Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Permission to Heal

Recently, I’ve been noticing how often we covertly and probably unconsciously seek permission from others where we are the only ones with the authority to grant ourselves permission- to be ourselves, to live our lives, to acknowledge our wounds, to heal.

A few weeks ago, a wise man whose knowledge of the human heart and psyche I value greatly, said to me, “You know, it’s a testament to the human spirit that, given your early wounding in life, you are not mad.”

I was surprised and alarmed. Surely my early wounds are no worse than most and not as bad as many. Seeing my confusion he assumed the word “mad” needed some explanation and talked about the ways madness manifests in modern life (addiction, disassociation, the inability to be in relationship, make a living, raise a family etc.)

But I’d understood what he meant by madness and, although I am all too familiar with my own neuroses, I’m generally pretty functional. I've done my therapy and other forms of psychological work and like to think I am pretty well known to myself.

What stunned me, and no doubt caused the deer-in-the-headlights look to which he was responding, was the implication that my childhood wounds were severe. I’d taken my ability to function in the world as evidence that these wounds were relatively slight. No, that’s not true. I had seen- been taught to see- my childhood as relatively free from any serious wounding and had used my ability to cope with life as evidence that this mythology was factually true.

Somehow the implication that I had suffered severe wounding as a child, coming from someone who knew many of my childhood stories, set off my inner alarm bells. And that got me wondering: Why? If I was so certain that I’d had a “normal” childhood (whatever that means) why did this implication feel so dangerous? I suddenly felt the urge to poll my friends on parental abuse, neglect, neuroses and psychoses to gauge how serious my wounds were. Again the question was: Why? Rationally I know that comparing heart and soul wounds to determine whose are “severe” and whose are “fair to middling” or “slight” is not particularly useful and potentially harmful. Although some forms of neglect and abuse are clearly worse than others, on the whole there is no “objective” scale that determines how much harm is done because there are countless factors that affect the depth of the wound (parental intention, other support, age of the child, personality traits, cultural context etc.) I also know that loving parents, doing their best, make mistakes that affect their children because they are human beings.

But I was suspicious of my own reactivity. Why all the fancy inner footwork to reassure myself that this man, as wise as he was, was mistaken about my past? Why such a charged response of alarm and confusion? Because, his acknowledgement of the stories I had shared gave me an opening I didn’t really want. It was a question of permission. Was I going to give myself permission to recognize the depth of my own wounding? I could feel my fear. Could I? Should I? Who should I ask? I don’t want to create a victim identity and/or blame my parents for not being more conscious or able to cope with the demands of child-rearing than they had been. I don’t want to wallow in the wounds of the past. Wow- can you hear the fear, denial and misrepresentation of the healing process in that statement!?

Here’s where it’s tempting to misuse spiritual teachings and practices, pushing for premature acceptance and forgiveness before the harm done has been fully acknowledged within. I’ve often warned those studying or doing ceremony with me that they cannot use the spiritual life to avoid psychological work. Jeff Brown, author of Soulshaping, calls the effort to do just this, a spiritual bypass. It won’t work. But that doesn’t keep us from sometimes giving it a try. And if your spirituality overtly or covertly tends toward simplistic magical thinking (ie- if I think it is so I will make it so, even retroactively) there’s even more incentive to avoid acknowledging past trauma in the hopes that denial will just dissolve the whole thing. This is not rational, but even those of us who do not include this kind of thinking in our spiritual understanding or practice may be susceptible to it if the things we want to deny happened when we were young. Children tend to have an inflated sense of their own power to cause things to happen. If stepping on a crack will break my mother’s back surely thinking the most powerful people in my world- my parents- are doing something harmful, tempts disaster.

No one else can tell us how deeply events in our childhood have affected our psyches and shaped our present strategies in life. We have to discover this for ourselves, although we rarely do it alone. A good guide or teacher or psychotherapist is invaluable. But at some point, we are the only ones who can give ourselves permission to see what was and is true- without trying to preserve our family mythologies or protect our ideas about our parents, without worrying about what will happen next. This takes faith because it’s pretty natural to fear that uncovering old wounds will lead to bad things. What if we discover we are wounded beyond healing? What if digging up this stuff buried in our bodies and unconscious makes us collapse in a permanent puddle of pain?

I have faith that healing really can happen when we can give ourselves permission to see and feel the depth of our own sorrow. You can’t heal a wound you don’t even know is there (even as it is directing and effecting many of your choices) and wounds don’t heal without cleaning them out- physically or with the light of consciousness. Permission to acknowledge our wounding is just one of the many things we need to do to consciously receive the gift of a human life- and only we can give ourselves this permission.


  1. Wow, you handled that so beautifully. What you said resonates deep, deep within me and I believe what you say can help so many on their journey to wholeness. As we give ourselves permission to heal and summon the COURAGE to look at our pasts honestly, offering ourselves the time, love and attention we all so deserve, we truly set ourselves free, opening to endless possibilities. Our connection to spirituality enhances this process, but ultimately does not replace it. thank you for your wisdom today, Laurel

  2. Thanks for this Oriah. I always used to say that I had a happy childhood- but then why was I so unhappy? I think admitting that it was less than perfect would have shattered me. Also, I was very harsh in my criticism of anyone who would look at their childhood- I believed that it was self indulgent. It was only as I got older (and after therapy) that I was able to realize that my journey is my journey- and that, guess what?- much of the attitudes I grew up with were corrosive and damaging. There were some very good reasons that I and my sibling hurt and sought out destructive behaviour. I learned that by understanding our childhoods we are not looking for blame- only for understanding. I can't tell you how liberating it was to examine what made me who I am, and also that I have the ability to change the way I see myself. It feels like a weight has been lifted off my shoulders and I can choose to be a happy conscious person. Now that I have children of my own, I worry that I have or will unconsciously damage their psyches- but I tell myself that I can only do the best that I can do- and that they will have to make their own paths in this world. The best I can do as their mother is to love them with all my heart. And I do.

  3. What an interesting post, and the words that originated it. All my life I've been telling myself that I've had a good childhood, as I wasn't abused and didn't come from a broken home. But the wounds were still there, and most of my life - including several years in therapy - I didn't acknowledge the depth of those wounds, as "I'd had a good childhood". In fact, I trivialised the wounds, taking the blame for my reaction to them instead of turning into a victim. And it's only in recent years that I've been able to acknowledge them, begin to see and honour the depth of those wounds without making myself a victim and without really blaming my parents. Yes, they did things that ended up leaving me hurt, but they didn't do it out of ill will or spite. And they were never responsible for my choices, for my decades of self-destructive behaviours - I did that myself. So I have been able to accept and understand so much of my old wounds, heal them and grow as I move on in life.

    But - it's not over. There are still wounds that I'm only beginning to become aware of, and exploring them enough to gauge the depth and extent of them is no easy task. These are the wounds that affect me today, so it's only natural that I didn't pay any attention to them before. I only permit myself to see them now because it's time to learn, acknowledge, react, accept and heal. There are no shortcuts.

    And you are so right in that spiritual practice doesn't mean I can avoid the psychological processes of permitting myself to experience my past in order to move on from it. Sometimes, a therapist or guide is necessary.

  4. Thank you.

    A Chilean proverb says, "Only clean wounds can heal."

    The author of Harry Potter in a speech to a graduating group of college seniors said, "There is an expiration date to blame our parents."

    You are starlight.

    Thank you.


  5. Dear Oriah,

    Your book "The Invitation" literally saved my life on Earth.

    Now, after an eternity of frustration, your sage words manifest at the exact moment when I was about to embark on a psychic opioid approach of freezing my past out of my picture.

    Your words evoked a deep, massive, resonant fear in me. A true signal that work needs to be done - that chamber of pain needs me to walk inside and to start cleaning.

    I am one of very many who owe you a great debt of gratitude. You touch us in myriad ways.

    A bounty to you, Peter.

  6. Peter, thank you for taking the time to comment- I love it when the timing is right! Oriah

  7. Hmmm, lately I have been having a strong reaction to my boyfriend (whom I love deeply) brushing his leg against me, either casually as we are watching a show or reading together on the sofa. It is intense, I feel like screaming at him "dont touch me"!, and this surprises me and scares, because I do really love him, and he is amazing.

    I know where the reaction comes from, in an attempted "family salvage" trip a few years ago I had the same reaction towards my father.

    I also don't want to turn whatever happened at childhood, which I so beautifully blocked, into a drama moment now, or feel sorry for myself, blame the parents or anything like that, I know I am an adult, I really want to get on with life.

    Accepting that what happened was big is intense, makes me feel like I am overreacting, but perhaps giving myself permission might be a way to begin the healing process I so want.

    I will try it.

  8. Vikki Behrends BittnerMarch 27, 2010 at 10:23 AM

    I wish I would have found The Invitation many many years ago.Although I'm not sure it would have had the same impact on me that is has now. My daughter is wise beyond her 18 years, and I have given it to her......hoping that she will use it, when the time comes to find a life partner. Sometimes your writings scare me because they cause me to feel SO much, but then I believe that perhaps it's time I began feeling, instead of locking things away in my private "deal with this later" chamber, which has gotten very crowded over the years. Thank you for keeping this site, for your works and your wonderful, teaching words.

  9. Hi Oriah, I just found your blog, and I'm so glad I did. This post in particular hits home with me. People often make this very comment to me about my childhood. And I agree that there is certainly no scale to measure intensity of things like trauma and normalcy. I suppose some things might be overtly abusive to most people and therefore 'scaled' in some way.
    Your point about Denial is also so very important. So many people never fully acknowledge pain that they have incurred or inflicted due to this mechanism-it is indeed a form of severe dishonesty. Some psychologists and specialists in this area say that if they hadn't already been taught that the love of money is the root of all evil, that they would naturally believe that Denial is!
    Anyway, thank you for a wonderful post, and I love that poem on your main page.

  10. What a thought provoking post!
    "Spiritual bypass"...I believe that life does not allow us to skip lessons. When we do, life has a way of stopping us and regressing us back to pick up the necessary wisdom, then lets us leap ahead. When life stops us to regress us, it's often a hard way to learn the lesson.
    As far as healing old wounds/wishing them to dissolve; I've been there. There are some extraordinary experiences I've had that I turnedto regular to cope within them, yet when I share them with people they are astounded I "survived". When I see their reaction, that makes me feel my wounds were worse than I previously considered, so I try not to absorb that emotion from others. I know everything happens for a reason and brings me to this point, and I use Faith to step forwrd while I heal.
    Thank you for sharing as you do; your writing is very inspirational and I share it with those in my blogging community and in my life.

  11. Oriah,

    When we are READY to feel, see and acknowledge the depth of our sorrow and wounds, we will--it will happen. It is an unconscious process. It was for me.

    A wonderful post. Thank you.

  12. I think you are right about it being a largely unconscious process- (ie- we can't make it happen) but we can signal to our unconscious that we are willing (paying attention to dreams, symptoms, making time for contemplation) and do things (therapy, self-care, spiritual work) that help us get ready.