Friday, December 29, 2006

a story heard before

It was a story I'd heard many times before.

This person I met with grew up in a home with a father who was an alcoholic, a man who was physically, emotionally, and sexually abusive to all the children in the home. And the mother who had to have known something, but who has consistently denied ever seeing anything inappropriate happen in the home.

Awful, brutal stuff. But like I said, I'd heard it many times before.

So what struck me today was not so much the story, but the fact that I had heard the story so many times. Different variations of it, of course. Different perpetrators, different outcomes, different victims. Different ways of coping with the trauma. But always the common denominator of pain, of anger. Of a sense of having been damaged or flawed by what they went through.

I've heard the story so many times.

I also see some commonalities in how it affects people now. Their difficulties with being vulnerable, for instance. How they will withdraw or lash out rather than having to feel powerless, rejected, or defective. And often their experiences cause them to choose people who now treat them poorly. But sometimes they have otherwise loving people in their lives who are puzzled at how a relatively benign protest caused such a reaction.

I've heard it so many times that I sometimes wonder if I sometimes become a little deaf to the pain I'm hearing, if I want to jump forward and discuss things like improving their insight into what's happening inside of themselves, distinguishing reactions based on past experiences from what's going on in their lives now, diminishing the power of the self-criticism inside of themselves.

All good things to discuss, I'm know. But sometimes I wonder if my rush to discuss them has to do with where I want to go more (wheren I'm comfortable staying, emotionally) than what they're wanting at that moment.

As human beings, we are designed to experience empathy. When we hear others in pain, our "mirror neurons" (yes, they're actually called that) start firing and we experience something similar. It is, perhaps, the basis of compassion. But for those of us in the healing professions (therapists, pastors, etc.), this means a certain emotional bombardment -- story after story of pain, abuse, anger, betrayal, loss. I think we develop a kind of emotional distance that we need to be able to do our job, a kind of buffer zone perhaps.

I also think it may be why it is so important for us to actively nurture peace within ourselves, through meditation, prayer, and exercise. It has to be a priority or our jobs will overwhelm us.

6 comments:

more cows than people said...

So how do you nurture peace within yourself, Steve? Do you find it difficult to make this a priority?

I so appreciate your reflections.

Peace to you and yours.

steve said...

more cows,

Sadly, I do struggle to make it the priority it deserves to be. I too easily let things get in the way, am too easily drawn into thinking about what I have to do next.

But when I can, I try to slow down, to make every small thing I do peaceful. Whether it is giving my sons a bath, walking down the hallway, or just sitting still and breathing. "Embodied peace," I think you called it. I hope to do this more and more.

more cows than people said...

I could have sworn I posted a comment in response to your comment. I'll try again. I asked, Steve, because I too struggle to make nurturing peace within a priority- I've been noticing climing anxiety of late- and was looking for your wisdom on the matter... I had 20 minutes or so before our vespers service tonight to sit still and breathe and it was wonderful.

may peace find you in 2007.

steve said...

more cows,

Sorry blogger seems to be giving us fits lately. I sometimes find that by the time I've composed a comment, the "word verification" thing is no longer valid (i.e., I need to enter it again when the new screen appears). I'm also curious whether there might be any struggles between the old version of blogger and the updated one. I recently updated to the new version, and I noticed you seem to have commented more about this difficulty since then.

Anyway...I was thinking some more about the whole anxiety thing. In addition to trying to balance the anxiety in my life with moments of peace, I think the other thing I try to do is to keep my head in the right place. For instance, it is helpful to me if I work to avoid a certain kind of perfectionism (and the accompanying judgmentalism that if it's not perfect it's not worthwhile). Also, I try to set limits compassionately but firmly with people. Finally, I work on making sure I'm not taking responsibility for "fixing" other people's problems (especially at my work). That has to be their responsibility, and even if I can do the work for them, they haven't really benefitted that much (they'll just rely on me to do it for them again the next time).

Oh, and I also try to make sure that I have people in my life that I can open up to about what's bothering me. Just sharing it and getting their support is often very helpful.

Anyway, I don't know how much of that is helpful to you, but those are the things I try to keep an eye on.

Take care, friend. Many blessings and prayers for peace -- inside our hearts and in our world.

more cows than people said...

your thoughts are all helpful-- your strategies are things i particularly struggle with- perfectionism, setting limits, taking too much responsibility for other people's stuff- no wonder i live with so much anxiety so often.

ah well. i'll keep working on letting it go...

so what's the benefit in switching to the new blogger? i can't quite figure out whether or why to bother.

if it makes commenting easier maybe i should.

you've been quiet for a few days. hope all is well with you.

Alex said...

I remember this feeling of exhausted numbness while working as a hospice chaplain. Great post.