommodate things like paint, wire, and glue along with the piles of paper I use as a professor.  But starting this seems to have opened up a floodgate of interests so long suppressed that I didn’t know I still had them, and I’ll ride this wave where it takes me.

Escape from ‘codependency’ treatment

At the time of my first hospitalization for depression and suicidal urges, during my junior year in college, I was badly broken by the loss of a relationship, again.  The term ‘codependent’ was a hot new thing back then, so both in the hospital and subsequent residential treatment I was required to participate in addiction groups. I had no problems with substance use — I was just supposed to mentally substitute the idea of a boyfriend in the place of alcohol or drugs whenever they were mentioned by the group or in the reading materials. People kept telling me: “You can’t love anyone else until you love yourself.”

As someone who was raised to hate myself, I found that statement a vicious circle, a trap, one of the most depressing things ever. I was a psychology major and I knew enough about unconditional positive regard and secure attachment and so on to know that people don’t develop healthy self-concepts in a vacuum, they do so through loving relationships. What is a person supposed to do, then, if they didn’t receive what they’d need to love themselves, and therefore aren’t equipped to love others but only get addicted to them and hurt by them?

The impossible instructions I got were that I shouldn’t be allowed to become really attached to anyone until I had spent enough time alone to somehow figure out a way to love myself. OK, not entirely alone, because I could still have my therapist, and my addiction group. As if their alienating piles of pamphlets about alcohol and higher powers were going to comfort me, let alone help me feel something for myself that I didn’t know how to feel.

I felt that I was being criticized and blamed for still wanting relationships. I was being seen as leaving too large of a relationship footprint — after all, in my hand, a loving hand became nothing more than a dangerous substance! In this view, my basic need to connect with others was destroying more than it was helping, making me a burden. Seeing myself this way only strengthened my wish to die, and I started fantasizing about ways I could get myself killed and turned into food for homeless cats.

What I did instead was leave residential treatment with another patient, to start a life together – after we signed forms acknowledging that we were going against medical advice by doing so. Our relationship, which didn’t last, was difficult even from the very beginning. But it was a way out and a way forward for both of us.

I fully understand that people with low self-worth are in danger of being mistreated in relationships, and are unlikely to be able to enjoy or give as much healthy love as others without this vulnerability. Treatment should help us to get better at recognizing when we’re at risk and thriving when we’re not. But a treatment that teaches us we’re unfit to be in relationships is not going to improve our self-worth or our relationship skills. I was lucky to escape.


Being unfuckwithable

Last year I was bullied by several students who thought they could pressure me into giving them higher/easier grades. They tried everything they could, including manipulation, lying, disrespectful behavior, turning their classmates against me, and complaining about me to other faculty. In the end, all my students received the grades they had earned based on my syllabus and grading rubrics, so the bullies did not succeed. But the bullies did manage to make me feel so awful that I stopped bringing my class the level of enthusiasm and finesse that my non-bullying students deserved. Now that I am preparing for the Fall 2016 semester, I find that planning the course material is the easy part. What I am most worried about is preparing for how I’d handle it if a student tries to bully me, so that it doesn’t take so much of a toll on me and my work.

I’ve come to realize that while student bullies can be a challenge for any professor, I have a particularly hard time with them because after being mistreated early in life by my father, my more popular classmates, and others, I spent too many years believing I didn’t deserve any better. For instance, among the people I considered my closest friends as a teenager, several openly excluded me from many things because I wasn’t ‘cool’ enough, another threatened to hit me, and a third offered my boyfriend a secret sexual relationship on the side. How did I respond to my so-called friends when they behaved like this? I made efforts to please them by trying to accommodate the new terms they were setting for our friendship, and even gave them elaborate, hand-made gifts! Similarly, even after relationship partners repeatedly cheated on me or engaged in other manipulative behaviors, I stayed with them until they decided to break my heart by moving on.

I think this history helps explain why when someone treats me with disrespect (or worse), my first reactions are to freeze and to doubt myself, thinking that I must have done something to deserve it. But such reactions are particularly problematic in the classroom, because when my students begin to perceive cracks in my authority, their bullying attempts quickly escalate. As a result, even students who aren’t bullies have complained that I seem to lack the personality of someone able to stay in control of the class.

Armed with the realization that my students’ behavior is triggering painful memories, my plan is to try to focus on the ways the current bullying situations differ from the earlier ones being brought to mind. I do not care if my students like me; I do not need them to like me. I completely reject the idea that only naturally dominant, extraverted people can be effective college professors worthy of respect. Regardless of whether any student perceives me as authoritative-looking, I actually HAVE authority over my class, in that no amount of bullying will stop me from grading each student according to my own standards. I am hoping that reminding myself of these facts will help me feel less flustered and self-blaming the next time students try to pressure me, and in turn, help me come across as more authoritative over time.

Not forgiving, but moving on

Many have suggested that forgiving my father would be a fundamental step in recovering from how he treated me. Of course my father is among those who have repeatedly tried to make this point with me, arguing that my failure to forgive him is yet another of my many self-sabotaging character flaws.

But I think the emphasis on forgiveness in our culture places an unfair and unnecessary burden on victims. Not forgiving doesn’t mean I am “stuck” in the past, on the contrary it means I am refusing to let my abuser continue to dictate the terms of our relationship. I am moving on by walking away.

An essay that I wrote about this, called “On not talking to my father” was published in an on-line magazine on 9/30/15, though apparently the link is now dead and the essay nowhere to be found. Since this piece was far too difficult for me to write to let it just disappear, I’m going to re-post it below. (I’ll remove it from here if the published version is restored, but I have no idea if that will ever happen.)

On not talking to my father

A few years ago, I decided to end my relationship with my father. I would still be polite to him at family gatherings, but would not engage in private conversations with him or read his e-mails. I told him I needed to set these limits because he had hurt me so badly growing up and had continued to say things that took a toll on me — and because I had come to realize he was never going to understand, feel sorry, or change.

His primary response was to become preoccupied with the question of whether or not I thought he was a monster, and also to become very insistent that he was not one. For months, he repeatedly went on rants about this to anyone in the family who would listen. From my perspective, the whole monster/non-monster question was irrelevant, but also more evidence of the futility of trying to mend things between us. He was trying to reduce the concerns I had expressed to a ridiculous caricature that could be readily dismissed, and to frame the impasse between us as if he were the one being victimized. Once I reassured him that he was not a monster, his concern about my decision to keep my distance from him subsided, and we went several years with only minimal contact.

My father’s anger is extreme and extraordinary. When he thinks that someone is doing something wrong, he becomes fixated on the idea that everything is about to be ruined, and becomes completely focused on getting this person to change his or her ways. Typically, this involves a loud stream of insults and expletives, accompanied by dramatic gestures. Once in a while he kicks or smashes and breaks something, cries, spits, threatens suicide, or suggests that the person making the infraction may as well kill themselves (since they’re ruining everything anyway). Afterward, he explains the whole incident in terms of something having made him “blow up,” as if he had little control of his actions once that something occurred. Over time I’ve come to realize that he doesn’t even remember most of these incidents or what had triggered them – because those memories are obscured by whatever is making him upset today. The current issue is the only one that matters, and it obliterates everything.

Apparently, sometime in childhood, I developed a habit of constantly doing things that could ruin everything. I got off to a bad start by not being born a boy, an extravert, or athletically talented — so when I came home in tears because I was being bullied in school, my father lashed out at me for not having been popular or tough enough to have won the bullies’ respect. I was also somehow incapable of writing a college-level paper at age 14, and while I had excellent grades, I never did anything that would make me a star. But I have to admit that some of the ways I most seriously disappointed my father were by choice – choosing to not to be interested in sports, wearing what my friends were wearing rather than styles my father would have found attractive, becoming a psychologist rather than a medical doctor, and so on. Often I was so oblivious to the objectionable nature of my choices that my father’s hateful reactions to them took me by surprise. One Sunday morning when I was about 8, I was quietly entertaining myself with a craft project when my father came into the room, grabbed my creation out of my hands and threw it away, shouting “What the fuck is this garbage?!!” Another odd violation I once made was to put sugar on my waffles rather than maple syrup. Suddenly my father was yelling at me that I was stupid and going to get fat and lose all my teeth — and my attempt to explain that maple syrup contains just as much sugar did not help matters. In fact, as I got older and tried harder to defend myself, he started mocking my voice in some exaggerated aristocratic tone, and saying that I might have friends if I didn’t act so uppity.

After his explosions I’d go to my room and cry — a lot. I found it very hard to stop crying, in part because I knew that what I was expected to do was to come out of my room and smile and act like nothing was wrong. Even just thinking about that would get me to start crying again, because it felt like having to betray myself. My father never physically bruised me, and in the presence of others he was the charming, actively involved parent many kids might wish they had. The brutality I experienced about twice a week for more than a decade seemed invisible to everyone else and I was determined to bear witness.

Often, after these incidents, my mother would tell me that I had to stop crying because it was making my father upset. A few times my mother started crying too, and said that since the rest of the family couldn’t treat each other decently, she wished she could just leave us and live on an island alone somewhere. I couldn’t even imagine losing her, and I was frightened and ashamed to think that in her eyes, I had done something to deserve that. When I was hospitalized for depression, anorexia, and suicidality at age 20, and a therapist confronted my mother with questions about abuse, she finally acknowledged that my father had been emotionally abusive to me. It meant a lot to hear her say that — but even then, she was quick to say that my father had never intended to hurt me. Apparently she had married a rare specimen of man-toddler who was capable of all kinds of intellectual accomplishments and other admirable things, but simply could not be expected to control the tantrums of the two-year-old inside him. She was trying to say, in other words, that he wasn’t a monster, but someone worthy of our care and helplessly in need of our patience.

Seeing my father’s cruelty as merely incidental to his good intentions kept me trapped in self-doubt. Why was I too stubborn or stupid or spiteful to be grateful for the intensity of my father’s commitment to my well-being? When I was in high school, he had cared enough about my future to tear up a several-inch-thick college guidebook with his hands and leave it at my place at the breakfast table where I would find it the next morning in the presence of a friend who was sleeping over. Just looking at that pile of torn pages, the conviction and rage required to have done that was obvious. It was as if he symbolically tore me to shreds to show me how wrecked and useless he could see me ending up if I kept failing to take his educational/occupational advice as seriously as it was intended. Perhaps my friend, who probably didn’t have a father who cared enough to leave a hand-shredded book at the breakfast table, should have felt jealous?

My father cared so much about me fulfilling his dreams that he was incapable of appreciating the person I actually was — and this did not make me feel grateful, it made me feel hurt and angry. Yet because my father continued to hurt me without intending to or even knowing that he did so, my anger was targetless and voiceless, much like the nightmares I still have in which I’m trying to yell and unable to make a sound. As I got older and saw friends grieve the loss of their parents, I started to wonder if I would someday be glad that I was continuing to try to understand and comfort my father after more than 40 years as the recipient of his oblivious disdain. But eventually I decided that the answer was no. Although I can’t predict how I’ll actually feel when he dies, I’ve come to realize that I have the right, as well as a need, to not maintain a relationship with him.

After several years of not talking, my father and I were recently forced to spend a lot of time together while waiting to visit another relative in intensive care. As I watched him try to exert control over several family members’ lives — and disrespect their own choices — I felt overwhelmed by emotions from the past, and told him so. His response was, “I know I wasn’t perfect as a parent. But as a psychologist, what do you advise a parent to do when they have a child who is like a drug addict, throwing her life away?” I was so stunned by his question that my response was incoherent. But I know what I’d say now. If I were advising the parent of a child with a serious psychological problem, I would suggest that the child get professional help – the thing he repeatedly prevented and dissuaded me from doing when I needed it. Moreover, what he views as me throwing my life away were just examples of me making age-appropriate choices that happened to differ from his own preferences.

The thing is, even though I knew by early adolescence that I often disagreed with my father and the tactics he used to teach me lessons, I absorbed his lessons anyway. What he taught me is that I am undeserving, selfish, stupid, ugly, backwards, uppity, friendless, crazy, and unable to trust my own judgment. Not talking to my father hasn’t erased those basic views of myself, but it has definitely been a step in the right direction.

Finally the shades are raised

Over the last several weeks I’ve been trying to finish an essay that is expected to be published in the near future, about my decision to stop talking to my father. Working on this essay made my recurring nightmares about him much more frequent and intense, so I hope it will be worth it.

At the risk of stating the obvious: Pearl Jam songs have been one of my main sources of comfort for over 20 years. I was first drawn in by how much I could relate to the heartbreak expressed in “Black,” a staple of the radio station I listened to in the early 90’s. But when I first saw the band perform on Saturday Night Live in 1994, they did a pair of songs about childhood abuse that took my breath away  – and I still can’t watch that performance of “Rearviewmirror” without getting chills.

Verbal/emotional abuse and neglect were a routine part of my upbringing – but there was never any physical or sexual violence, and with my parents’ encouragement my sister and I were very well-behaved, high-achieving kids. I never felt like I had the right to my real story and these songs helped clarify it for me in a way that nothing ever had before: my father’s cruelty to me had hurt me irreparably, and the futility of continuing to trying to please him was still hurting me. Though it took me another 20 years to say it, eventually I did tell my father: Don’t call me.

“Daughter” tells of a young girl striving to be worthy of her parent’s admiration. But behind the clean pretty façade of this family life, there’s something wrong. The lyrics can’t seem to decide whether it is the parent or the daughter who is unworthy (“unfit”) to claim their relationship with the other, and the daughter is apparently trapped by this same confusion, as she holds the hand that holds her down. As the song ends, the shades go down, both hiding her suffering and leaving her in darkness.

“Rearviewmirror” describes someone who left an abuser behind, and saw things clearer as a result. “I gather speed from you fucking with me… Once and for all I’m far away… hardly believe, finally the shades are RAISED.”


Breaking news: Invisible injuries can hurt for real

Compared to experiencing physical and/or sexual abuse, experiencing psychological abuse is associated with later problems at equal or higher rates, according to a relatively recent research article that I read this morning (Spinazzola et al., 2014). Reading this made me feel better, for a brief moment, and I had to think about why that might be. Certainly this isn’t good news, or even “new” news. But I think at least for me, part of the cruelty of psychological abuse is the ability of the perpetrator and everyone else to claim that no “real” abuse is taking place.

When I was first hospitalized in the late 1980s, I faced pressure from my treatment team to recall repressed memories of sexual abuse, and I consider myself extremely lucky that I was unable to come up with any. During these years, the idea that patients with symptoms like mine would have had to have been sexually abused — and could only really recover if they remembered and told the stories of what had happened to them — contributed to unprecedented frequency and severity of accusations, retractions, and lawsuits that tore families and individuals apart. Therapists of this period were making a well-intentioned over-correction for the long history of ignoring sexual abuse in the field and in broader society, but lacking sufficient understanding of how suggestion can influence memories, they harmed patients in the process. Notably, alongside this trend was the fundamental assumption that in the absence of any physical/sexual events, psychological abuse alone could not explain severe symptoms like mine.

Consistent with this assumption, I meet all the diagnostic criteria for PTSD except for one really crucial one. According to official diagnostic rules, psychological abuse without a physical or sexual component does not “count” as a trauma. Though I otherwise appear to have PTSD, I’ve never experienced a qualifying ‘T,’ so I don’t. It took me years to realize that I was being (psychologically) abused  and (small ‘t’) traumatized. It took me even longer to stop feeling like too much of an exaggerator/impostor to use those words in describing my own life.

What I felt this morning suggests that to some extent I still do feel like an exaggerator/impostor when using those words. Because after all this time it somehow meant a lot to me to hear that a research study confirmed what I’ve always known but not always been able to defend:  psychological abuse can hurt for real.


Spinazzola et al.(2014):

Another new study on this topic:

Vachon et al. (2015):