When my client sits before me and tells me of her regret for not being an adequate mother and protecting her child from those who bullied her at school some ten years ago, after asking permission, I hold one of her hands and say,
“Let’s assume the regrets you hold are being held in this hand.”
Then I let go of the “regret” hand and I ask her permission to take hold of the other hand, and ask,
“I am hearing you tell of your regrets and the expectations you held towards yourself at the time, but I am not hearing you tell of your limitations. What were the limitations that existed for you as a mother ten years ago at the time?”
Limitations need to be accounted for in our experiences.
Limitations are the experiences, resources, education, age and the level of sophistication that existed for us at the time any incident took place.
It is amazing how many people proclaim they regret not having protected their mother from the abuse they witnessed she went through, and how relentless they are in beating themselves up for not doing better in their protection of her.
They have never before considered the next question I ask of them, which is, what limitations existed for you at the time?
The limitations they express to me, given this example, are usually the age they were at when they were witness to the incident. She may tell me that she was six-years-old, yet still she regrets not having intervened on her mother’s behalf.
Even when I say, “That’s a big expectation to place on a six-year-old, don’t you think?” she may still not be convinced and hold it that the six-year-old should have had the wherewithal to support the mother – as if it would have made a difference.
It is only when I confront her with the question, “Would you put the same expectations on your own child – therefore why would you hold the same expectations towards the six year old within you?” that he or she usually begins to reconsider years and years of relentless self-anger for not meeting unrealistic expectations.
Naming and owning our limitations are an essential part of our recovery and the movement towards self-forgiveness.
Moving in the direction of self-forgiveness involves owning our abuses, our transgressions and the transference of our issues onto others to the extent that others’ lives were impaired, as well as paying the price or penance due in the ownership of any of these issues. At the same time, it asks that we move beyond unmitigated regret, that we take into account the limitations that existed for us at the time.
As I hold the “limitations” hand of my client, she tells me of the limitations that existed at the times her daughter suffered schoolyard abuse. She tells me she was bullied herself at school when she was a child, that the bullying was relentless and lasted well into her teenage years.
During these times, nobody ever helped or supported her, despite the fact she appealed often to her alcoholic parents to intervene. But they never did, too consumed were they with the drama of their drinking.
So when her daughter came home asking her to help with her bullying issue, she literally froze, and instead told her daughter nonchalantly, that these things happen at school and it will pass over time.
She has already acknowledged the inappropriateness of that statement and other similar statements she was to make with regards to her daughter’s bullying. This was held in the “regret” hand.
But the “limitations” hand held the other truths, that when her daughter petitioned her, she panicked, and re-visited her own unresolved terror of her own past.
I take her “regret” hand, and I hold both hands in mine and tell her, “Now, for the first time, you are fully representing all of who you were around this experience.”
We talk of the need to name the times she moves into regret and self-anger around this issue, and always to counter it by giving equal voice to the limitations that also existed at the time.
We discuss her penance. Of finding the courage to take responsibility for the inadequacy of parenting and support for her daughter’s bullying at the time, to offer her daughter the apologies due to her, listen to her anger, sadness and disappointment were they to arise. But also to tell her about her mother’s bullying history and how this played a part in the choices she made at the time. (Read more on Penance.)
“This is not an excuse,” I tell her, “It is an opportunity to represent all of who you are, and to give your daughter the opportunity to understand your fallibility as well, to give her a window for forgiveness towards you.”
Acknowledging our limitations involves owning that we were perhaps too young, that we were not given appropriate modeling growing up to deal with certain issues in the most appropriate ways, that we were under our own stresses and pressures, that they perhaps happened when we weren’t happy at the time.
There are a myriad of feelings, experiences and truths that may have contributed to our limitations. These are not meant to replace the need to take responsibility for our transgressions. If we were to acknowledge only the limitation and not be willing to take responsibility, then the limitation becomes a mere excuse, and you take the risk of being seen as being too defensive.
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