Autobiography in five short chapters…

We went to a Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction course a few years ago after being recommended it by our therapist at the time (who also ran the course – hmmm conflict of interest BIG TIME).  So we went obediently along hoping that it would help us be more “present” and slow the dissociative process.  There was a small group of about 10 people and they were quite an eclectic group – school counselors, couple with Parkinson’s Disease, some with anxiety and some with abuse issues.  First off we don’t do well in group settings – have this tendency to clam up unless Sophie can be present and shyly chat with a few other introverts.  So our experience with the whole course was not all that good.  It ended with a day of silent meditation and reflection – otherwise known as triggering hell.

During this course, we were read this poem/short story called Autobiography in Five Short Chapters by Portia Nelson.  Initially we thought that it sort of explained our life – remember we’re hearing impaired and that this was in a group setting where there were influences of the others going “ohhhhh yes, that’s our life”.  Ok, so some of us thought it was therapy dribble that didn’t deserve the time taken to read it – but some of us thought it made sense.  We recently read it again and, possibly with a more cynical eye, wonder about the real message it is sending.  The first two chapters say “It isn’t my fault” and then move onto “It is my fault”.  I’m not sure about anyone else who’s been through abuse, but we ALWAYS blamed ourselves or each other for the abuse from the start.  The hard bit is trying to feel any anger (or anything) towards the abusers.  Surely we asked or deserved to be treated like that, why else would anyone do those things?

There’s an analysis of the poem at another site that talks about the metaphors etc.  But now we question it’s appropriateness for abuse survivors and wonder if it should have been read at the Mindfulness course at all – or maybe it was an indication of the worth/quality of the course???

I was going to try and alter the poem to look at it from an abusive point of view, but can’t.  We aren’t wordsmiths, and the poem just doesn’t suit our experiences.


9 thoughts on “Autobiography in five short chapters…

  1. Have you read any of the works of Alice Miller? If you haven’t, you might consider trying one of her seminal works about child abuse, “For Your Own Good.” It’s a very interesting exploration of why people abuse children, and why it’s not the child’s fault. I found it very challenging, but also very validating and enlightening.

  2. FWIW, I think the Portia Nelson piece is meant to be about how people learn how to stop making self-defeating choices. It is frequently used as an example of changing intimate relationship patterns. But I agree that the message is very confusing to a trauma survivor, whose life choices have massive subtexts that such a simplistic view cannot possibly address.

  3. Hello,
    I haven’t read any of Alice Miller’s work, but I’ll see if we can get it through work next week.
    We’ve this tendency to read articles and a few selected books that have been trying to explain what’s happening for us now, rather than why it has occurred. On an intellectual level we can stand back and say “It wasn’t the child’s fault, how could she have done anything so wrong that would deserve that.” Problem is that the intellectual level only works for the older ones who don’t carry the pain.
    Maybe if we read further into other works, like Alice Miller we’ll develop more empathy for other parts of the system.
    Thank you for the suggestion.

  4. Hi,

    Yes, we agree that the poem would mean totally different things to different people. We can also see how it would have felt very “right” to some of the other people in the course… We were sort of the odd-ones-out anyways 🙂

    It’s sort of like the whole Mindfulness concept, some people find it really worthwhile and a great help in their healing. I think that it was probably a bit too much, too soon for us… and also probably with the wrong group of people… lol. One woman was in tears after a yoga exercise because she felt her joints move for the first time in months… M said “She’s crying over feeling joints, we haven’t felt this body in years”. Thankfully she just said it internally and then left because she’d had enough… Nothing worse than laughing out loud because of something said internally 🙂

    Take care…
    Sophie 🙂

  5. I agree that there is a lot missing from Portia Nelson’s poem if we are looking at it from a survivor’s perspective. Where, for example, is the chapter about learning that we actually have choices? Where is the chapter on learning how not to be terrified of the mere word, or how not to be paralyzed by what might happen when we do make a choice, and all the other complications around that concept?

    But on the other hand, she did say it was going to be five SHORT chapters… 🙂

    The first couple times I read that poem (it used to be handed round regularly in a therapy group I attended), it got a total “yeah, whatever” reaction from me. It was so irrelevant that it was just annoying.

    More recently… not that I think it captures any more of my experience than it ever did, but I do appreciate more the basic message that nothing in my life will change unless I actually change something I’m doing in my life. My natural inclination is to sit around on the couch waiting for a miracle to cure everything for me (still waiting on that one…), so I guess that’s a message I can stand to hear even when it is presented with insulting oversimplicity.


  6. CG — You reminded me about one of the earliest things my therapist tried in order to reduce my anxiety … she taught me some “grounding” exercises that encouraged me to focus on the solid reality of objects in the room. This terrified and horrified the insiders to a degree almost impossible to describe … they didn’t want to know that we were all together, trapped inextricably in one body that could perceive solid objects.

    Things are much better now, but I still remember the panic of grounding myself in perceptible reality.

  7. Hi RockerGirl,

    I’ve shared the poem with others for just that reason of it having some form of positive message in that there is room for change, but it will take work.

    I wonder if it could be adapted for the abuse survivor? The concept seems really good in that it is short and conveys a message of hope to some people – sometimes we would have appreciated a small snippet of hope to carry with us.

    Because in it’s current form it doesn’t really do justice to the abuse survivor, it just seemed rather inappropriate for the Mindfulness course where there were a variety of people coming together with totally unknown experiences. But then the course cost quite a bit of money that was charged by our therapist, and by pressuring us to go along it created some ethical conflict of interest – she could have just taught the techniques in our usual therapy. I have a feeling that she taught the same course matter regardless of who came along.


  8. Hi David,

    Yes, we have rather large issues with the grounding techniques as they often require some form of tactile experience, which seeing as we can’t really feel the body doesn’t work well. One of the worst experiences we had with grounding techniques was with a therapist in our early 20’s – she put a finger on our leg and told us to concentrate on the feeling of her finger on our leg. We lost it when we saw this finger coming towards us, let alone when we could see this finger touching our leg. Mind you, that was very much our fault as we told her there was no abuse – wouldn’t want a therapist suggesting anything to us now would we.

    Sometimes we can do grounding techniques, but it’s more based on reciting the time of day, what day it is etc. That’s when we can remember what time and day it is, or have our cell phone with us so we can look at it. We’re hopeless at remembering what year it is.


  9. Hi David,

    Just read part of Chapter 1 from “For your own good” by Alice Miller, as a preview on Amazon – ouch! In our early 20’s we remember the mother saying some of those phrases about controlling and not “mollycoddling” our niece and nephew as babies. Thankfully we ignored this advice and conditioning when we were nanny for our niece – Sophie is too gentle to do anything even close to it.

    Thank you for the reference, we’re off to the University to pick it up after work.

    Take care

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