It’s not my fault!



Amelia sat on the couch full of frustration and longing, tears welling in her eyes. “I feel like everything is my fault,” she said. “My parents divorce, the fact that my brother doesn’t come around, my mom’s inability to love me, the problems in my marriage, it’s all my fault. If I were a better person none of this would be happening.” 

We had been down this road before. The idea of fault and personal responsibility for every negative event in Amelia’s life coming to rest solely on her shoulders. It was deeply ingrained. 

“We don’t have much time left,” I said, “our healing session is nearly over. I’m going to give you an assignment. I want you to practice saying, ‘it’s not my fault.’ Use it like a mantra. Say it out loud, say it when you drive your car, say it to yourself when you brush your teeth, tend your children, do the dishes and fall into bed at night. Let the words begin to find a home in your spirit and body. Begin now. Let me hear you say it.”

 “I can’t,” she said looking away, “because I don’t think it’s true. I just can’t.” 

I persevered. “Yes, you can. Whether or not it feels true, I’m asking you to voice the words. Do it now, here with me.” 

Amelia fingered a lock of her long brown hair, her brow furrowed and intent. The words were in there somewhere trying hard to come up. I waited, watching the clock tick away the final seconds of our time together, as a single tear fell quietly over the rounded pink of her cheek.

 “It’s not my fault,” she whispered in a barely audible tone. I cupped my hand behind my ear. “Say what? I couldn’t hear you? I may be going deaf. Louder, please!”

 She smiled at me in a love-hate way, like a kid being asked to eat spinach before being excused from the table. Amelia began to justify why she could not, should not, be voicing such things, her thinking eager to slip back into the familiar water of self-hatred.  

“I’ve heard all that before,” I said, stopping her, “what I have not heard are these new words. What were they?  I want to hear those words again.”  Amelia dutifully repeated the phase three more times, scheduled her next appointment and left.  

An hour later the phone rang. It was Amelia. “I’ve just been rear-ended in a traffic accident,” she blurted out. “This guy was following too close. I tired to get him to back up by tapping my brakes but he wouldn’t do it. When we got to an intersection he didn’t slow and crashed into the back of the van. 

I was stunned. “Are you alright? Do you need help?”  I could hear the roar of traffic as she yelled into the phone.  

“Nobody was hurt. The thing is,” she bellowed, “that it was terrible and wonderful all at the same time. A fire truck happened to be going by and stopped. One of the firemen got out, assessed the situation, leaned in my window and looked me square in the eye. And you know what he said?  He said, ‘it’s not your fault.’ Can you believe it? I had him repeat it because I couldn’t trust what I was hearing, but it doesn’t end there. I got on the phone to my insurance company as the police were arriving and the woman I spoke to was really sweet. I was rattled and anxious but she kept telling me not to worry because it was not my fault. She said that none of it was my fault. Karen I’m crying, this is so amazing and wonderful. I’ve never been so happy to be rear-ended in my life. I really get it now.  I feel like the universe just stepped in and delivered its message, and I get it now. I really get it.





portland-stairsI learned a lot from my residency as a therapist, but very little came from the books I read. It was the personal realizations that moved me to insight more than any training skills. Specifically, I learned that the judgments and criticisms of others that I was so quick to make in the privacy of my own mind were destructive and misplaced, saying more about my lack of development than anything else. 

I ran therapy groups at Clackamas County Mental Health Center with Rich Panzer, the resident psychiatrist. Our evening group was attended by a very angry, immensely overweight woman, whom I disliked immediately. She triggered me because she was the dark side of the compliant physically fit girl I had learned to be. Her manner was caustic and fiercely good at pushing people away. I secretly wished she would leave the group, and take her attitude with her. I felt she was standing in the way of real healing for others, but mostly she evidenced an uncomfortable place of judgment in myself that I had no skill to deal with. As months went by and her shell began to weaken and crack, I was able to glimpse the magnificence of the spirit within.  When she felt safe enough to tell her story, give up her secrets and release her pain, I felt shamed by my earlier thinking.

I saw the same thing repeated daily in my practice at the clinic, clients hiding their beauty and wisdom behind years of walled off pain, desperately needing to find a way out, and just as desperately determined to create a kind of safety that prevented them from doing so.

The spoken message was, please help me, my life is a mess and I can’t go on.

The unspoken message was, I’ve been hurt so much that I can’t let you close enough to know me.  I have to constantly guard from danger.

It took time to understand how to separate people’s defenses from their deeper essence, but I count it as one of the most valuable lessons of my life.

Debbie Ford wrote a book called, “The Dark Side of the Light Chasers,” which helps us understand how we project what we can not accept in ourselves onto others. If you haven’t read it and feel ready to look at your own shadow side, I’d give it a try.


I knew she was a single mother. They are my weakness, reflecting my own years of having not enough and choosing to be alone rather than grab another wrong relationship.  I agreed to see her for twenty dollars. A reading, I reasoned, could give her  perspective, a new foundation to stand on and send her forward with tangible hope. 

I quickly realized a reading would not be enough when I pulled back the veil of her life to find blood and large open wounds oozing with infection.

Okay, the healer in me reasoned. I must continue seeing her. My practical mind protested, going into matters of paying office rent, utilities and taxes. That part scolded me. These situations are not good for you. My healer bargained. Okay, I’ll give her six more sessions, then cut her loose.

By the eighth session she had claimed her strength and was moving with a warriors courage. This is the time, I told myself, to end our sessions. I practiced the speech in the morning mirror. I wrote notes to myself over lunch. Setting boundaries was never my strength. I kept reminding myself, it is not your place to take care of the world. You are a business woman, so behave like one. Before our session began I delivered my rehearsed speech.

“I’m sorry, I’d love to keep seeing you but I simply can not continue our twenty dollar fee.”  There I had said it!

She immediately burst into tears; floods, torrents, oceans of tears. “I’m so sorry, I’m so embarrassed. I know you deserve much more, but this small fee is actually more than I can afford.”

She told me spring break was coming and she didn’t have enough food for her children. She was going to ask her x-husband’s mother for a loan but hated the way the woman made her feel and her reluctance in giving it. I went to my desk, pulled out my checkbook and wrote her a check for two hundred dollars. Boundaries have never been easy.

written 4-16-08

Neville – my view

I used to work in a small studio space near 20th and Hawthorne owned by my eccentric friend, Neville. His ancestral home was next door, taking up most of the city block. When Neville retired from teaching, he decided it was time to experiment with the illegal substances he’d read so much about. He talked freely about his discoveries, taking his professors mind into each expanded reality. 

Roses bloomed full, red and fragrant outside my studio window. As my evening client wrote my check and carefully tore it from her vinyl checkbook, I gazed out the window at Neville. His hands were gloved as he pruned blossoms from the bushes that climbed the wire fence. He’d left shirt and tie behind long ago in favor of loose fitting cottons. His eyes were full of light, an ear-ring dangled from his right lobe and the smile on his face rested satisfied and deep.

I walked my client out the door, down the cobbled path and through the gate. We parted with a hug and words of appreciation.  Then I turned to 70 year old Neville who continued trimming and grinning in his own blissful realm.

What are you doing today, Neville, I asked, enjoying his approach to discovery. Today I’m trying mushrooms, he said, and I’m pleased with the result, very satisfying. I should have done this long ago. Neville’s face shone with round contentment. He was fully present and in the moment without fears, baggage from the past or sorrows.

In that moment, he defined everything I hoped to accomplish with my clients. I found myself envying him. I wanted to trim the roses, I thought. I want to go where he has gone.

Neville performed my wedding ceremony when I lived in The Columbia River Gorge. White flowing robes matched his white flowing hair as he readied himself for our service. Do you need a changing room, I’d asked earlier. No, he replied, I have nothing on under my robe. I prefer it that way, the wind feels so good.

Dear Neville, coming to see me session after session, but always content spiraling in his own unique orbit. His experiments doing more for him than I ever could.

 written 7-9-08