I was introduced to the world of psychiatry , psychology and mental illness by Dr. Rudolph Allers, an Austrian psychiatrist, who had been a disciple of Dr. Sigmund Freud, and under whom he became disillusioned, subsequently writing his own monumental work, The Successful Error. He, after the fashion of many heavy hitter thinkers of that era, ultimately became a Catholic, going on to become professor of psychiatry at the Catholic University, Washington, D.C. His classes were packed to the doors not with weirdoes of “shrinkery” but with intellectually hungry students of RELIGION seeking some understanding of “Gratia supponit Naturam” (Grace builds on nature).
Sterotypic to the extreme, he had shaggy, long gray hair, wore thick glasses on the end of his long nose which fairly shrieked of his Eastern European heritage. He delighted us with quaint 19th century courtly prose, his Germanic accent charmingly right out of the Madame Du Barry-like salons of elegant Vienna. His sentence construction was original and humorous. We roared with laughter. for example, when he described the talkativeness of the elderly as “…excessive activity of the articulatory organs..”
During his year of lectures, always without notes, and delivered looking up at the classroom ceiling, he took us through symptoms and treatment of the various neuroses and psychoses which we dutifully scribbled into our notebooks. We went through endless mental mechanisms of defense, and the many interfaces of religion and psychiatry. It was all terribly fascinating yet most of our notes were deposited into that great “educational dustbin” so dear to all graduate students once the final exams were over.
Apart from the indelible impression he made upon me that science and religion, properly understood, made congenial bedfellows, I remember very little, if anything, of his content. Except for ONE powerful point! He devoted one lecture to a startling statement. “Self pity is the MOST damaging of all the human emotions”. It was a daring and bold absolutist position. Clearly as a graduate student, I didn’t have the “ foggiest” as to the depth of his meaning. But my own years as therapist, counselor and spiritual director have opened some of his wisdom to me. How many times I have been frustrated by the endless self defeating behavior of so many of my clients (patients or directees) as they exemplified over and over again the old axiom “ I am my own worst enemy.”
To walk with someone through the dark valley of depression and self fulfilling prophecy, while a sacred privilege, is a most heavy and sometimes discouraging task.
I recall a 43 year old nurse whom I was supervising in her clinical work, pursuant to her gaining a graduate degree in Counseling. When she was 13 years of age, she was (she claimed) sexually abused by a family member. Obviously the profound scarring, confusion, anger, and disorientation of such a tragic experience are not easy to overcome. My work with sexual abuse victims has clearly illustrated the hurt and the insecurity associated with such ugly victimization. This is especially true if the victim is a child or adolescent. Even adults have enormous difficulty managing such horrendous insult to their psyche. Yet, one must heal or one must face the prospect of “half” living. I recall the comical presentation in Hollywood’s ANALYZE THIS in which the psychiatrist. while continuing the soothing external protocols with the patient, internally says to the whining woman “Why the _____________ don’t you get yourself a life?”
How often therapists re-act in this manner knowing full well, even with their own irritation, that the patient is killing himself emotionally and blocking any kind of satisfying life with God, neighbor or self. He is doing this to himself! What price must we pay to be free of this paralyzing pattern? What does it take to give up the clinging to wrongs, real or perceived, which interfere with one’s sense of well being?
The nurse (my supervisee) was having difficulty in her Field Work in a certified Clinic. Instead of focusing on her own patient, she invariably brought the work to focusing on herself and her personal problems, mainly her recollection of Incest. She seemed, almost, to seek sympathy from her own patients. She constantly spoke to them of her abuse, alleging to herself that this was a form of identifying with the patient. However, she had problems keeping clients who constantly failed to keep appointments and communicated simultaneously various non-verbal messages of discontent. Though reasonably intelligent, she was plain looking with a rather flat personality, making her just another bland face in the crowd. Her one claim to “fame” was her victimization,
In the group experience required of our interns, she would constantly revert back to her abuse 30 years earlier, time after time. Apart from this, her specialty, she had little to say. When I pointed this out to her as a facet of her training deficiency, she became furious with me that I did not understand, that men can’t possibly empathize with a woman in such a situation and similar old saws. Some of it might have been true but her fixation, nonetheless, was stultifying her ability in the helping profession as well as hurting her chances for personal happiness.. One factor we all saw was that should she give up her tiresome and repetitious verbalization of the old wound, she would have nothing to offer since all her intervening years had focused on refining and honing this single event! If I give this up, I can never get the limelight! I will be a wallflower! But were not there any other and positive dimensions to her life? Did she not, like all human beings, have a glass that was either half filled or half empty? The self pity would blind her to her other positive dimensions which might be a source of satisfaction for her.
Her life had been focused on “Poor me!” There was legitimacy to her anger and sadness but there was also an emotional imbalance which did not serve her well. This is the self pity described by Dr. Allers or the “pity pot” so popular with 12 step programs. It did not help her one iota but became, instead, a bitter, raging, self absorbed way of life. It was pernicious to her happiness as Allers had predicted. So, is there a way of “getting over it”? Can a person learn to “let go”?
I have been struck by the pervasive nature of the self pitying phenomenon in several of my patients who have been savagely abused by Church employees, (priests, deacons, teachers, janitors and even nuns). All of them have been severely damaged and certainly deserve full attention vis-à-vis their healing. Those who don’t heal, by some strange inner incapacity, seem almost to refuse to improve. This is puzzling until the Pity Pot raises it ugly head.
That the molestation might have occurred 20 or 30 years ago, that the molesters are dead, senile, in nursing homes or prison, expelled in disgrace, that many of my patients have received substantial sums of money, is all irrelevant. There is some kind of narcissism, some kind of semi- pleasurable navel gazing involved in the near stubborn clinging to “my story.” Is there an insatiable need to tell the ‘horror’ to anyone who will listen? Why do my patients call me on the telephone, day or night, demanding an immediate “ear” to rail over and over again at that “so and so”? The waste of time and energy given over to re-telling a thousand time told tale is staggering.
There is probably a linkup or correlation between this patently irrational (can I say “dumb”) behavior and self esteem. I note that that patients who have a strong ego system, seem to do much better. They seem able to cast off the unpleasant or terrifying experience and ultimately get on with lives of enjoyment and productivity, even relegating the molester to the category of “nut” or “psycho.” They report definite feelings of anger, confusion, disorientation, betrayal or even just irritation but refuse to give undue attention to this episode. There is a sense that focusing too heavily on these episodes only fuels that inner turmoil and makes healing that much slower. (In cases of repeated molestation, there is an entirely different affective reaction which might involve some consent from the victim, especially in ephebophilic situations.)
In a meeting of several Catholic professional psychologists, the group was asked whether or not a SINGLE “grab of the bottom” in itself would wreak long term emotional havoc with a victim. This was probing the psychological effect on the victim. Consentually, the response was a definite no particularly if the victim was reasonably “healthy” and if there was opportunity to discuss the event with a trusted “ other.” In the cases of the brutal and exploitative repeated behavior which we have studied, the consequences are obviously different. Yet, even in those cases, after a reasonable airing and analysis, it is clinically and spiritually better for the victim to begin to focus on the positive side of his life in general and to glimpse what is meant by “ moving on.” To remain stuck on an insatiable plane of “poor me” means misery and bitterness. When my patients tell me that they simply CAN’T stop their obsessive mental behavior ( and this IS behavior), I will challenge them with all kinds of specifics which are available to them for happier living. AND more often than not with concrete improvement.
These “specifics” are useable not only for the disastrous type tragedies mentioned above but are also helpful for lesser, but nonetheless crippling, personality formations tempting most human beings. The bug of Poor Me, I suspect, hampers all of us in differing degrees. What does the “normal” human being do to cope with the temptation to sit on that “Pity Pot”? Get a Sense of Humor implant? Hardly! (Even though there is little to compare with the healing ability of laughter).
Why not use the Faith? The Catholic Faith is pragmatic, if anything, which, in this instance, means that the Faith does show how to deal with this killing self pity. The Faith almost screams out the notion of LIVING ONE DAY AT A TIME. The 12 Step Programs heavily depend on THIS specific. The past is gone. The unknown future is not here. Only NOW is here--- wherein we live and move and have our being. The Great St. Teresa of Avila wrote of her living not one day at a time but living one MINUTE at a time. Anything more for her was intolerable. The Faith teaches that the good Lord gives only those crosses which one can handle. (How I used THAT when I struggled against my crippling claustrophobia in the MRI tube). As my old Grandmother taught me: “Jamie, God fits the back to the burden.” The Birds of the air and the lilies of the Field are nothing in God’s sight compared to His love for any human being. His powerful Grace is right there waiting to be used!!! With His help, I can handle anything He allows. What blocks our using the help of God? Maybe, I don’t ask for it!!
And what about the famous “half-filled/half empty” approach?
An old timer like me knows very well the inevitable pains, inconveniences and indignities associated with old age. I know the loneliness of being a dinosaur. I know what it feels like to be passed over. I am aware of my own failures over the years. My past poor judgments are ever with me in bright colors and sharp density. As a retiree from a previous post of influence and clout, I know what it feels like now to be just another face in the crowd. This is viewing the glass as “half empty.”
However, seeing the “half filled” glass has me exuberant that I have been sustained by what P.D. James, the aging English mystery writer, calls “the magnificent irrationality of Faith.”
I made my First Holy Communion when I was Seven years old and was euphoric that I received my Lord and my God in the Eucharist. I have NEVER lost that euphoria into my 84th year. I have been blessed beyond calculation coming from a loving, wild and somewhat crazy family which have given me the enormous and profound certainty of my own loveability. I have had beautiful friends whom I have loved and who have loved me. I have seen the glory of God’s world festooned by man’s gifts. I have been blessed to study at many Universities. I have been blessed to have shared the life journey of hundreds of fellow children of God as I practice my art of Psychotherapy and spiritual direction. Is there space enough in the world for me to record my blessings?
The cells of my old body have renewed themselves many times, I know, since that 7 year old kid met Jesus in the Eucharist. If I am “cell” wise different I can still recognize that urchin from the West side in my deeper self. I am fairly much the same. But have I grown? Oh Yes! I am different and the same, simultaneously, so grateful for what I have had and have----- and still having so much fun--- even with the creaking bones and the Not-too-far-away death!
Does self pity fit in here? I do my best to keep it far away because it kills. And I love life and wish to enjoy what is left for me. I make my thanks to the Good Lord and His loving holy Mother who smiles at me so often--- encouraging me to gratitude rather than to self pity.