The Yellow Brick Road of Not Knowing

I’m at my wisest when I am in a state of not-knowing. At those times, I experience myself as open to experiences of various sorts, such as to nature, to other people, and even to my horses, who represent zen to me. My experience is in soft focus and slow motion. What is happening has not happened before. What I have learned in the past and know intellectually is in suspension. Only when I reflect back on this state of not-knowing do I intellectualize my experience and gain knowledge. Perhaps knowledge is experience reflected upon and intellectualized.

Unfortunately, these states of not-knowing are rare. They require a sense of safety and trust, of relaxation and openness. If other people are involved, they have to be willing to engage themselves in the moment along with me and let go of rational thought and anxieties.

As I think about states of not-knowing, I realize there are various types. Some are a bit of nirvana while others are thrilling and sensual, while still others are gripping and suspenseful. There probably are other types as well, but three is enough for now. Sometimes the nirvana-like situations envelop me without my consent. For example, while driving a coastal highway in the west of Ireland, my consciousness shifted on its own. I was alight in the puffy pink clouds that arose above the coast. Or the time I was doing yoga and everything stopped except for the rainbow-colored waterfall that flowed within what I later learned was the chakra between my eyes. I knew nothing but that waterfall. Or the day I walked Third Beach in Newport, R.I., and experienced the unmediated joy that I was going to live after a operation for a tumor that could have been malignant. In each of these times, I was in what I would call heaven. I was wise during those moments. I was the unmediated me, with nothing between me and the experience of something I believe is mystical.

Being with my horses is zen. Nothing else exists but the rhythms between me and them—their huge eyes, soft breathing, and furry ears. Anxiety, the pressure of time, guilt based on actual or imaginary transgressions. These do not exist. Then I am wise.

I like the state of not-knowing when I’m with other people. This happens sometimes happens with friends. We talk, and we do things together, sometimes without talking. We are outside of our own concerns and anxieties, emotionally available to each other and out of the constraints of time.

I’ve also had this experience with lovers. The experience is like zen. During those times of not-knowing there’s a flow and a sense of being outside of time and of myself, soft and aloft. Even the sexual pull that arises between me and a lover is a form of wisdom. I give myself over to the experience which can be a highly emotional intense gratification, but wisdom all the same because these experiences have not happened before and they happen only in the moment. Reliving them is not the same as being in them.

Another form of not-knowing arises when I’m in the more formal roles of professor and researcher. When I work with students on their projects, I have to put myself in a state of not-knowing in order to understand what they want to do with their projects. When I get a sense of what they want, I can make suggestions about which yellow brick roads can get them to Emerald City. In other words, I have to start with not-knowing, get a sense of what they want, and then suggest how they can proceed, again not knowing if they will take me up on my suggestions. I am most unhelpful when I think I already know what they want. Role-based not-knowing has its own pleasures, but it is not the same as the transformative experiences of nirvana and zen that I have described.

A final state of not-knowing that is quite common in my life is the not-knowing I experience when I conduct research interviews. My research topic is violence and how persons cope with adversities. I also seek to identify and understand the belief systems that guide their thinking, emotions expressions, and actions. I know a lot in general about violence, human development, research methods, and myself. I know nothing about the person I am interviewing. Being in a state of not-knowing means I am listening and can hear them. The only way I know how to do this is to put myself in a state of not-knowing.

Knowledge, then, is a form of knowing. It is information that people have that can be put into words. People construct personal knowledge systems when they reflect back on their own experience. We construct more formal knowledge systems when they absorb what others teach them.

Wisdom, on the other hand, requires not knowing, of being emotionally and psychologically open and available to others so that others feel safe enough to express their most sensitive experiences. We are wise when we respond with knowledge connected to experience and when we offer what we know as tentative, subject to revision.

What I have written so far can be extended to mean that wise people can put up with anything, including disrespectful, abusive, and violent behaviors. Being in a state of not-knowing does mean my defenses are down, but it does not mean that my senses are dead. Threats to my emotional and physical integrity prick me into another state of mind: high alertness and instant appraisal of the threat. I can stand up for myself and for what I believe is common decency. I can appease by being silent or not resisting. I can retreat. In no way does a wise person let others get away with behaving badly.

There are many strategies for responding to bad behaviors while maintaining not-knowing and emotional availability. My preferred approach is to understand those who are behaving badly. That is why I have spent more than 25 years interviewing persons who have committed violent acts. I have been in a state of not-knowing for decades in regard to violence. At times I feel stupid and embarrassed about being stupid. I joke about being a slow learner. Yet, I am a slow learner. I have yet to write a comprehensive theory of interpersonal violence although I have written bits of it over many years. I am now in the process of writing up a comprehensive theory. As I inch along with my descriptions, explanations, and analyses, I continue to experience not-knowing. I believe that not knowing will be key to any theory that I finally construct.

One of the most surprising discoveries of this research is how little I knew about myself. In fieldnotes about an interview with a man who had murdered and then raped a college student at a university where he also was a student, I wrote

As he talked, an image of a bullet hole between his eyes came unbidden into my mind. I thought I had shot him though I had not moved as he told his story. I was sick at heart. Later, I was enraged over what he had done. Anna [not her real name] was nothing to him, an object maybe, but not a human being, not a young woman at the brink of her adult life, with a future to look forward to.

In an article, I reflected upon the unmediated experience

I remember feeling surprised at the image and then detached. I may have experienced a smudge of satisfaction that he was dead, that he deserved it, and that a bullet between his eyes had stopped his earnest narration of horror. These are themes that I have seen repeatedly in the narratives of the perpetrators I have interviewed.

Much of this writing is an account of unmediated experience. As I reflected up the experiences, I believe I learned something important, something I call wisdom. I learned about the violence in my own heart. Solzhenitsyn in The Gulag Archipelago wrote “… the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a part of his own heart?” I did not know about the violence in myself and how satisfying violence can be. I saw that I too have ideologies that justify violence. I did not know this until I put myself in a position of not-knowing. I certainly was not looking for this kind of self-knowledge, but there it was.

Wisdom arises from reflecting on unmediated experience. Accepting what we learn from unmediated experience may be a yellow brick road that might get us to wisdom, however temporarily. Stupidly envelops up when we think we know something and we do not. Arrogance characterizes certainty that we know something when we do not. Wisdom arises when we are open to experience and emotionally available to others.

Not knowing can be difficult. There is something about certainty that is safe and comforting.  Not-knowing and being able to enjoy  uncertainty and ambiguity leads to capacities for creativity, self-acceptance, and availability to self and others. A friend who recently celebrated her sixty-second birthday said, “It used to be hard for me to admit that I am wrong. Now I can. I’m not perfect. I’m a flawed human being.” Wisdom is not only the province of elders, but it can take many years to know we don’t know and celebrate it.

About the Author

Jane F. Gilgun, Ph.D., LICSW, is professor, School of Social Work, University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, USA. Her books and articles are available on Amazon, iBooks, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, and Smashwords. This article first appeared in 2009 at the Second Journey magazine at


The Death of George the Duck Teaches Me a Lesson

The Death of George the Duck

Teaches me a Lesson

I will no longer be silent about the horrors of violence.

George the duck was murdered in July 2013 at her home in River Walk, San Antonio, Texas. Her last minutes were caught on a web cam. Late at night, two men in white t-shirts grabbed George, who was sleeping next to a lamp post. They laughed and shouted as they held her by the neck, kicked her, wrung her neck, and then sauntered down the walk as she dangled dead from their hands. They threw her into the San Antonio River, laughing all the way.

 For years, George was an attraction for tourists and San Antonians alike. She’d walk up to people as if knew them and often posed with them for photos and videos.  She also has babies. Her husband was a mallard, and so the babies don’t look exactly like George, but they carry her genes and hopefully her spirit.

The Death of George as Tipping Point

I just learned the story of George the duck and immediately decided that my decades-long reluctance is over. Never again, not ever, will hold back on telling stories of what violence looks like and how it feels to be the target of violence. Never again will I worry that if I sensationalize violence if I tell the stories I have heard. The death of George, a duck, has struck me deeply as cruel and horrific.  That chord is far too familiar. At times, it has been more than I thought I could bear. I had done interview research with perpetrators of violence since 1985.

The laughing glee of the murderers reminds me of the glee that I heard as people they told me stories of the violence they committed—on people and sometimes on animals, such as sodomizing a chicken. One man told me that he got the best orgasms when he had penetrated a chicken and then slammed her head in a door. The spasm of the chicken was exquisite. Ecstasy.

Get it?  I’m done pussy footing and moly coddling. If readers don’t want to know what violence looks like, I encourage them not to read this article.  Stop right here. Stop when you get to the chicken part. Stop when you get to “George the duck was murdered.” You may have good reasons why you don’t want to read such stuff. Take care of yourself. Do what you’ve got to do. To be honest, another reason I haven’t published most of what I’ve already written because the stories sometimes traumatize me. Well, I just have to pull myself together, don’t I?  I’ve sure worked on myself long enough.

It’s time for me and the rest of us who can bear it to dig in and take a good hard look at violence. Let’s join my Sicilian relatives who say “Basta” when they’ve had enough. I’ve had enough. Basta. The death of George the duck was my tipping point.

Here goes.

Here’s one of the hundreds of stories I’ve written and never published. This story will show you what violence is for one human being. So will all the others I have to tell. Stay tuned. I’m going to publish them. Maybe you will reach your tipping point and do something about violence. Thank you, George. You have many legacies.

 The Story of a Serial Rapist

Who Experienced the Abuse of Children as Love

 I would actually go through mental battles before I raped. It would be like, it was like I was two different people.  I’d be talking.  Sometimes I’d even talk verbally: “You can’t do this.” The one that was saying, “You can’t do this,” was real gentle, docile type individual.  The one that was the, “Yeah, I can do this,” was a real belligerent, evil, what I consider evil type individual.

Eventually it would come down to the dominant one would just tell the docile one, “Fuck you. Shut the fuck up.  We’re going to do this,” and that’s the way it would come out.  That’s the way it would be and (finger snap) the other one would just disappear.

All the time that the rapes were going on, it would be like this one would be standing up there watching and would be in pain about it. The dominant one would feel powerful.  Just seemed like every time I raped that individual got more and more and more and more powerful. The other one got weaker and weaker because it’s like I was losing part of me.

I wasn’t beating them because I would snatch them up by the neck and apply just enough pressure to get them to consent.  They knew they were going to die.  They would give in.  I’d just tell them, “You’re going do every damn thing I tell you to do.  You have no choice.” That’s the way it was.  I didn’t beat anybody up.  I didn’t hit women.  My ma told me, “You don’t hit women,” and I never hit women.

I was the greatest around kids.  You know what I’m saying (chuckle)? That’s  the part that’s so messed up.  I can play with kids.  They’ll all have fun and they’ll all want to be there with me, have a good time.

With kids, it’s weird.  It was like warm, comfortable, gentle.  It was like making love.  I think it’s the other type individual if it’s with children, the one that was docile and stuff.  Kids—it’s where he belonged.  That’s where he fit in.  There wasn’t anybody threatening him.  When it was more powerful, put pressure on him. I don’t know how to explain it.  (big sigh)

It was like, all right, like you could be a threat, okay, if you were there, okay, because you’re an adult.  You could threaten this other type of individual, the small, docile one. When he’s with kids, okay, he could have power over kids because they couldn’t hurt him in any way. So he had his power there because you don’t hit women.  I don’t know why I wanted to be sexual with kids.

The love, the love that I experienced, the gentleness that I ever experienced, the caring that I ever experienced in my life came from Kyle Wallace.  The price for all that was having sex with him.  Okay?  He was gentle with me. He was kind to me. Okay?  He didn’t hit me.  He didn’t threaten me.  That was the same type of stuff that I did with kids.  I enjoyed sex with Kyle.

I went through a thing about being a homosexual about that.  That was really weird.  I was nine, ten, eleven, twelve until I got into the state training school.  Four or five years I was sexual with Kyle.  My father was beating me with a rubber hose.  It’s just a flip flop.  Sex started with Kyle and I.  He used to take a couple of us kids swimming.  Then he just started taking me by myself.

When I was in the state training school, that was incorrigibility but that was for like child molesting.  I was messing with kids that were like my own age.  They really didn’t call it child molesting because it was all the same age.  This was going on like when I was ten, eleven, twelve years old.  I was also being molested at that time, too, by Kyle, who owned the farm next door. He molested other boys, too.  He never got caught.

My mother’s boyfriend used to come home drunk and beat my ma.  I used to jump on him and hide the kids first and then jump on him until he would get off her and start beating on me.  Then she’d get away, and then I’d get away.  That was the normal pattern when he came home.  I shot at him with a shotgun, just beebees, hit him in the back.  He was on the porch, and I shot from the living room.  Most of the beebeees hit the porch.  Some of them went into him.

They took me to a state home.  I wanted to kill that man.  I was eight. I went to a juvenile orphanage home.  It was a farm.  I was the youngest person there, too. That’s where I learned to love animals.

I was also raped when I was six.  Three teenagers that I didn’t know. They made me suck them off, and they did me in the butt. Just about anything that they wanted to do.  They told me they’d kill me if I told.  I was with a friend.  I told him to run away.  He did.  I never saw him again.  He lived right across the street from me.  I stopped wanting to live a long time.  I stopped wanting to live when I got raped.  Yet I wouldn’t tell anybody.  They said they’d kill me if I told.  That kept me from telling so I must have wanted to live.

I think I was mixed up because I thoughts when I was a kid to shoot myself and stuff.  I knew how to handle guns.  My father taught me how to handle guns real well. I was a real good shot.  I knew what it would take to kill somebody and what it would take to kill myself.  I think I was in the process of making that decision.  I never let anybody know anything about me.  Why should I?  I figured I wasn’t going to be around long enough anyway.

I know I had a lot of hatred just towards everybody, mainly men. I always felt like I had no power over men.  I think it had a lot to do with why I rape women because I could get power over them but I couldn’t get it over a man.

Then I almost killed myself on drugs when I was about seventeen.  I went to the hospital and the doctor that I was seeing told me, he says, “You want some help?  We got some people who will come up here and talk to you.” They took some tests on me, and these two guys come in, little snooty looking guys.  One of them told me I was paranoid schizophrenic and should be locked up for the rest of my life (laugh).  So I kind of told him to kiss my feet. Then my doctor that was treating me for malnutrition and other stuff that I was into asked me if I really wanted to get some  help.  I said, “Yeah, I do,”

If you let people get close all that results in that is that you get hurt. You either get hurt because they turn around and walk away.  I still have that belief.  That anybody you get close to is

going to leave. Period.  So I’m already prepared for that.  Kind of a real funky way to go into a relationship with anybody but that’s the way it is, you know.

The other part of it is that if it’s men they’re going to want sex from you if they get close.  So you don’t let them close. That way you don’t have to give them sex.  Right?   To this day at 42 years old if I get into a room with a man I’m very nervous.  I don’t allow anybody to know it, but I’m very nervous because I think that’s what’s coming.

I think the day that I stop feeling like that will be the day that I know I have enough power and control not to hurt people.  

Now there’s some bestiality into this too, for about three years in my early twenties. It was bizarre.  I was doing a lot of drugs.  A horse and cow.  That’s having sex with animals.  This is going to be real gross, but this is the way it was.  It seemed like sex to me was just a place to dump your nut. 

I can’t think of a better way to put it.  That’s just the way it was in my head, even including sex that I had with women.  I was living with a girl name Sam. I used to have sex with her two, three times a day.  It was just like a better place to masturbate. I know its sounds weird but that’s the way it was.  I’ve never been satisfied sexually.  It was more like my dick was a weapon, was a gun. This is how I brutalize.  Instead of hitting women this is what I did to them because you can’t hit women.

I would make women give me oral sex, anal sex, vaginal sex.  Whatever I wanted, that’s what I did.  Whatever I wanted them to do, I made sure they did.  Powerful.  Nobody could hurt me.

You get the release and the feel good. I think that’s why there was so much sex with my victims.  It was just because I’d give a nut and then two minutes later I’m hard, and I want to go do it again.  My last victim, I had her for eleven hours in a hotel room having sex with her.  You know, that’s (sigh) not normal behavior when you gun several nuts

When I’m in a relationship, it’s kind of the way I show I love–having sex with them. I’ve tried to explain it to people and they have no concept of what that means, but if f you go back to look at what I had with Kyle, that’s the way I expressed what I felt for him is that I gave him sex.

I always wanted to.  I had this thing about wanting to die, but yet, I was one of the strongest survivors that I know.  My mother taught me to survive.  That was the one thing that she taught me real well was how to survive.  “You will survive in any given situation.”  I’ve survived the parish prisons in Louisiana, just being in there for like thirty days.  They are holes.  They are hell holes.  They are hell holes.   I mean they’re nasty.  We’re talking about rats and cockroaches and bugs that you haven’t ever seen, and like movie shit that they show how hard it is.  I survived that and kept mentally focused.


You got to the end. Congratulations. The more we take it in, the more likely we are to stand up to the social forces that shape people who do with this man does. Did this story give you ideas about what to do?  Then do it.

This is a classic case of an abused child becoming an abuser. This man became an abuser because no one helped him as a child. He has experienced complex trauma and NO ONE HELPED HIM.  If anyone had been kind to him and had established a long-term relationship of trust with him and helped him deal with his many traumas, he would not have done what he did. He would not believe what he believes. Think about it, for goodness sake. Do something. Learn about attachment as the foundation for children learning to cope with trauma.

 References and Sources

See a video about George the Muscovy Duck

George the duck gets beat to death by thugs.  YouTube.


Gilgun, Jane F. (2014, January 16). The Ducks of River Walk, San Antonio.  YouTube.

Gilgun, Jane F. (2013). The logic of murderous rampages.  Amazon.

Gilgun, Jane F. (2012) The NEATS: A child & family assessment (2nd ed.). Amazon.

Gilgun, Jane F. (2011) Child sexual abuse: From harsh realities to hope (2nd ed). Amazon.

Kidd, Sue Monk.  (2002). The secret life of bees. New York: Penguin.

Lieberman, Alicia F. (2004). Traumatic stress and quality of attachment: Reality and internalization in disorders of infant mental health. Infant Mental Health Journal, 25(4), 336-351.

National Child Traumatic Stress Network.  Retrieved January 13, 2014.

Trauma Center a Division of Justice Resource Institute. Retrieved 11 January 2014.

Van der Kolk, Bessel A. (2005). Developmental Trauma Disorder: A new, rational diagnosis for children with complex trauma histories. Psychiatric Annals 35(5), 390-398. Available free on-line at  Retrieved January 10, 2014.

About the Author

Jane F. Gilgun, PhD, LICSW, is a professor, School of Social Work, University of Minnesota, Twin Cities.

See a video about George the Muscovy Duck


Brokenness, Beliefs, and Spirituality

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.

Beliefs Underground

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.

Affirming Beliefs

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.


 Barker, Stacy E. & Jerry E. Floersch(2013) Practitioners’ understandings of spirituality: Implications for social work education. Social Work Education, 46(3), 357-370.

Cicchetti, Dante (2012).  Annual research review: Resilient functioning in maltreated children—past, present, and future perspectives.  The journal of child psychology and psychiatry,

Davies, Douglas (2010). Child Development: A practitioner’s guide (3rd  ed.). New York: Guilford.

Gilgun, Jane F. (2010). The NEATS: A Child & Family Assessment (2nd ed). Amazon Kindle. 

 Gilgun, Jane F. (2010). Reflections on 25 years of research on violence. Reflections: Narratives of Professional Helping, 16(4), 50-59.

 Sharma, Alankaar & Jane F. Gilgun (2008). What perpetrators say about child sexual abuse. Indian Journal of Social Work, 69(3), 321-338.

Gilgun, Jane F. (2008). Lived experience, reflexivity, and research on perpetrators of interpersonal violence. Qualitative Social Work, 7(2), 181-197.

 Gilgun, Jane F. (2006). Children and adolescents with problematic sexual behaviors: Lessons from research on resilience. In Robert Longo & Dave Prescott (Eds.), Current perspectives on working with sexually aggressive youth and youth with sexual behavior problems (pp. 383-394). Holyoke, MA: Neari Press.

 Lieberman, Alicia F. (2004).  Traumatic stress and quality of attachment: Reality and internalization in disorders of infant mental health.  Infant Mental Health Journal, 25(4), 336-351.

Masten, Ann S. & Auke Tellegen (2012). Resilience in developmental psychopathology: Lessons from Project Competence longitudinal study. Development and Psychopathology, 24, 345-361.

Van der Kolk, Bessel A. (2005). Developmental Trauma Disorder: A new, rational diagnosis for children with complex trauma histories. Psychiatric Annals 35(5), 390-398.