The dangerous illusion of control
"That terrible things happen to perfectly good people. That perfectly good people can make terrible mistakes. That the world can be very capricious. We know it, but it’s helpful for just day-to-day functioning to forget that, and assume that we are in control. When these accidents happen, they’re just reminders that we only have partial control. I think that’s very difficult…"
Maryann Gray accidentally ran over an 8-year-old boy who ran out into the road in front of his home. By the time he arrived at hospital, he had died. Police investigators at the scene determined that Maryann was not to blame for the accident, and told her she could leave. The accident was not her fault; nobody, not even the boy's family, blamed her. Nevertheless, Maryann realises now that she punished herself for years after the accident. "I did a variety of things that alienated my friends, so that I stopped seeing many of them. I dated men who treated me really badly. But more than that, I feared there was something dark inside me that called forth my accident..." She decided that, as she had taken a boy from his mother, she didn't deserve to have children herself.
Maryann's story illustrates powerfully something that counsellors and therapists encounter frequently in our clients and ourselves: the dangerous illusion that we are in control of our lives, and consequently when things go wrong, we must be to blame. Even when we consciously know - as Maryann did - that no-one else thinks we were at fault, yet our unconscious belief in our own wicked unworthiness can lead us to self-destructive behaviour in punishment for a crime we did not commit. I am not arguing for irresponsibility - certainly I would want every adult person to take responsibility for his or her actions. But in my counselling room, I encounter relatively few people who shirk their responsibilities, and many more who who shoulder responsibilities that are not theirs to bear.
A pattern of self-sabotage can suggest an unconscious and sincere belief - sometimes dating back decades - that we have done something terribly wrong, when in reality all we did was live through something utterly horrible. It's well-known now, I think, that children often blame themselves if their parents divorce. Survivor's guilt is a similar phenomenon. We human beings, we are very uncomfortable with the idea that the universe is an unpredictable, arbitrary sort of place. We find it incredibly hard to process the thought that things don't always happen for a reason. We often prefer the relative comfort of blaming ourselves for our sins of commission and omission ("if only I'd..." - "I should never have..."), to the cold comfort of meaningless accident.
An important part of a therapist's work sometimes is to help our clients learn to be more honest with themselves about what they are truly responsible for in their lives. To judge themselves more fairly and less harshly, for what they do. And to start to recognise, and eventually let go of, those assumed crimes that no other decent person would accuse them of.
If you are someone who says "I should" or "If only" a lot (and I confess, I am one of them), perhaps try asking yourself this next time it happens: What would I be saying to my daughter, if she was in this situation? My best friend? My partner? You might be surprised at the gap between the compassion and understanding you naturally show others, and the rough justice you habitually hand down to yourself.
You can hear Maryann Gary, Jonathan Izard and Jonathan Bartley talking about their experiences of living with having accidentally killed someone in a deeply moving Radio 4 documentary, Meeting the Man I Killed (40 min).
(The picture shows Michael Rowson, who died after being hit on a dark country road on new Year's Eve 2105 by a car driven by Jonathan Izard).