Thursday, March 09, 2006

How Much Wallowing is Cathartic?

Helen Reynolds writes in light of actress Teri Hatcher's revelation of being subjected to abuse as a child:
I'm sorry, but is Terri Hatcher being sexually abused as a child really "breaking news?" As a psychologist, I deal with people who have been sexually abused. Is it hard on them, difficult to deal with, devastating at times? Yes, it can be (or not), but is publicizing all of the victimhood really a good way to help those who have been sexually abused? And frankly, from Oprah to Ms. Hatcher to Angela Shelton, it seems like everyone owns up to some abuse at some point. I can't help but feel this play for victimhood is not a good way to promote healing for the sexually abused.
She then goes on to describe her observations of a support group in which persons who were subjected to abuse repeatedly rehearsed their past pains before the rest of the group. "I observed a number of sessions," Dr. Helen says, "but noted that no one ever seemed to be getting better--in fact, some seemed to be getting worse--and I decided then and there that the way sex abuse victims were handled and the emphasis on victimhood was not the answer."

I think that Reynolds is onto something.

As a pastor who does some counseling and who works in concert with psychotherapists seeing people I refer to them, I agree with Reynolds. Far too much emphasis is placed these days on revisiting and regurgitating past pains in the process of healing. The results are often far from cathartic. In fact, such methods many times result in an unhealthy dependence on the painful episodes for getting attention or worse, establishing a personal identity. People adopt the identity of victim and either repeat victim scenarios in their lives or have such an attitude of resentment toward everybody that they torpedo all of their significant relationships, careers, and other personal pursuits.

They become embodiments of the lines from the old Carly Simon song: "Suffering was the only thing that made me feel I was alive/ Thought that's just how much it cost to survive in this world."

A friend of mine once dated a woman who had been in therapy for something like fifteen years. She had evidently been the victim of some sexual abuse as a child, always a tragedy. But having identified that experience and the difficulties it had caused her, she showed no inclination for learning from it and moving on with her life. Instead, she went from therapist to therapist, finding new docs on whom to dump her story. She was totally "stuck," as they say, and was perfectly content to stay there. She apparently derived too much in the way of attention and a sense of personal identity from her experience of abuse to let it go.

My friend loved this woman and wanted desperately to build a life with her. But for years, she told him that she simply wasn't ready. In the end, she and my friend broke up. She was too intent on living in the past to allow herself to be happy.

Sometimes, our society encourages permanent victimhood, it seems.

Writes Reynolds:
I am not downplaying the emotional upheaval that can be caused by sexual abuse, but I disagree with the methods that our society uses to deal with sexual abuse. A person who has been abused often gets the message, if not directly, then indirectly, that they are "damaged goods" or that this one event in their life defines them in some way. Or that if they do not feel pain, vulnerability and damage from the experience, then they must be repressing something. My concern is how to help people overcome sexual abuse experiences and get better, not how to help them wallow in victimhood. If the mute patient in the group therapy session I described above is any example of how one should deal with sexual abuse, by offering victimhood as a lifestyle, then count me out. I would rather see people heal and move on.
Amen to that! Abuse shouldn't be swept under the metaphorical carpet, of course. (That's why I think that it's a good thing when sexual abuse in the Church is dealt with, as is happening today.) But once sources of difficulty or pain are identified in a person's life, the task should be on changing the present and the future, not on wallowing in the past.

The Carly Simon song I mentioned earlier is, of course, Haven't Got Time for the Pain. It ends with these lines, presumably addressed to a lover: showed me how, how to fill my heart with love
How to open up and drink in all that white LIGHT
Pouring down from the heaven
I haven't got time for the pain
I haven't got room for the pain
I haven't the need for the pain
Not since I've known you
Frankly, as a follower of Jesus Christ, I can identify with those words. The New Testament says that Jesus is "the light of the world" and that the darkness of this world cannot overcome Him. Jesus also says of Himself that if the Son sets you free, then "you are free indeed."

I believe that when people allow the grace of God to flood into their lives, understanding that they're the beneficiaries of God's self-sacrificing love and approval, healing begins to happen. Over time, as they prayerfully surrender to Christ, they experience freedom from their past and their victimhood. Eventually, graciously, they learn that they truly haven't got time for the pain any more.

UPDATE: Charlie has some interesting reflections on why "victimhood" has become so popular. It presents those who have been victimized the opportunity to feel part of something bigger than themselves (i.e., a group of fellow victims). In that sense, it fills a spiritual void created by feeling distant from God. Charlie writes incitefully (make sure you go to the comments and read the whole thing):
Where else can we find liberation from the past and a future of promise except in Christ? The victimhood movement is often a sign of how disconnected we've become as a modern society from the God who loves us and the power of the cross.
Charlie has one of my favorite blogs and writes incredible stuff!


Mark said...

Perhaps they're just misreading Paul's injunction in Romans to "celebrate" their suffering. ;)

Charlie said...

An interesting post, Mark. All of us have a powerful inner need to belong to a community, not only because we're relational, but because it also gives us a way to answer the question "who am I?" The answer might be something like "I'm a child of a God who loves me." But "victimhood" is really just a way of being able to identify with a group that understands and loves me unconditionally. I can then answer the big question by saying "I'm a survivor of X."

So, I think some of this victimhood thing comes from people searching to fill the spiritual void in their lives and find significance.

When children are abused by adults -- and as you know, that abuse can take a great many forms -- it does leave scars, and I'm of the opinion that there comes a point where those experiences need to be dealt with. Speaking personally, I needed to forgive my father for certain things, and I needed to find ways to see myself through the loving eyes of God rather than the angry eyes of my father.

I see that sort of work as being part of the transformative art of the Holy Spirit in us, and his goal is to move us past that hurt to the future God has planned for us... a Jeremiah 29:11 sort of future.

Where else can we find liberation from the past and a future of promise except in Christ? The victimhood movement is often a sign of how disconnected we've become as a modern society from the God who loves us and the power of the cross.