So? So What?
June 24, 2014
As a very young therapist in the 1980’s, I was privileged to study and train with several of the master therapists of the time. Sometimes I would get to watch one of them work live with a family or couple. Sometimes there were lectures. Once my husband and I offered up our own fragile marriage for some live work in front of my colleagues. That took some kind of crazy courage but we were desperate so desperate measures were taken.
My favorite way to learn from the masters was to work with a family or couple and to have the master (and usually a small team of colleagues) behind a one way mirror. They could see and hear everything going on in the therapy room but we couldn’t see or hear them. The clients agreed to this ahead of time and usually, after a few awkward moments, the mirrored wall seemed to disappear and we forgot about the people on the other side. I assured the clients that the help was for me, and that they had nothing to worry about. No one was assessing them or assigning blame to them. Just to me. They were off the hook. I was on the hot seat.
There were phones on both sides of the mirror. When a message needed to be sent in to me, or if I was stuck and needed help, the phone was used and we could talk back and forth. One night when the phone rang for me, I picked it up and was given an instruction. The master wanted me to ask something of one of the parents in the room.
“ I’m sorry. Can you say that again?” I babbled.
I had heard him. I just couldn’t believe what he wanted me to ask. I was buying time. My heart was racing. I think I looked at the door to see if I could make a quick escape. I could go back to waiting tables and never have to do this hard work.
“ I don’t think I can say that,” I said quietly. “I’d feel too guilty.”
“So? So what?” came the reply.
Something about that moment, about that split second of hearing the words “So? So what?” changed my life. It was like an important puzzle piece fell in to place and I could see more clearly. I felt my head shake a little as my psyche tried to take in what I had just learned. In that split second, I had learned a great lesson about false guilt.
I had no reason to feel guilty about asking what I was asked to ask. But I did. And that was my problem. Why was I feeling guilty? For reasons that had everything to do with my own family and not theirs, I was trying to protect something that didn’t need my protection. I was tippy-toeing around a very obvious issue and the more I did it, the more problematic the session became. I hadn’t created the problems in this family. They had made quite a mess of things without my help. My job was to mirror reality to them, to treat them with enough respect to believe in the best of them, and to do that with competence and courage.
What the master said with his three words, “ So? So what?” taught me in a split second that I was bigger than my (false) guilty feelings. Perhaps more importantly, I learned that I was also bigger than my fear of my guilty feelings. I learned in just a moment that guilt, false guilt, could not be used by an ethical therapist to keep one from doing the work we are given to do. I had to do the right thing, the ethical thing, the competent thing, and deal with my false guilt when the session was over. This was one of those sessions that I left knowing exactly what my next personal therapy session would be about. False guilt turned to healthy guilt and I was motivated to do the personal work I needed to do to free myself from some of my past.
False guilt, that guilt that keeps us from taking responsibility for our own issues, that guilt that makes us feel responsible for other’s problems and other’s lives, keeps us stuck in patterns that squelch our ability to live a full, abundant, and vibrant life. False guilt can be familial, cultural, gender-based, religious, and community-based. You may want to take a moment and reflect on those things that you feel guilty about and ask yourself if that guilt is healthy guilt (the guilt that causes us to assess our values and priorities and is a catalyst for change; see last week’s blog) or false guilt (the guilt that is often familial, cultural, and religious and is based on assuming responsibility for other people’s actions and lives).
I am sitting at a retreat for spiritual directors. The question has been asked several times this week, “Why is it so difficult to keep a balanced life?” Balancing work, prayer, community, and rest shouldn’t be that difficult, right? I believe that our feelings of guilt and shame play a large role in keeping us from living the lives we are called to live. We don’t know how to set our boundaries and we don’t have the courage of our convictions to keep them. We are afraid of how guilty we will feel if we say no to things, even if we believe they are not the best things for us or for our children. We are afraid we will fail. We are afraid we will be rejected and abandoned. Fear and guilt wage war on our best intentions.
I want to encourage you, as I have been encouraged in my life, to examine what you truly value. Perhaps to ask yourself those three simple words, “So? So what?” the next time you are trying to make a decision about something hard in your life.
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