July/August 2007 Featured Stories
New Age Bullies
by Julia Ingram
Hannah followed New Age thinking for many years. She constructed astrology charts, worked with psychics and thought she knew something about the world. And then her 26-year-old son committed suicide. Prior to that tragedy (most bereavement counselors consider it the hardest loss to face), she believed in the adage: "Everything happens for a reason." Hannah says, "I no longer believe that, nor do I believe I know anything about why the world works as it does.
"When people said my son died for a reason, or that he was in a better place, or worst of all, that he'd chosen to die," says Hannah, "I was appalled and furious. It demeaned my son's death."
Not only did it demean her son's death, it minimized her loss.
Hannah's experience reminded me of a friend who underwent a severe bout of chronic fatigue. She went to see the minister of her New Thought church, hoping to get some short-term help with shopping and housework. The minister provided less practical support: he promised to help her come to grips with the "lessons" she should learn from the illness. My friend dragged herself home and returned to her bed, feeling alone and ashamed.
During my 36 years as a psychotherapist, I've seen many clients who have been victims of people like those Hannah and my friend describe. I call them New Age Bullies - those who, sometimes with the best intentions, repeat spiritual movement shibboleths, with little understanding of how hurtful their advice can be. Some of their favorite clichés are:
It happened for a reason.
Nobody can hurt you without your consent.
I wonder why you created this illness (or experience).
It's just your karma.
There are no accidents.
There are no victims.
There are no mistakes.
A variant of this behavior is found in the self-bullying people who blame themselves for being victims of a crime, accident, or illness and interpret such misfortunes as evidence of their personal defects or spiritual deficiencies.
I first used the term New Age Bully after attending a lecture in the early '90s. The speaker, a popular leader in the spiritual movement, recited a New Age nostrum: "We create our own reality." A
woman in the audience responded by recounting how she had taught this "fact" to her seven-year-old daughter. The child had fallen off her new bicycle and skinned her knee. When she ran crying into the house, the mother told her to sit down and think about how she had created that accident. To my shock, the speaker then led the audience in a round of applause for this woman. The message was reinforced: Even children need to learn how everything that happens to them is their own creation.
I jumped up and said, "I think the little girl needed a kiss and a band aid." When I tried to elaborate, the lecturer cut me off. "Are you a beginner?" he asked and then told me how wrong I was. I sat down, embarrassed and confused. Only later, could I answer that question for myself: I am not a beginner, but a seven-year-old child is. And this self-appointed guru was teaching a belief, not a fact. He had bullied me that evening, and he encouraged others to do the same.
I chose the word bully because bullying is about power. In the aftermath of the Columbine High School tragedy, educators, law enforcement officials, and therapists began paying more attention to bullying. Mostly, they deal with malign bullying - the willful and conscious desire to hurt another person. That is bullying at its most destructive. While I have certainly seen examples of such abuse within spiritual circles, I'm also challenging those who push their beliefs on others in an overbearing, dogmatic manner, even when their advice is well-intentioned.
On the other hand, the belief that we create our own reality can be very self-empowering for some people - the psychological equivalent of moving mountains. My clients with strong beliefs that they are accountable for their own lives do much better in their recovery from psychological problems than those who stay stuck in the shame/blame cycle (of self or others.)
Classic books by holistic physicians, such as Bernie Siegel's Love, Medicine and Miracles and Andrew Weil's Spontaneous Healing, illustrate the value of empowering beliefs in recovering from illness. Neurologist David Perlmutter, author of The Better Brain Book, writes: "It is the belief that predestined reality can be modified that leads to statistically significantly better outcomes."
Several years ago, Gen Kelsang Lingpur, now a
resident teacher at the Tara Mahayana Buddhist Center in Tucson, was diagnosed with leukemia. At the time, she was a business executive from a Catholic background. "My first reaction," she says, "was grief. I cried a lot and asked, 'Why me?' But then I thought, if I have only two years to live, I want them to mean something."
Her quest for meaning led her to Buddhism, which, in turn, led her to a belief in karma. "I learned that everything comes from the Mind," she recalled, "but not this [she smiled and pointed to her head] mind. Everything that happens in this life is a direct result of actions from a previous life." Once she accepted the belief that her illness was the result of her actions in a previous life, she was able, with help from her physician, to heal through Buddhist practices.
So I asked Gen Lingpur how she applied her belief in karma when working with cancer patients. "I never say to them as a
group that their cancer is a result of actions from a previous life," she said. "I don't know if that is their belief. That would be inappropriate."
Her distinction is important. It is the reason why affirmations so often fail. Coming to a personally held belief is a
process. For some, the insight may come in a flash but, for most of us, it takes work and experience to move from a desire to belief. It would be like skipping to the last page of an instruction manual and missing all the necessary intervening steps for proper assembly. If you are in the first chapter of recovery from childhood sexual abuse, for example, an early stage of recovery is to challenge the commonly shared belief that you somehow "caused" the abuse. This belief does not come from a position of power but from one of self-shame or blame. In my therapeutic practice, I have never seen anyone able to skip over this first task of realizing they were not to blame. Sometimes the only thing these clients are able to do in this early stage is to see that their abuser was to blame.
Some of my fellow therapists express concern that blaming others keeps the client in the victim role. While I don't want my clients to get stuck there, if that's what they need to do first, it can be a
useful step. To tell a vulnerable client that there are no victims invariably leads them to internalize even more self-blame.
Blaming the Victim
Many people automatically and unconsciously blame themselves for being victims. Counselors who work in a battered women's shelter or with rape victims know it is a long and arduous process for their clients to reclaim a sense of personal power. It would be utterly cruel to ask an abused woman what she did to create that experience or to suggest that she wasn't a victim. I assume that most people reading this article would not condone such insensitivity, but there are subtler ways to blame a victim.
A client of mine was in a relationship with a
man who shared her spiritual beliefs. At the beginning of our work, she described the relationship in mystical terms. However, she had severe stress symptoms as a direct result of trying to live with his 11-year-old son who routinely screamed hateful remarks at her.
Her complaints about the boy's out-of-control behavior and her pleas to her partner to get help for his son were met with disdain. He insisted the problem was her response to the situation. When she told him she was in emotional pain over the child's behavior, he replied, "No one can hurt you without your permission." The worst of the stress came from her buying into her partner's reality - that it was her problem.
I said he sounded like a New Age Bully. He showed no compassion for her pain, he didn't listen to her complaints or advice, and he shamed her for reacting to the child's aggressiveness.
Once she stopped blaming herself for being upset and saw that the problem wasn't her inability to handle whatever the child did, but her partner's unwillingness to take her complaints seriously or show her any compassion, she ended the relationship. She was now in a place to examine the situation according to her own beliefs.
I encourage clients to carefully examine the belief that one should remain in an abusive relationship or job because of "the lessons to be learned," as that can be a form of self-bullying.
Why New Age Bullies Do It
New Age Bullies often act from a sincere desire to be helpful. It may also be a defense. Think of a friend who has just suffered a terrible loss or someone who's been diagnosed with a serious illness to whom you want to say something comforting. Or, someone who seems locked in a
destructive pattern and you want to say something to get him to think differently or take charge of his life. The problem is, you can't know how your words will be received. If they don't share your beliefs, your advice won't help. They may feel that you are blaming them or are indifferent to their feelings.
"In blaming or shaming a victim," Gen Lingpur says of the Buddhist tradition, "you are assuming that the person knew the karma they were creating in a previous life and that they have that knowledge in the present. We don't know. We can't know ahead of time what the results of an action will be, nor can we remember what action created the result. It's sometimes a problem in the Buddhist community when someone says of another's suffering: 'It's just their karma.' That statement lacks compassion."
Psychologically, there's another reason people blame victims. Viki Sharp, a victim advocate for 26 years, explains it this way: "People tend to blame victims because it makes them feel less vulnerable and more in control. A woman leaves her window open one night and a man comes through it and rapes her. The thinking is: 'She was raped because of something she did - she left her window open and, since I don't do that, I'm safe.'"
As a practice, I don't give unsolicited advice because I can't know for certain what another's beliefs or vulnerabilities are. Of course, I will offer advice in the context of a therapy session or among friends whose beliefs and experiences are familiar to me.
Gen Lingpur agrees. In her role as a spiritual teacher in a Buddhist community, she finds it appropriate to introduce concepts like karma while leading her students to a deeper understanding of the spiritual belief that there are no accidents, no victims. But it's also a
question of intention, context, and the nature of the relationship. Spiritual teachings can be easily vulgarized and misapplied.
Perhaps we can all learn from what the Buddha purportedly said about belief:
"Believe nothing because a wise person said it. Believe nothing because it is generally held. Believe nothing because it is written. Believe nothing because it is said to be divine. Believe nothing because someone else believes it. But believe only what you yourself judge to be true.
Julia Ingram is the New York Times bestselling co-author of The Messengers and author of The Lost Sisterhood: The Return of Mary Magdalene, The Mother Mary and Other Holy Women. New Age Bullies was first printed in Common Ground in 2004. Share your feedback on the article by emailing email@example.com Visit www.juliaingram.com.