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Ending the Guilt, Blame and Self-Torture

Dear Suzie, About 18 months ago, I went to my best friend’s bachelorette party in Las Vegas. I got drunk and ended up having oral sex with one of the male strippers. I told my husband about it the very next day. He’s already forgiven me and begged me to let it go, but I just can’t seem to do it. I am the last person anyone would think would do something like that. I feel so dirty, so guilty, and so filled with self-loathing. Every time I think of what I did, I feel like throwing up. Now the shame and guilt has gotten to a point where it’s ruining everything in my life, my work and my marriage. I know I need to let it go, but how do I get past the fact that I did something so dirty?

Your situation reminds me of a story.

One day, a woman called up a therapist on the phone and said “I don’t think you can help me. I really don’t deserve to be helped because no matter what I do, I can’t seem to stop sleeping with married men.” To which the therapist said… “Thank you for sharing your opinion, but why don’t you wait to hear mine?” “Well,” continued the caller, “when I was six years old, my older brother began molesting me, sexually used me like a sex object until I was seventeen. Every time he came into my bedroom at night, I would lay there frozen with fear. I felt dirty, inferior, inadequate, and ashamed. But I was too afraid to tell anyone because I knew they would know it was my fault. Every night while he was doing those things to me, I used to pray to God to send the Archangel Michael to save me.”

“But God never answered.”

“As soon as I could, I got a job away from home so I wouldn’t have to deal with it anymore. I hoped that having a job would give me back some self-respect. I got a job in a corporate office doing secretarial things like filing and typing. Soon after I began working there, I met one of the partners in the company who was several years older than me and married. Before I knew it, I was sleeping with him in the office after hours. At first, it was exciting and I felt wanted. But soon, it became shameful and I became frozen with terror on the nights I had to go to work. Eventually, it all got to be too much, and so I quit that job. But I still kept seeing the married man, even though I felt ashamed, inferior, indecent, and embarrassed. So then, I thought that maybe if I got a college degree, it would give me a feeling of self-respect, so I went away to college.”

“But the same thing happened again.”

“This time, it was married professors and the men who would hire me for part-time secretarial work. When I finished college, it became clear to me that even a four-year degree wasn’t enough to give me a feeling of respect. So I went back for a master’s degree. But that didn’t work either.”

“All throughout this time, I found myself in one extramarital relationship after another. Married man after married man kept propositioning me, and I never felt like I could resist. You would think that with all the screwing around I was doing, it was for the fun of it. But it wasn’t.”

“For me, sex is a horrible experience because I don’t like men.”

“I find them threatening. Their bodies are hairy and ugly. But even though I feel like filth, I still have sex with them whenever they ask me to. It’s like I have no will of my own. Once a man propositions me, I get helpless and weak and passive. Today, I can honestly tell you that I have never had a relationship with a man who wasn’t committed to somebody else. At this point, I feel like I don’t deserve anything else. I called you because it’s over the phone and I don’t ever have to meet you. I’m so ashamed and embarrassed.”

After listening…

Here’s what the therapist said:

“So far, you’ve told me a very unhappy story. And yet, it’s not just the facts of your story that make it so unhappy. What makes it most unhappy is how fiercely you cling to it. You tell me that when married men proposition you, you can’t resist. You tell me that your resistance is weak. You tell me that you are afraid of men and find them ugly and threatening. By your own diagnosis, you say your problem is that you have a weak resistance, but I disagree with your diagnosis. I don’t believe your resistance is weak. I believe the opposite is true.”

“You have incredible amounts of resistance.”

“Think about it…

“In all this time, you’ve managed to resist healing. You’ve managed to resist changing. You’ve resisted letting go of your sad childhood story. You’ve resisted doing things that make you feel good about yourself. You’ve resisted opportunities to find and date available men. You also say you don’t get any pleasure in what you’ve been doing. I’m not so sure because as far as I can see, you have taken great pleasure in resisting change. This is why, in my opinion, your main problem is that when it comes to diagnosing your own problems, you’ve done it backwards.

“Your resistance isn’t weak. It’s STRONG.

“It takes a lot of strength and a lot of resistance to keep on doing things that make you unhappy. And it takes a lot of self-deception to pretend you’re not in control. For example, you know how to control your legs don’t you? You know how to move them up and how to move them down so you can walk. And you know how to open them and how to close them.”

“It makes me wonder…

“Why go out of your way to resist closing them at the appropriate times? And that also makes me wonder; what else could you go out of your way to resist doing if you really wanted to? For example, could you go out of your way to resist clinging to that sad childhood story? And how about going out of your way to resist dragging the memory of that pathetic brother around with you? And could you go out of your way to resist the pressure to remain passive?

“You say sex brings you no pleasure.”

“So, why not take your own pleasure in resisting the habit of feeling guilty, dirty, or ashamed when you’re in bed with a man? Why not take pleasure in controlling your own legs? Why not take pleasure in saying no? I’m going to hang up the phone now. I suggest you try and see if you can resist thinking about what I have told you. If you can resist doing that, then call me and tell me about it.”

He never heard from her again.

So, what was the point of that story?

Well, here it is:

The therapist realized that like so many, the caller was looking at her situation from the wrong angle. And her upside down way of looking had not led to a solution, but rather, had kept her stuck in the problem. So by helping her to “re-frame” or look at her situation from another perspective (showing her that her resistance is strong not weak), he was able to help her see new solutions.

I think when it comes to handling guilt and shame, a similar strategy is needed. Because you (like so many others) are also looking at the situation in a backwards way. And that keeps you stuck in the problem, rather than moving towards a solution.

What’s backwards about the way you’re looking at your situation?

Here it is:

You believe that your pain, shame, and suffering are being caused by the events that took place on the night of your friend’s bachelorette party. But I’m here to tell you, that’s not true. It’s not what happened that is making you feel guilty. But rather, it’s the story you have told yourself about why what happened, happened.

In other words…

It’s not the event. It’s the meaning (the story) you’ve created about the “event” that continues to cause your misery. At first, most people have a hard time grasping this concept (because most have it backwards). And yet, once they get it, it has a way of changing their whole lives.

So. how could the guilt be caused by the story and not the event?

To begin with, it’s important to understand the difference between “the event” and the “story of the event”.

Here’s a good example.

Let’s say that you’re driving along the highway. In fact, you’re speeding because you’re late for a key meeting. All of a sudden, you hear a loud bang and your car begins to shudder. You realize your car tire just blew out. “Oh, great!” you say to yourself. “This is just what I need! I’m already late! This is going to make me look like a complete loser in front of my client. Now I’m probably going to blow this deal! I can just imagine everybody laughing at me behind my back.”

Did you see it?

You probably noticed two very different things happened.

  1. Event: Tire blows out
  2. Story of event: Re-created and embellished to include what it means, what it’s going to cost, why it shouldn’t have happened

Here’s the thing:

The event was neutral. But the story of “why” and “what it means” was very personal, wasn’t it? And looking at it this way… ask yourself this: was it actually the event that created the misery? Or was it the personal interpretation (the story) of what the event meant? If you said the story, you’d be correct.

What is a story?

A story is an arrangement of words and images that recreates life-like characters and events. When we have an experience, a part of our mind recreates that event in story form. That’s the story we tell ourselves. (Of course, this version is usually more dramatic, colorful, and significant than the actual event ever was.)

Stories are the most powerful force in our society.

Think about it.

  • Memories are stories about the past.
  • Beliefs are stories about what is true.
  • Vision is a story about the future.
  • Ideas are stories about possibilities.
  • In politics, the candidate who communicates the best story wins.
  • Marketers and advertisers don’t sell products as much as they sell stories of what their product can do for you.
  • What is a brand but the story of a product?
  • What is a culture but a collection of stories?

And what about you?

Who would you be if you didn’t have a story? Would you have an identity?

In fact, if we scale it down to the very nitty-gritty, we could say…