Beliefs, and Spirituality
By Jane Gilgun
We are all broken in some way. How we respond to
our brokenness depends upon good fortune and the beliefs we develop.
In our everyday life, we seek meaning, connection, fulfillment, and
love. This seeking is built into our DNA and is necessary for our
survival in infancy. Throughout our lives, seeking and its
fulfillment give meaning to our lives. In this article, I discuss
these ideas and illustrate them with examples from my personal life
and from my research on resilience and the meanings of violence to
perpetrators. I conclude with reflections on beliefs and spiritual
About the Author
Jane F. Gilgun, PhD, LICSW, is a professor, School
of Social Work, University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, USA. Jane does
research on how persons cope with adversities, the meanings of
violence to perpetrators, and the development of violent behaviors.
See Jane's other articles, books, and children's stories on
scribd, Kindle, Nook, and other internet booksellers.
Beliefs, and Spirituality
I'm kind of an expert on feeling crappy and what
to do about it. I've felt crappy for much of my life. Being a
social worker does that. Social workers put themselves in situations
where people are suffering. The hurts of others hurt us. For several
years, I worked directly with children and families where the
children had experienced abuse and neglect. After that, I interviewed
perpetrators and survivors of various types of violence for more than
20 years. I also have a long-term research project with children and
families who have experienced complex trauma. I had to learn how to
cope with feeling crappy if I wanted to continue as a social worker
and have a happy life.
Brokenness results from hurts that do not heal.
I've concluded that many people are broken in some ways. Who
isn't? There are different kinds of brokenness. In this article, I
show how beliefs and spirituality are part of how people respond to
their brokenness and go on to live fulfilling lives--or not.
I can't imagine that anyone has a hurt-free
life. Being hurt is an equal opportunity experience. Some people
have more hurt than others, but no one escapes completely. Unhealed
hurt leads to brokenness. Brokenness is like an open wound that does
not heal. Most of the time, we are unaware of our brokenness. Then
something happens that touches old wounds. We experience the hurt all
over again. Some people are so wounded that they are in a state of
distress most of their waking hours. Others are in distress
sporadically and live most of their lives with varying degrees of
satisfaction and contentment.
Most of us enter the world crying. Being pushed
out of the womb and squeezing through the birth canal are not easy.
Someone wipes us down and places us in our mother's arms. We are
fed and comforted. That is the ideal when we are hurt: an upsetting
experience and then comfort. Being hurt and comforted happens
repeatedly. We are hungry. Our diapers need changing. We want to
interact with others. Our parents and others respond. Mutual pleasure
happens. We are comforted. Eventually, we recognize caring
relationships as love. Throughout our lives, we seek to give and
receive love. Sometimes people are so hurt and broken, they act as if
they have given up on lives. Dig deep into their despair, and there
is usually some hope of love.
We become broken when we are hurt and not
comforted. Lack of response to hurt leads to unhealed psychological
wounds. Each of us is hurt in our own unique ways. Examples of hurts
that many people experience are parental deaths and abandonments,
witnessing parent verbal and physical abuse of each other or of
siblings, child sexual abuse, and sibling abuse. Sometimes the hurt
results from parental inattentiveness and actions of siblings who
don't realize that they are inflicting hurt on other children in
the family. Here are a few examples.
A 13 year-old boy mocks his 8 year-old sister's attempts at
doing the same cheers as her older sister who is a cheerleader. He
then laughs when she runs upstairs and hides in a closet. The
parents are not home. When the little girl tells her mother what her
brother had done, the mother says, "Ignore him." The little
girl says, "I can't ignore him. It hurts." The mother does not
respond and does not reprimand the older brother. He mocks and
teases her for years.
A 7 year-old girl pinches her 4 year-old brother and laughs
when he cries. The parents tell both kids, "Knock it off." When
the little boy seeks comfort, the parents say, "Buck up. Don't
be a sissy."
Sometimes, because of previous unhealed hurts,
people begin to expect to be hurt. They interpret actions as hurtful
when, from other points of view, they are not. Here's an example.
Daddy comes home drunk. Children believe Daddy must not love them.
They feel hurt. They need immediate help to understand that when
Daddy gets drunk, alcohol was on the top of his mind. He liked how he
felt when he drank. He drank to the point where he got drunk. His
mind simply was not on his children. If he had thought that getting
drunk means to his children that he doesn't love them, he might not
have gotten drunk. On the other hand, what getting drunk means to him
may often block out thoughts of what his children might believe.
Whatever the case might be, children need help in understanding that
Daddy gets drunk and Daddy loves them. Both are true. Of course, if
there is convincing evidence that Daddy doesn't love them, children
need help with that. If Daddy doesn't love them, that means Daddy
has a problem with love. The children remain loveable even if Daddy
doesn't have what it takes to love them.
Many events cause wounds, but if other people are
there for us, we learn to cope. The wounds are manageable, if not
So far, the discussion has centered on children
and young people. Adults, too, are not immune to hurt. Those who get
fired from a job or laid off, who go through a divorce or a break up
of a relationship, or who experience the death of a child or other
tragedy have obvious hurts. How adults cope depends a great deal on
how others helped them to cope when they were children and teens.
Difficult events in childhood can trigger memories of old, unhealed
wounds. We experience a cascade of events, emotions, and thoughts.
When we feel hurt, we may feel unloved. As we work
with managing our emotional wounds, we gradually can experience hurt
and love at the same time. That is, we can experience hurt, sadness,
loss, and love simultaneously.
Each person is hurt in her or his own unique ways,
but the beliefs about the hurt are surprisingly similar. Many
children who are hurt believe they are bad and did something to
deserve being hurt. Other common beliefs are "No one likes me,"
"No one loves me." "I'm stupid," "I'm different," and
"I'm ugly." Some say, "I hate you," to their parents or
others. Still others say, "I'm going to kill myself." Often,
it seems as if we will feel this way forever.
What children believe about their hurts depends
upon how parents and others have treated them in the past. If parents
and others have been sensitive and responsive to them in the past,
they will seek comfort from others. They trust that others will help
them sort through the meanings of the hurts, such as whether or not
they are bad kids who deserve to be treated badly. Such children
have experienced consistent, responsive care, although rarely are
other people there for us all of the time. We learn the word love
as the name of experiences of caring, affirmation, and tenderness. I
believe the desire to love and to be loved is built into our genes.
If parents have been of the "buck up" type,
then children may not seek others out. They are stuck with their
unshared beliefs about why they were hurt. Some of these children
might seek to be with people who like or love them, but they don't
talk about their beliefs about being bad, ugly, and unloved. They get
comfort but these kinds of actions don't get to the wounds
themselves. They wounds remain unhealed. For wounds to heal, it's
as if someone has to place a healing finger of love on them. This is
an exquisite experience.
If parents have over-reacted to hurts in the past,
children may not seek others for fear of feeling even worse.
Sometimes children of over-reacting parents do not share their own
hurts because they are protective of their parents. They see their
parents as having their own problems and don't want to add to them.
They may feel lost and alone with things that trouble them. Children
who were sexually abused and adults who were sexually abused in
childhood sometimes don't tell their parents out of a desire to
protect. They know their parents love them, but they don't tell
them about the abuse because they don't want to upset them further.
They also are afraid that their parents might stop loving them.
Most of us bury negative beliefs about ourselves
so deeply that we don't realize that we have them. They stay with
us throughout our lives. Only during times of high stress we realize
that we have deep-seated beliefs about ourselves and what we deserve
or don't deserve. They are beliefs that arise when we are babies
and young children. When we bring them to light, we can deal with
them and see that they are untrue and hurtful. When we see them as
leftovers from earlier ages. If we don't bring them to light, these
baby beliefs influence how we think and feel today.
The Experience of Brokenness
When wounds are touched, raw emotion and beliefs
are triggered. Memories of old hurts spring back to life. Many people
go into a tailspin. Their thoughts and emotions are often chaotic and
confusing. Their heart rates and blood pressure go up. Stress
hormones are released into the blood stream. Brain circuits are so
active, they practically are on fire they are so active. Even
seemingly mature and well put-together people may have this cascade
of memories, emotions, beliefs, and bodily responses. Researchers
call this state dysregulation. Dysregulation hurts so much we
do whatever it takes to get some relief.
Coping with Brokenness
Fortunate adults have learned since childhood that
there are no easy answers to these powerful states. They have to run
their course. Before we get to this constructive mind set, we usually
first do things we later regret, such as taking things out on others,
over eating, or driving recklessly. Some people make seek relief
through drugs, alcohol, or sex. In fact, these unkind and
self-destructive acts may prod us into realizing that we are
dysregulated. Fortunate persons do something constructive, such as
finding someone to talk to, meditating, journaling, and doing
vigorous exercise while allowing themselves to experience whatever is
going on for them. Through such means, the dysregulation comes to a
natural end, and we can let go of the painful emotions and beliefs.
Many people learn too late or not at all that
dysregulation is a process that has to run its course. Because
dysregulation hurts, we short-circuit the process and push our
emotions and beliefs underground. We are at risk to develop health
problems, like chronic depression, alcoholism, drug addiction, sexual
addictions, headaches, poor eating habits, heart trouble, and
diabetes. We may become preoccupied with our own problems or numb to
them. As a result, we become emotionally and psychologically distant
from others. The underlying issues may develop a life of their own,
popping out in inappropriate situations with inappropriate people.
When we push our issues underground, we are at
risk to develop additional beliefs. For example, rather than facing
down beliefs about ourselves as bad, ugly, stupid, and unworthy, some
people view others this way. When we see other people like this, we
may believe that we can treat others as bad, ugly, stupid, and
unworthy. We then are at risk to be abusive and cruel.
When we don't grapple with and let do of
negative beliefs about ourselves, we may put ourselves on a pity pot
and feel sorry for ourselves. We now have a good excuse not to do
much with our lives. We may then develop other beliefs about how
incompetent we are and how pathetic. We spiral further downward,
creating self-fulfilling prophesies.
In states of self-pity, we are at risk to develop
a sense of entitlement. We give ourselves permission to take whatever
we want without regard for what others might want. We believe we
deserve whatever it is we want. In grocery stores, we pop grapes
into our mouths without paying . We snip a rose out of a neighbor's
garden. We buy silver tableware we know is stolen. When we have
beliefs of entitlement, we not only are out of touch with our own
inner beliefs and emotions, but we also out of touch with the inner
beliefs and states of others. We don't think about the effects of
our behaviors on others. Sadly, we put ourselves at risk, too. What,
for example, might happen if someone sees you nicking the neighbor's
rose or the cops trace the stolen silver to you? Common sense becomes
uncommon when we have beliefs of entitlement and act of them.
Fortunate adults don't develop self-pity and
beliefs of entitlement. We know through our own experience that bad
things happen to good people and that we are good people. We see
ourselves and others as flawed and broken, and we love ourselves and
others for our brokenness and our goodness. We are in touch with our
beliefs and emotions and have regard for the beliefs and emotions of
others. We spend time promoting the interests of others without
seeking recognition or reward other than inner satisfaction. In
short, we are capable of love.
We also know that we are deeply flawed human
beings who are capable of hurting others and ourselves. When we do,
we take corrective measures. We may talk things out with other, first
perhaps others not involved in a difficult situation. We may meditate
on what we did and journal. Then we talk to the people we may have
harmed. We listen to and accept whatever others have to say about our
behaviors. We take full responsibility for our actions and take
appropriate measures to repair the damage. If others don't want to
deal with us, we respect that.
We know what love is because we have experienced
love; that is, we have experienced sensitive and responsive care and
have experienced the satisfaction, peace, and contentment that come
along with such care. We believe that feel loved and loving give
meanings to our lives.
Dysregulation and negative beliefs about the self
are part of being human and have nothing to do with worthiness or
unworthiness, being good or being bad. To live as if this is true
requires effort. No matter how well put-together anyone is, we have
much to learn about our deeper selves and other persons. Our search
for meaning and for understanding does not end.
Entitlement Unrelated to Brokenness
Some children appear to develop beliefs of
entitlement that are unrelated to self-pity and to brokenness. Maybe
their parents and other adults did not help them to develop beliefs
and values that sensitize them to the dignity and worth of others.
Maybe no one taught them to think about the well-being of others.
Maybe they never learned to share, but parents and others allowed
them to take what they wanted without reminding them that they really
do have to think about what other people might want. Children like
this grow into young people and adults whose beliefs go like this.
"Big me. Little you." "If I can take advantage of you or of a
situation, I will." "I have so many interesting things to say.
People love to hear my stories." "If I can make someone else do
something, then I'm on top." "What's mine is mine. What's
your is yours." People like this are difficult to deal with and
can become clever at getting others to do their bidding. They may
have intuitions about the emotional wounds and hurts of others.
Rather than being compassionate and empathic, they use the
vulnerabilities of others to get what they want.
Children, young people, and adults who are like
this take advantage of the power they have over others. They
continually hurt others and appear unaware, indifferent, and
self-congratulatory. Children, spouses, and employees of persons who
have these beliefs and who act this way require a great deal of help
to learn to cope with the hurts that develop. People who have these
beliefs and who act this way may or may not be seeking peace and
contentment but they do seek excitement and a sense of accomplishment
at being more powerful than others. Even they, maybe, are seeking
what most everyone else seeks: a spiritual connection. For the rest
of us, a self-protective distancing and hope that they will change
appear to be the compassionate responses. Compassionate, too, is the
hope that they can find their way to some appreciation of spiritual
connection through respect for the dignity and worth of others.
Spirituality is a sense of goodness, love,
stability, connection, and meaning. Human beings begin their lives
with a kind of inner gyroscope that seeks this lovely state. In
infancy, this state of being is survival. When infants cry, they are
uncomfortable and seek the pleasure and even bliss of touch, food,
interaction, and clean diapers. They seek a loving, lovely state of
being. When they run toward daddy and mommy with arms outstretched,
they are seeking this state of being. They seek love.
I believe this state is being is a kind of "set
point," meaning we are made to long for and to seek for this state
of being. This state of being includes not only love, but affirmation
and a sense that I'm ok, everyone else is ok, and all is right in
the world, even when we also know how sad and difficult things can be
and how flawed we and others are.
There are many other definitions of spirituality
that are connected to various religions, religious faith, and ethnic
identities. In this article, spirituality is unconnected to religion
and ethnicity but is a state of being associated with love,
lovingness, and affirmation.
Cruel Acts and Spiritual Longing
When we experience brokenness, we are in an
uncomfortable state of being. We seek to re-establish connection to
with a sense of rightness, of peace, affirmation, contentment,
happiness and sometimes excitement. I first saw this with child
molesters, of all people. Many described a sense of feeling crappy as
a step toward seeking a child to abuse. When something went wrong,
the first thing many of them thought of was to have sex with a child.
It worked. I heard men describe the experience of child sexual
abuse as "bliss," "the greatest feeling in the world," and a
"love affair." One man called it a fix, because it "fixed how I
was feeling." Talk about selfish entitlement. They wanted to feel
better. They did whatever it took. They had callous disregard for the
children and for those who loved the children. They didn't even
think about long-term consequences for themselves.
Men survivors of childhood abuse and neglect and
who were sexual addicts and not abusers told me that since childhood
they had masturbated several times a day in order to feel better. I
then began to see harmful and self-destructive behaviors as attempts
to cheer themselves. Other men and women I interviewed cheered
themselves up with food, alcohol, gambling, dominating others, going
on spending sprees, embezzlement, and getting into fights in bars.
These are efforts to find that "set point," that state of being
where all is right in the world.
Applications to Myself
I then realized that I sometimes used food to
cheer myself up, to feel better. Anger at other drivers on the road,
dancing, swimming, playing the flute, and going for walks were other
ways of cheering myself up. Other ways I developed over time were
going to church, joining Al-Anon, learning ways of developing
conscious contact with something spiritual outside of myself, within
me, and in all of life. Some became part of me naturally and some
with conscious effort. Like the men I had interviewed, I chose
actions that worked, that cheered me up, that helped me feel
stability and peace.
As I talked to men who committed violence and men
survivors who did not commit violence, I saw the similarities and
differences. Men of both types often had negative beliefs such as
"I'm no good." "No one loves me." "I can't do anything
right." "I'm worthless." Many from both groups also had
great capacities for dysregulation. They could go into seemingly
endless tailspins and weave fantasies about what other people are
doing to them and what they'd like to do to others. In these
negative belief systems, these men are no different the rest of us.
The first difference I noticed between men who
acted out in violent ways and men survivors who did not were that the
men survivors had the capacity to share their emotions and beliefs
with others, and they sought people out in order to do so. They
sometimes waited for years until they found someone they trusted.
They also were in touch with their own emotions; that is, they knew
and named their emotions. On the whole, they did not distance
themselves from their inner states.
The men who acted out in violent ways did not
share their beliefs and emotions. Man after man told me that they
simply did not share. Some had no idea what emotions are. A few had
shared instances of abuse and neglect with people outside of the
family but the people they confided in reported back to the parents
who abused them for telling. They stopped talking to others about
things that bothered them.
The next difference I noticed were beliefs about
entitlement. In seeking to feel better; that is, in seeking a state
of bliss, stability, connection, happiness, and love, the men who
committed violent acts had beliefs of entitlement that they could do
whatever they wanted to in order to get to this state of being. They
disregarded the effects of their behaviors on others and the
long-term effects on themselves.
Some believed themselves to be monsters to behave
this way, but whenever they were about to sexually abuse again,
thoughts of being a monster evaporated.
Others, especially those who committed acts of
physical aggression took pride in the amount of damage they inflicted
and the physical damage to their own bodies. Broken jaws and black
eyes were marks of courage and manhood.
A few men survivors told me that they had had
sexual fantasies about children. This alarmed them so much, they not
only avoided being with children, but they also sought therapy. Their
beliefs about the dignity and worth of children stopped them from
acting out their fantasies. They didn't want to have to view
themselves as child molesters. They didn't want the disgrace when
the molestation came to light. They didn't want to hurt children
and others who loved the children. A few others said that they had
hit their wives and girlfriends and sought treatment because they did
not want to be that way. Rather than finding bliss and fulfillment in
physical aggression, they were horrified at what they had done and
found reason to change their ways. Several of the men survivors were
active in Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous. They realized
that their attempts at coping through drugs and alcohol hurt
themselves and others. They sought other ways of attaining the bliss,
contentment, love, and connection they often wanted desperately.
Us and Them
Most of us are not child molesters, wife beaters,
and murderers. We many never have hit another person or became
alcoholics and addicts of other types. Our beliefs stop us.
Considerations of effects of our behaviors stop us. For example, when
we say, "I could strangle her" or "I hope he dies a slow and
painful death," other beliefs and images spring to life, such as
how ridiculous those thoughts are and how awful it would be if these
things came true.
It took me a few years of listening to how
pleasurable violence is to see that I took pleasure in thinking
violent thoughts and imagining violent actions, however briefly. I
used to laugh for a second when I imagined ramming into a car whose
driver had just cut me off. Then images of blood and gore, crashed
cars, pain and suffering sprang to life in my imagination. I stopped
laughing at the thought of committing such acts and laughed at myself
for reacting that way. I believed I was better than that. I believed
I had no right to hurt others, no matter what they do.
Spiritual longings appear to be at the root of
harmful acts, helpful acts, and most if not all acts. People who harm
others and themselves want states of connection, peace, love,
meaning, fulfillment, excitement, fun, satisfaction, accomplishment,
and bliss. There is nothing wrong with what they want. How they go
about getting what they want is wrong.
I believe that spiritual longings are part of our
DNA and are necessary for survival. Beyond the desire to survive, our
longings bring depth, breadth, and meaning to our lives when we act
in loving ways toward self and others and seek to do no harm.
I am beginning to think that in many ways, we are
not that different from people who commit great harm to others and to
themselves. We share many negative beliefs with them. The differences
appear to be in our positive, life-enhancing beliefs. We do not act
on the evil in our hearts because we anticipate negative consequences
and we do not want to harm other people and ourselves. Our beliefs in
the dignity and worth of others stop us from acting badly. Others who
do harmful things may believe this, too, but at the pivotal moments
their life-enhancing beliefs do not activate themselves. Their
negative beliefs have no pushback. Harm ensues even as they
experience fulfillment, bliss, and even love, at least temporarily.
Most people who do terrible things to others are only part-time mean
and destructive. Others often view them as loving members of families
and pillars of the community. Of course, it only takes a one-time act
to commit great harm to others and to the self.
Some people who are hurt and who develop negative
beliefs early on are left pretty much on their own. They develop few
if any beliefs to help them handle their hurt. They may only
infrequently experience the goodness that is all around us and within
each living being. They may have buried a sense of hope under layers
of negative experiences and beliefs. It may take a lot to deal with
these layers. There is always hope.
I can love others who are flawed and broken and
who do things I don't like and who hurt me. I can love myself even
as I see myself as deeply flawed, broken, and needy. I work at
loving myself even as I do all of this imperfectly. It can take a
lifetime of good fortune and conscious effort to experience life in
this way, good fortune in terms of who was with is and is with us
along the way and how we responded and continue to respond to the
goodness that is all around and within us.
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