How to transform our ‘wounds’ into a privileged place of encounter with God and of solidarity with others.
1. Seeing ourselves as wounded people
Our history, especially our infancy, has left us elements of power, resources and possibilities for which we are grateful to our parents and other people who meant a lot to us. However, the past has also left in us a negative mark whose consequences are present in our daily lives. In this sense, as a consequence of our past, we all bear some ‘wounds’, understood as elements of vulnerability and fragility, especially to our self-esteem – which defines the quality of our relationship with ourselves – and to our emotions – understood as our ability to love and to be loved.
Our being wounded shows itself in the divisions we have inside ourselves. On the one hand, we experience a power that moves us to go out of ourselves and to be open to others in seeking the good, on the other hand, it is a power that tends to close us within ourselves in seeking that which gratifies us, a self-centred well-being.
We are all wounded somehow, though not in the same way or to the same degree. We also live with these wounds in different ways. The depth and the perception we have of these wounds may be different such as the degree to which we are conscious of them and how they condition us, whether we accept them as part of our humanity and to what extent we succeed in living with them in a non-destructive way.
In my own personal journey I am aware that it is possible to integrate them; this requires a process that is long and demanding but, at the same time, beautiful and gratifying in so far as we experience in ourselves growth in interior freedom, in serenity, in our ability to live with and welcome our brothers in their diversity and in their difficulties.
2. The roots of our difficulties in community life
My experience in recent years in ‘accompaniment’ have convinced me that many difficulties we find in community life have their deepest roots in our wounds. When these wounds are not integrated, they become the source of our vulnerability and represent our Achilles’ heel. As I accompanied confreres, I saw that the most frequently occurring wounds are those of feeling humiliated, attacked, rejected, abandoned and put aside.
For example, the wound of humiliation makes us perceive comments, suggestions or positive criticism as an attack on our self-esteem, an effort to diminish our worth. This may easily lead us to react aggressively, to avoid communication and confrontation, to work alone as a defence against suffering. The wound of feeling rejected shows itself in an extremely heightened sensitivity to all possible signs of welcome or non-attention, with frequent distortions and judgements of the intentions of others that increase complaints, long faces, unstable relationships and unrealistic expectations of being welcomed and loved.
The perception we have of others is negatively influenced by our wounds. Unconsciously, we perceive our confrere as a threat, as a rival, as responsible for our problems. Furthermore, our wounds are the source of our fears, insecurity, anxiety, disproportionate reactions and compulsive inclinations: all of these are elements that negatively condition our living together.
The fear of being wounded leads us to isolate ourselves, avoid confrontation, dominate, manipulate, defend or justify ourselves even to the point of inflicting on others the aggression of which we have ourselves been the victim. In this way, from being victims, we make ourselves the aggressors.
I have noticed that, when it is accentuated by our wounds, our need to be loved and recognised increases unrealistic expectations of being gratified by the community, the institution or religious and missionary life itself. There is an unconscious expectation of compensation for the emptiness we have inside ourselves. These expectations are frustrated since they are unrealistic and cause dissatisfaction and resentment in us.
We blame our unease on others and on the structures, while we must find the root of our dissatisfaction within ourselves.
3. The past helps us to understand the present
Our wounds do not necessarily find their roots in some traumatic experience that occurred during gestation or infancy. More often they are due to the insufficient gratification, especially during the first years of life, of the fundamental need to be appreciated and loved or due to over-protection or repeated negative situations or experiences, even if non-traumatic.
Negative messages such as: you are worthless, you are incompetent, nobody likes you, you are a fool, you should not have been born, your brother is better than you,... if repeated, end up being internalised by the child, thus causing a wound that will not be healed simply by the passage of time.
Rather than what did, in fact, happen, it is how we perceived and lived the situation, the emotions we felt and that continue to exist in us that matter.
The people who most frequently cause the wounding are: biological parents or those who filled this role, brothers and sisters, relatives and teachers. External situations, too, may be the cause of wounding, for example: an environment that is unwelcoming, economically precarious, unhealthy, violent, repressive and in situations of insecurity and war.
4. Our ‘load’ of anger and resentment from the past
Wounds are accompanied by anger and resentment towards those we identify as aggressors, at times towards God himself, whom we blame for what happened to us and made us suffer. We are not always aware that the pain we feel is caused by our wounds.
The journey of personal integration necessarily implies the recognition of the intense and painful emotions that accompany our wounds, calling them by name, expressing them and accepting the suffering this brings about.
The sense of guilt may be a barrier which prevents becoming aware of the anger and resentment in us. Recognising such emotions does not necessarily lead us to judge or condemn our parents or some other dominant person form our past; neither is it an expression of a lack of respect or affection towards them.
The anger we feel but do not acknowledge risks directing itself towards ourselves and others, the confreres and communities where we carry out our ministry.
5. Fear, anxiety and compulsion
It is part of the dynamics of our wounds to nourish in ourselves the fear of reliving the pain they caused, for example, of being humiliated or considered inferior, incompetent, useless, accused, condemned, worthless, inadequate, weak, different, a failure, rejected, excluded, unloved, abandoned, manipulated, betrayed, abused or dominated.
These fears may show themselves with such intensity and frequency that they determine our decisions and attitudes, even contrary to the values we proclaim.
Such fears sometimes increase the anxiety to escape from those situations perceived as a cause of suffering or to seek to compensate those unpleasant feelings we experience.
It is indeed anxiety that sets off some compulsions, understood as recurrent emotive/impulsive attitudes we adopt, often unconsciously, to escape from our fears or compensate our need for affection and recognition.
Some possible compulsions: wanting to be different, to be a cerebral mind, to follow the norm, to seek power, to be a pacifist, to behave aggressively, to be altruistic, independent, in control, to counter-react, to be emotionally dependent, to dominate, to avoid criticism and failure, to be defensive, successful, to show off, to be neat and tidy, to seek sexual gratification, activism, perfectionism, to create large structures (as may be the case even among ourselves).
I wish to stress that, with some of these attitudes, the problem is not the behaviour in itself, which may appear to be good, but the compulsion present in the attitude. That is, the fact of having to behave in a certain way due to lack of freedom caused by fear and anxiety. For example, altruism and being available may be expressions of a value; the problem arises when the person is unable to limit his availability or his desire to help others because he is unable to say no, for fear of being rejected or criticised. In this way, altruism becomes paternalism and availability becomes a way of allowing ourselves to be manipulated.
Comments or criticism by confreres or superiors and collaborators do nothing to change such attitudes. The lack of interior freedom prevents us from choosing, in the concrete situation, the best attitude in accordance with evangelical values. We are slaves to our impulses and therefore incapable of learning from experience.
The deeper the wounds, the more intense the fear and anxiety and, consequently, the stronger our compulsions.
Fear and anxiety often cause in us emotive/impulsive reactions disproportionate to the situation: the situation acts as a stimulus to set off whatever is still within us from our past.
When our wounds are deep and not integrated, they may bring about a situation where the desire to be appreciated, valued, considered or approved or to be loved, accepted or welcomed becomes the driving force of our lives, that which, in fact, directs our desires, decisions and actions, in the unconscious illusion of filling the internal emptiness caused by our wounds.
6. Non-integrated wounds and the spiritual life
Our non-integrated wounds have a negative influence on our spiritual life. It is they that create and feed a distorted image of God. Instead of the God revealed by Jesus Christ, we create a fetish out of God which may be a perfectionist god, a god who demands sacrifices, the god of merit and success, a god within, far from any relations with others, god the implacable judge, the god of pleasure who can be manipulated at will, an omnipotent god who takes care of everything...
A further manifestation of our non-integrated wounds is our disordered feelings which nourish egocentric and egoistic motivations in attitudes that may be, of themselves, good, such as helping the poor to be appreciated and loved or building large structures to compensate our low self-esteem.
7. A possible journey of ‘integration’
I must say that integrating our wounds does not mean to eliminate them but to learn how to manage them positively, by removing the destructive charge directed towards ourselves or the others, in order to make it into a place of encounter with God and of solidarity with others. The following are the steps which in our experience may help us, though aware that they are not an easy and immediate recipe in a long and demanding journey that is both possible and beautiful, since it opens us up to a fuller life.
8. The privileged place of the encounter with God
Both my personal experience and my experience in ‘accompaniment’ have convinced me that good psychology, well based in the Christian vision of the human being, can be of great help in the journey of integration; just as the experience of the unconditional and free love of God makes the transformation of our wounds possible.
In our encounter with Him, our gaze meets his and frees us from being concerned about how others see us, what they may think of us, how they will judge us and even from the way we see ourselves which is sometimes more severe than that of others. It is He who, in private, teaches us all things (cf. Mk 4:34): to grasp what is essential, the true good, that which gives “life” and to put into perspective so many things that we see as important but which are not.
Enlightened and directed by his Word, our wounds are transformed into a place of solidarity with others, since the encounter with Our Lord makes us more humble and human, more sensitive and considerate, freer from our own needs to see to the needs of others. We no longer feel it necessary to defend ourselves from real or imaginary threats. It is no longer necessary to impose ourselves, to be better than or humiliate others to prove our worth. The need to be appreciated and loved, as it is now satisfied by the encounter with Our Lord, is no longer the driving force of our life.
Furthermore, when our wounds are integrated, they may become the source of our personal charism. Energy flows from them that allows us to open ourselves, to be empathetic, in solidarity, able to help and love the confreres who are themselves wounded and, in a special way, those who have the same wounds as ourselves without having yet integrated them.
In this way, the wound, even though it is still a wound, has lost its destructive energy to become a source of life and blessings for the one who bears it and the ones to whom the charism, which arises out of the shadow of such a wound, is directed.
The experience of St. Paul is the paradigm of the transformation of our wounds in the privileged place of the encounter with God: “As many as three times I prayed the Lord to remove it from me (the thorn in his side) but he said: My grace is sufficient for you; my power, in fact, best shows itself in weakness... when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Co 12:8-10).
This is the Good News: through the power of God in our fragility and limits, we can live our vocation in coherence and fidelity as witnesses to the mercy of God.
9. The signs of a journey of integration and healing
When we journey in a process of integrating our wounds, there are necessarily certain signs that show themselves. Among these I would like to point out:
1) a more realistic and grateful understanding of our history
2) greater humility in admitting our limits and mistakes
3) an increased ability to separate that which is mine from that which belongs to others
4) the ability to distinguish between that which refers to the present situation and that which we bear from our past
5) greater inner freedom
6) fewer defensive and compensatory attitudes
7) greater control of our emotional and compulsive feelings
8) greater understanding and pity for others
9) relationships that are more peaceful, more respectful and serving
10) confidence in the mercy and gratuitous love of God.
May the Lord grant us the grace to travel the path of the integration of our wounds and so live reconciled to others.
Fr. Siro Stocchetti