Dear Lauren,

I’ve read your articles, especially the one on emotional abuse, and I have a really scary question: is it possible that I am so damaged I’m beyond repair?

Lauren Roth's Answer

I have wonderful news for you: the fact that you are asking this question means the answer is “no.” The fact that you are asking this question means that somewhere inside you, you want to change. And if you want to change – if you have even an iota of a desire to change – then change is never beyond you. This is the question I’m asked the most by my clients. Many of them have had horrific experiences, or they’ve had experiences which to them were traumatic in one way or another, and their greatest concern is: “Can I be healed?” And just like the famous joke says, it only takes one therapist to change a light bulb – if the light bulb wants to change.

I’ve seen children of abusive parents become loving mothers and fathers. And I’ve seen extremely hurt spouses turn their marriages around for the better. It will probably take work, but if you’re willing to put in the effort to understand what was done to you, how it hurt you, why it was wrong, and to learn a better way, you can change the pattern. As I like to tell my clients: “You can be the one to stop the cycle from continuing. You can be the one to not transmit the poison to the next generation. The buck stops here – and you are the one who’s going to stop it.”

You can change, if you want it badly enough. But you can’t expect others to change.

Just remember, though, the Golden Rule of Psychotherapy. You can change, if you want it badly enough. But you can’t expect others to change. Because you are the one asking this question, my answer to you is “Yes, you can change, with work.” But if someone else isn’t asking the question, then they probably won’t be able to heal. And, true, someone with, for example, Antisocial Personality Disorder may never ask this question. Someone with ASPD doesn’t feel wrong when they knock over little old ladies and steal their purses. Once you feel remorse and want to heal, that’s your doorway to a whole new, beautiful vista.

A relevant example comes to mind. The Olympics represents the entire world coming together in peace and unity to participate together in exhibitions of human prowess. Okay, so you may prefer that the subject of the Olympics be exhibitions of human values, or exhibitions of human morality, but the bottom line is: it’s a peaceful coming together of representatives from the entire world. Certainly world peace has been broken many, many times. Certainly friendly interactions between representatives of different nations have failed millions of times throughout history. Yet, still, every two years, the representatives of different countries gather together “to heal a fractured world” (to quote a phrase from my favorite author, Sir Rabbi Jonathan Sacks).

I’ll do you one better, though. I will suggest to you that the very “disease” which damaged you is the germ which makes you stronger. Did you ever read the science fiction classic War of the Worlds, by H.G. Wells, in which Martians take over the world? (You might be more familiar with the 1938 radio adaptation of the book by Orson Welles, which resulted in widespread panic across the United States when listeners thought the fictional account was real!) I always think of the end of that book whenever I have a cold. Allow me to explain and give you a great deal of confidence.

The human immune system works in the following manner: any virus your body is exposed to, the immune system builds an immunity to that virus. Because there are trillions of different viruses and trillions of different versions of those viruses, we still get sick. But someone with a healthy immune system can never become sick from the same virus twice. Being exposed to a virus grants the body immunity to that virus forever.

When I have a cold, I am then immune to that virus forever. The ending of War of the Worlds is that the Martians who have taken over Earth all die from the common cold, because they never were exposed to our viruses – they never built up their immunity.

Your painful experiences are like viruses. And exposure to those viruses grants you everlasting immunity to them; if you work hard to recognize the lessons you’ve learned from your difficult experiences, and if you work hard to understand exactly what about those experiences hurt you, and how it hurt you, you’re well on your way to understanding how you don’t want to behave in your own life. You’ll be much less likely to repeat the same behaviors, because you have “psychological immunity” to them.

My clients are always terrified they’re going to repeat the horrific behaviors they’ve witnessed. I assure them that so long as they’re both aware and terrified of those behaviors and the effect those behaviors had on them, they are almost “immune” to perpetrating them on others. Sure, it takes hard work to stay aware, and even harder work to practice an alternative reaction, but the awareness – the desire to heal – is key.

Find someone whom you can trust and who will believe in you.

Resilience means staying healthy despite traumatic experiences. The studies on children and resilience show that children who have the following three things are most likely to be resilient: (1) an adult who loves them and believes them and believes in them; (2) good looks, and; (3) intelligence. I always thought that the reason why good looks and intelligence were factors in increased resilience is because that helps a child get an adult who loves them and believes them and believes in them. My advice to you is: find that adult for yourself. If it’s a parent, a teacher, a rabbi, a principal, an older sibling, a therapist, a friend or a neighbor – find someone (preferably an adult) whom you can trust and who will believe in you and love you back to health.

As Tisha B’av reminds us, broken things can always be rebuilt.