“The quality of mercy is not strain’d. It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven upon the place beneath.”
—William Shakespeare, “The Merchant of Venice”
There was a woman in my therapy group at Hennepin County Day Treatment who was one of the kindest and most insightful people I’ve ever met. Sue was comforting and compassionate to everyone in the group and we all loved her. She saw to the heart of every issue. She could speak not only in the language of the rational, but also the poetry of the heart. Except when she spoke of herself and her own pain. She talked about how she was afraid that she couldn’t be a good mother or wife, that all the problems of her marriage and her family were her fault because she was incapable of love, that she was cold, unlovable, damaged goods.
She talked easily about her childhood, and her father, who had abused her sexually when she was 10. She had convinced herself that that too was her fault. That she should have been stronger or more vocal or somehow able to fend him off. Like a prosecutor making legal points, she would rationalize the situation, explain it to us, show us step-by-step how her abuse was her own fault. Nothing we could do or say would convince her of her innocence or her helplessness. This woman who gave us so much kindness and mercy, was unable to give herself that same gift. When speaking about herself, she transformed into some scary character out of Charles Dickens. She coldly judged the powerless little girl she once had been.
Like me, like so many of us, the barrier to healing she kept butting up against wasn’t her pain or trauma, but her own judgment against herself. Her belief in her weakness. Her self-cruelty.
At one particular group, Diane, our amazing group leader, asked about her eleven-year-old son and what Sue would do if someone ever attacked or abused him. “What would you do to punish Shane? Would you ground him or take away his toys? What would be an appropriate punishment for this weak kid that allowed himself to be hurt so badly?”
Sue, of course, replied that nobody would punish him. “What are you talking about? He’s just a kid. A little kid doesn’t have that kind of control! It wouldn’t be his fault…” And she stopped, and she sat there, and thought. And she began to cry.
We held her and let her cry for her sadness and grief that her father had done this brutal thing to her. For her mother turning away and allowing this brutality. For her son, knowing that he too would have pain and loss in his life, no matter how much she loved him or tried to protect him. And for herself, for how much cruelty and pain she had given herself in her own self-judgment. Sue wasn’t weak, she hadn’t done anything wrong. On the contrary, she was wise and strong. She had not-so-simply been a little girl who had been abused by her father. A father she still loved. And it was the love for her son that helped her to see the burden she was carrying.
Many of us are so good at blaming, rationalizing and explaining our pain, but not so good at actually feeling it. Feeling pain is much harder. Because when we open that closet, it hurts so badly we feel broken, incapable of and beyond love. That hurts even more.
Time doesn’t heal all wounds, love does. Where the problem comes is when we feel the most broken, the most unworthy of love—that’s when we need it the most. As hard as it is, as tough a habit as it is to break, we must forgive ourselves, stop blaming ourselves, show mercy to ourselves, love ourselves. We’ve hurt long enough. We’ve done our time, served our sentence. It’s time to go home. We deserve it.