zingerella wrote an article on Livejournal some time ago that I have found very useful. I’m copying it here, with her permission. Here it is, in Zingerella’s own brilliant words:
A long, long time ago, a friend took me to Alateen. She and I had bonded, in part, over the substance-abuse problems in our respective families, and she’d found a lot of good in the program. It didn’t take with me, long term, but it didn’t do me any harm, and some of the people I met there had some useful things to say, from their experience interacting with their own messed-up families.
The Wall of Shit theory is perhaps the most useful thing I took away from Alateen, and I don’t think it’s an official part of the program. Here’s how it goes:
Throughout life, everyone has a certain amount of crap hurled at them. Some people get more crap, some people get less crap. Some people, the lucky ones, also get issued shovels, and spend their formative years being shown how to garden and constructing gardens in their hearts. So they’re well equipped for dealing with the crap life throws at them. Sometimes it builds up, but they have their shovels, and use them and the crap to fertilize their gardens, and it’s more or less okay.
Other people get only crap. They get crap from a very young age, and there’s nobody to show them how to deal with it, because the people in their lives are dealing with their own crap, and throwing crap all over the place. So it builds up, in layers around their heart. After years and years of crap, their hearts, which may be beautiful, are pretty much surrounded in crap. Anything they try to send out is either trapped behind the wall of crap, or if it manages to squeeze out, it emerges covered in crap, sometimes to such an extent that it’s impossible to recognize as anything that might ever have been beautiful. The same thing happens to anything that other people try to send in: if it gets in at all, it’s covered in crap, and the person wonders why the world is throwing more crap at them. Because the crap is so thick, nobody can tunnel through from the outside, to find the beautiful heart. People get lost, and the crap sticks to them, and if they emerge at all, they too are covered in crap.
You can’t really blame people for not wanting to be covered in other people’s shit.
Sometimes, if the crapped-upon person can learn to recognize the crap, he or she can begin to reach through it, or learn to look for the openings. If a person’s spent their entire life surrounded by crap, however, they don’t always know to look for anything else—how should they? So you have people on both sides throwing love and kindness and whatever at a wall of crap, and people on either sides of the wall wondering why the people who profess to love them are giving them only crap to deal with.
Throwing more love at the wall of crap often doesn’t do anything, because the person inside all the crap simply can’t receive love that isn’t covered in crap.
There may be one or two little tunnels through the crap, and something may get through these, but, of course, they’re hard to find, and not entirely stable, and surrounded by still more crap. So even if you find a way through the crap, for some love to get through, it’s not going to be easy or pleasant to get it to the person inside the wall of crap.
The person who explained the Wall of Shit theory couldn’t tell me what to do about other people’s crap. He didn’t know if one could do much. Over time, I’ve learned that, when it comes to other people’s crap, my choices are pretty limited. Since the CUP (crapped-upon person) can’t see their own crap, and doesn’t know that they’re throwing crap at me, I can merely decide how much crap I’m willing to endure for the sake of whatever beauty I can see shining through the crap. I can shovel away from the outside, but there’s never really any way of knowing what’s inside the crap, or if I’m even digging in the correct direction. If I can find the tunnels, I might be able to get a shovel to the person inside, but after that, it’s up to them to dig their way out.
They have to dig their way out, or tell me how to find the tunnels, and accept that once I get to them, I may not smell like roses.
See, I knew, when I was a teen, that my dad really cared about us, and really tried to love us. But his love, even when he wasn’t drinking, was sometimes kind of crappy. And I would try to love him, and it would feel like nothing I did was right, like he wasn’t seeing me. Understanding that his own rather messed up childhood, his drinking, and his dysfunctional marriage with my mom had given him way more crap than he could ever hope to shovel through meant that I wasn’t the one sending bad love.
Since my Alateen days, my dad and I have learned to interact a bit better. I’ve learned to keep a cloth on hand, for wiping crap off of things, and not to expect him to send me bright, shiny love. If he lectures me about my professional life, it’s not because he thinks I’m utterly incompetent—he’s trying to help me, and I don’t have to listen to all his advice. He’s getting better at finding paths through the crap, too, and I think he’s not feeling completely defeated all the time, the way he did with my mom. And being grown up means that I just don’t have to deal with his crap all the time, anymore. I can walk away, and say “This crap is not my crap.”
I’ve walked away from other CUPs—people who were so far behind their walls of crap that I couldn’t hope to find them. People whose walls of pain and anger and other emotional ordure meant that no matter how much I wanted to love them, I could send them only things covered in crap, and they could respond only with more pain that I would send them crap. I mean who needs more crap? Their crap, however, is not my crap.
Right now, nobody in my life seems to be throwing crap at me. So it’s easy to pitch in and help the people I love shovel the crap that comes their way, if they need it, and spread it around to see what grows.