Brokenness, 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, and I’m a social worker who does research on violence. 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 love. 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 healed.
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 adulthood can trigger memories of old, unhealed wounds. We experience a cascade of events, emotions, and thoughts.
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 previously, 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 responded indifferently or punitively 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 beliefs about ourselves and what we deserve or don’t deserve. They are beliefs that begin to develop 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, we are on our way to liberation from them. 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 badly. We can think that they are jerks, or ugly, stupid, and unworthy and therefore deserve to be mocked, ignored, and disrespected. 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
As I did this research, I began to see myself in some of the stories the participants told. I 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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