Sometime back, someone signed her comment on my blog post, “Murdered Soul.” The term Soul Murder was first coined by the playwright Henrik Ibsen. He defined it as, “the destruction of the love of life in another human being.” Long ago, psychoanalyst Leonard Shengold wrote a book called Soul Murder wherein arbitrary edicts or a chronic lack of empathy cause a child to lose vitality, confidence, and joy. Since his or her natural talents and feelings are not acknowledged or encouraged, identity becomes confused and existence feels painful. The child might be “brainwashed” into idealizing the authority figure while demeaning the self. This distorted reality can wreak havoc on their inner life and outer pursuits. “I can’t try for that because I am not good enough, smart enough…”
The good news is that if the individual can turn away from the slighting source and towards those that celebrate his or her authentic strengths, he or she can be “saved.” One loving person can make all the difference. Since survivors often have great diligence, humility, and hunger, they can hone talents and achieve unusual success.
While parents are often seen as the source, soul murder can also be inflicted by peers, siblings, teachers, and even employers. It might involve chronic cutting comments or a few pointed stabs. I once heard about a teacher in an elementary school who frequently called a small, fair, and blush-prone classmate, “Weasel,” instead of his name. That child died in his late teens in a car accident. A client told me that during high school, an employer at his part-time restaurant job made racist statements to his face. He had been a punctual, industrious, and respectful employee. Reduced to tears by this violence, his father intervened and it stopped. If a clear-eyed caring person has your back, you can often withstand.
In my practice, I have met people who were dismissed from the table for having acne, hit for crying, mocked for not knowing the capital of Georgia, and teased about misspelling “superfluous.” The list goes on. Some parents create competitions between kids who end up vying to be the beloved and not the shamed. Often, the put-down is more discreet. If one’s opinion is continually dismissed, countered, or hushed, inhibitions ensue. Rejection, humiliation, or punishment for asserting or disagreeing, can elicit stooped postures, poor eye contact, general avoidance, and the slow drain of confidence.
Someone once shared that as a 13-year old, he was bullied and beaten by his suburban classmates for dating a girl who had broken up with a popular athlete. His mother told him to buck up or punch a kid in the face. When his parents went on vacation he tried to enroll himself in another school with the assistance of a grandparent. The parents nixed it and the antics ensued. He became resigned. The natural verve that led him to take matters into his own hands at such a young age was later reclaimed through a therapeutic process.
Insight and acceptance can be freeing. Part of the task is undoing the idealization of loved ones or the past and relinquishing ingrained family values or thought patterns. It is then possible to understand and own one’s true capacities and be positioned to “love life.” This article from the Harvard Graduate School of Education states that a single relationship with a caring, supportive, and stable person is a source of resilience in survivors.