Assessing the Damage

If you were in a car accident and sued the person at fault, you would go to court and describe the accident to establish culpability, of course; but, at some point, the judge would ask you what it cost to fix your car. The judge is asking for a monetary figure so she can fix an amount that would make it better. Any court I ever knew about requires that there be damages if you are trying to sue.

This is not a court and there is no judge, but if you were hurt by someone close to you, and the want to settle the matter, you have to assess the damages. How would you know how to settle it, if you didn’t? Assessing the damages might lead you to conclude that no harm was done. The matter might be easy to conclude, then. If there was some harm, establishing just what it was may help you in deciding how the person can make amends. So, what is the nature of the suffering you have had to endure?

For example, there’s, you partner, the compulsive gambler who ran up thousands of dollars in high interest debt that both you had to pay off. There’s the violent man who broke your nose five times. There’s the father who hocked your Christmas presents to buy dope. There’s the promiscuous girlfriend who brought you an STD.

Maybe you had medical bills, heavy debts, lost time from work, missed payments, or repairs you had to make. In that case, the loss is right there in black and white. Maybe you’ve got bruises, broken bones, a ruptured spleen, or head trauma from too many blows to the brain; the damage is in black and blue. Maybe you can point to the damage in the form of scars, crooked fingers, or an x-ray showing bulging disks. If that’s the case, then the harm done is physical, concrete, and unmistakable.

It may be harder to assess if the damage is less direct, as it is when you suffer emotional harm. Let’s take, for example, the mother who resented you for being born because you always reminded her of her no-good ex. She always said you were an idiot like your father. She never bought you books, never read to you, and never took an interest in your accomplishments, because she didn’t think there was a point. You grew up convinced you would never amount to anything because she said so.

It’s not too hard to imagine that, if this was your mother, you might suffer from low self esteem. You might have never have gotten good grades, can barely read, and have to settle for a minimum wage job. If that’s the case, then it probably is her fault; but, that’s a harder case to prove. We may never know whether you failed academically because of her discouragement, or if she was right about you, all along.

For now, you don’t have to prove anything. For our purposes, just make a claim, as you would in court. Later, we’ll sort it out.

What if you had a mother like that, but, despite her lack of encouragement, you succeeded in school, anyway? You don’t have poor grades you can point to, as evidence of damages. In fact, maybe her abuse even inspired you to prove her wrong. A case might be made that you have her to thank; I won’t make it, but some might. Do you have any damages, then? Well, I don’t know; but, I know a very successful person who, when he leaves his business, where he’s the CEO, he passed by scores of admirers, drives off in his BMW, glances at his Rolex to see if he’s running late, arrives at my office, and, every time, confesses that he has a little voice in his head that warns him that, one of these days, everyone is going to find out what a fraud he is. I ask whose voice this is. It’s his mother’s. This CEOs, you see, had a mother like the one I’ve been describing.

What can this CEO claim as damages? His therapist’s bills, that’s what.

While you’re making your list, don’t forget to assess the lost opportunity costs. That is, all the things you might have possessed, experienced, or accomplished if you hadn’t been dealing with this thing you had to deal with, for instance, that drug-using boyfriend you’ve been hanging on to for three years. Maybe there haven’t been any direct costs in terms of bills or broken bones. Maybe he’s treated you well and hasn’t been abusive. Maybe all he’s done is waste your time, time that might have been better spent dating someone else. Maybe your biological clock ran out while you were with him and you lost your chance to have children. Include that as a lost opportunity cost.

You could go through this exercise and discover that there is no long term price, no bruises or bills, and no lost opportunities. Maybe you were worried because he didn’t text, you got frustrated, or disappointed. Maybe you lost trust in him. Maybe the only consequence was your feelings were hurt. Well jot that down if that’s all there was. It’s still important. We’ll figure out what to do with those injured feelings later. For now, it’s important that everything is acknowledged.

Assessing the damage can be tricky. Very often, the damage is not directly apparent. I’ve had many clients in my office, suffering from PTSD, surprised to learn all the problems (and strengths) that can arise out of the experience of trauma. They didn’t know about that and, perhaps, didn’t want to think about it. You often need a good therapist to recognize the links, and, even then, it’s speculative. Also, a lot of the problems don’t emerge until later on. If your girlfriend cheated on you, you might think that, now that you have broken up with her, you’re fine, until you get a new girlfriend and find that you have a hard time trusting her. You never were suspicious about women before, but you are now that you experienced that betrayal. That kind of damage is like a computer virus which sneaks into your software and causes it to crash some time later, when you least expect it.

Assessing the damage can be a very emotional experience. It can drive home the reality of the loss you suffered, make real the pain. Having to total up the damage can seem like yet another awful thing you have to experience. But it can also be cathartic. It can affirm in black and white, and maybe blue, what you’ve been thinking all along.

If you were in court, suing for that traffic accident, all these expenses and pain and suffering would be converted into a figure in dollars and cents. That’s just what courts do because they don’t know how else to settle it. You don’t have to do that, unless you want. You don’t have to establish that your lost trust is worth a hundred-thousand, that your self esteem can be bought for a million, and your worries go five for a dollar. Eventually, you’ll have to think about what would settle the matter, what would make it right, but, for now, just assess the damage so you have something to start with. Go ahead, made a list and add to it as you think of more.

Once you have your list, do I want you to hand the list over to the person who harmed you? Do, I want you to say, here, this is what you caused? No, not yet. If you did that now, I guarantee you’ll be disappointed with the response. They’ll say you padded it with self-inflected injuries.

In my next post, I‘ll write about further additions to make to the list and then we will discuss whether there is anything you can remove. So don’t show it yet to the person who harmed you. There’s more work to do before you are ready to call anyone into account. For now, make the list.