Responsibility and guilt

There’s a memory of happenings that I feel totally responsible for and guilty over (well, ok, there’s a bunch, but one in particular I can’t seem to get out of my head right now). It’s an easy one to see and know that I should not be feeling guilty over it. It’s relatively easy to see I had zero say and zero participation in. It’s something I witnessed. It’s something I had no clue at the time was traumatic for the other person. It’s something I know I only realized how awful it was in hindsight, as an adult. Yet I can’t shake the guilt over it. I feel incredibly sad over it. I feel like I should have had the (adult) presence of mind to stop, to protest, to voice concern over, but I was little. I think back on it and think I must have known it was wrong on some level. I want to think that I knew I should have stopped it and told the adults why they were wrong. But in reality, I couldn’t have had much say, even if I had the knowledge (which I highly doubt I did because it’s not developmentally appropriate for that age). While I was lead to believe I had power I truly didn’t have for so much of my life, I couldn’t have known better at the time. The culture was that fear and aversion are the best teachers; they bring the best results. The voice in my head says I should have known better because I knew personally that those are horrid ways of learning (even if I couldn’t think of it in those terms at the time,  I knew that pain was unpleasant, and pain there was worse). I should have known… but how could I have? I was not one of the 3+ adults in the situation. I wasn’t even 6 yet. How could a kid, even armed with the knowledge that pain is a traumatizing teaching tool, have more say over a situation than the adults?
So I stood by and watched. I didn’t understand the implications at the time. I understand it in hindsight, and only with my adult learning, so why can’t I shake the guilt? Why do I still feel responsible? No matter how many times I tell myself it wasn’t my fault, I can’t help but feel horrible for standing by and simply watching. I had no control over the situation. I had no influence. It wasn’t my fault. It wasn’t my fault, but I can’t shake feeling like I should have done something.
I know it has to do with earlier teaching that I should have more power. I know it’s because my mere presence was expected to stop other abuse, but ultimately didn’t. I know that wasn’t a fair expectation. I can hear De and Dr. C telling me it wasn’t my fault, that it was an expectation no one should place on a child. I can even picture TL saying the same thing if I told her all this. I can hear my professional self understanding this and saying it to the clients I worked with, but for some reason I can’t swallow it for myself. I can’t shake the guilt…
the guilt doesn’t feel as bad around the things that happened to me because others are always worth more. I was expected to protect this other person in other situations though (even as a kid), so the expectation is there around this all that much more (I was expected to have power I didn’t have, and I was expected to be protector). And I failed. It was an unfair expectation, but I failed. Over and over again in life, I failed. Maybe that’s it. Maybe it’s the combination of compounded failures and the unreal expectations that makes this harder to leave behind. That, and that failure to protect myself was ok because others were always worth more than myself. Sacrificing myself, my wellbeing and safety, was ok and expected for the safety of others… and I failed miserably at it…

How do I get the emotions to match the intellectual knowledge that the guilt isn’t mine to bear? How do I get the feeling of failure to abate? How can I let go of the responsibility?


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