This article talks about work we do when we are ready to work on clearing the influence of betrayals from our minds and emotional systems. It is about recovering our feelings of safety in the world and moving forward to create better and happier lives. Those of us who are still battling our betrayers, still clarifying our feelings of outrage or still developing our self-defensive skills may feel outraged by the very idea of forgiving. And so they should. Forgiving is something we do “at our leisure,” later when we have the time to think about restoring our emotional systems to a pre-warzone state. Ultimately we want to be positive, creative, optimistic people — without ever forgetting the lessons we learned in our histories. This article is about what we do, when we’re ready to put it all behind us. — Kathy
“Forgiveness is a dangerous passage.” This is a quote from an unknown source on the white board on my office. It’s been there for years and every time I think about cleaning it off, I think “oh not yet.” The temptation to forgive for the wrong reasons is something I don’t want to forget.
In this tenth article of this series on recovering from traumatic relationships, we will discuss the process of forgiving. It is a bridge between the grieving/letting go and the rebuilding phases.
A lot of people have a lot of opinions on forgiveness. Most religious or spiritual disciplines will tell us that forgiving is essential to our spiritual health. On a more mundane level, we may we aware that our friends and supporters are losing patience with our extended healing process, or may be pressuring us to get over it. On a more personal level, we may want to reenter the world without all this emotional baggage that makes us so hyper-conscious of potential threats that we have a hard time seeing or taking advantage of opportunities for good experiences.
In my mind, the only reason to ever consider forgiving is that we want to free out minds of the residue of anger that hangs on after we grieve and let go. There are other benefits we get out of forgiveness, but the first motivation has to be to improve the “quality of life” in our own minds. It’s a matter of our relationship with ourselves.
In addition, I believe there are a few prerequisites to really forgiving anything. The most important of them is that our suffering is fading. (That doesn’t mean that we’re not still dealing with repercussions of some sort, but that the level of pain has diminished to the point where it’s less important than our desire to get over it.)
The other one is that we have the stability and presence of mind to know that we can forgive without getting back into the situation that caused us all this pain in the first place. If we’re still attracted to that situation or others like it, we’re leapfrogging ahead to forgiving before we’ve done the preliminary work of getting angry at our betrayers, developing defensive skills, and facing the fact that there are things we just cannot fix or change.
What is NOT a good reason for forgiving is some sort of social expediency, because we have to deal with our betrayers or with other people who are not sympathetic or pressuring us to get over it. There are other ways to handle that situation.
Here are some of the things we may be thinking as we approach forgiving:
• These angry or frightened feelings don’t have any place in my life anymore. I want to move on.
• I’m ready to find more interests than this bitterness
• I want to clean up my emotional system so I become more positive and optimistic
• I’m starting to remember how I felt before all this happened, and I want to recover some of that joy of life.
• This just isn’t worth the energy I’ve been giving it
But to forgive, we have to overcome one major obstacle. Fear. Forgiving is actually part of overcoming fear. But we have to face it head on too.
Fear and forgiveness
The progress of healing involves us becoming more and more real about what happened and how we feel about it. In anger, we get closer to recognizing our fear, but our reaction is to throw things at it – blame, threats, vengeance, work on fixing things so it never happens again. In grieving and letting go, we accept the specific losses that we have endured. While that is good work, it also clarifies our vulnerability to random events or to specific threats in the world. We may work on accepting that vulnerability, along with our other losses, but it doesn’t change the fact that it exists.
And so now, our increasing awareness of the costs of our vulnerability raises a new issue. How do we live with the fear?
This question makes sense of all we’ve been through to process the trauma. We may have dabbled with fear in our processing. Asking ourselves “what if” this or that. What if no one ever loves me again? What if I am really too stupid to live? But we never sat down to really look it hard in the eye.
Because fear is an extremely uncomfortable emotion. In fact, if we look at all the so-called negative emotions, including shame and guilt, and do enough digging down, we find fear at the bottom of them. Other than love, it is the most fundamental emotion. And it is the antithesis of love or connectedness. We literally can’t feel love and fear at the same time. One will overtake the other.
Fear is designed to stop everything else until it is resolved. It generates the noises of anxiety and need for immediate relief, while blocking or compromising our ability to see into the future, our ability to fully recognize and enjoy what is around us, and our ability to take the normal risks involved in forward movement in our lives. It eats up our energy in a million ways and drives us toward behaviors that are about nothing but self-protection and relief from the mental noise.
This is why facing and acknowledging the fact that we are afraid can be such a powerfully transformative thing, all by itself. It is a form of clearing away all the intermediate structures of trauma-processing and getting down to the center of it in a totally authentic way. So we are no longer lying to ourselves or pretending. So that we are no longer trying to talk ourselves into irrational ideas about being stronger or safer than we are. So that we are finally clear about the fact that the universe whacked us and we don’t know when it will whack us again. It is out of our control.
This is tough stuff, the toughest of the entire grief process, and until we are ready for it, we can’t do it. Our minds won’t let us. We will slip and slide away into denial or bargaining or anger or another round of grieving and letting go, all the things that we know made us feel better than the stage before. And that is fine. Our minds have their own wisdom, and we face this issue when we have the structural underpinning in place to do this. It’s why the healing process is progressive.
But one way or another, when we come to think about forgiving, we’re going to run into this issue. How can I safely forgive if I really don’t know when I’m going to be facing the same thing again, or something worse? Or vice versa, how can I experience my fear if I’m relaxing my angry alert and protection systems by forgiving?
This trauma was nothing compared to the first one
The experience of trauma is built into our emotional histories. In a way, every trauma we experience is a replay of the primal trauma that every child experiences, the transition from life inside the womb to life out of it. It is the fundamental “expulsion from the Garden of Eden” which transfers us from a situation where we are fed, warmed, held, connected to our source to a new situation in which we are separate and dependent for our survival on things that are out of our control.
The developmental activities of the first four years are actually about the child navigating that separation to acquire certain basic intellectual perspectives and emotional skills necessary to healthy personality formation. It is our first experience of trauma processing. It occurs both on a macro level of gradual emotional acceptance of separation from the “source” and on a detail level of dealing with separate events that trigger fear, disappointment and uncertainty. If all goes well, we maintain steady bonds with our caretakers that allow us to ease into independence, self-soothing skills and the beginnings of empathy.
So we “know” what trauma means from a very early age. One way of describing trauma is that it is an unexpected breach of the rules we took for granted. Or the rules we depended on for our survival and sense of security in the world.
A whole series of emotional reactions to this breach are reasonable and normal. All the emotional stages we discuss in trauma processing, as well as others that we have not discussed in depth, such as feelings of betrayal, rejection or shame. If we go back to the nature of the first trauma, it makes sense that we would feel offended. One day our life is one thing; the next thing it’s another. What are we supposed to think? At minimum, it would be reasonable to think we are being unreasonably screwed with.
This brings us back to the primal argument. Because who, ultimately, is screwing with us? To cut a long discussion short, our big argument is not with any one persecutor in this world, not our parents, not our selfish lovers, not with the truck that hit us. It’s with God or the universe, or however we look at the overall intelligence that organizes this place. Because clearly that big intelligence has forgotten that we were previously important enough to have the suite at the center of the universe, and for reasons not made clear, we have been demoted to just one small, helpless life form in this place full things and life forms that clearly do not recognize our centrality.
Welcome to the first time we felt the fear of being vulnerable and alone. And to the basic human challenge of living with those feelings at the same time we experience love, trust, some kind of internal dignity, and the ability to risk moving forward with our lives.
There is no human being who has not been through this. And there is not one of us who doesn’t live with this challenge on a daily basis in some part of our consciousness.
It’s important to know this, because as we move forward with dealing with our own fear, we also know that some people have found ways of managing it more effectively than others.
The cost of doing business.
We have these bodies. They have their own intelligence and they want to survive. Our spirituality has its intelligence. Our intellect has its intelligence. Our emotional system has its intelligence. (See Daniel Goleman’s books on various forms of intelligence for wonderful discussions of this topic.) They are all integrated and mutually supportive, but the body is the instrument and the house where it all plays out, and one of the body’s primary vocabulary words is fear.
We cannot get away from this, but we can decide what we’re going to do about it. And that is where forgiving comes in.
There are a lot of dictionary definitions of forgiving, but for our purposes in this article, we are going to experiment with a new one. That is, making a decision about how much energy we want give to a certain source of fear in our lives.
This is not about minimizing the damage or our struggle to get over it. It is not about condoning other people’s bad behavior or the real dangers we face in the world.
Rather it is about recognizing something about ourselves. We have done all reasonable work to identify the problem, to protect ourselves in the future, to let go of what we have discovered is now gone, and to face our fear. We know what we are afraid of. Now, we consider a decision about reclassifying the issue as something we may or may not run into, something that is (to some degree) out of our control. We begin to consider whether or not we are served by continuing to let fear of this thing drain resources that could be spent on positive forward movement.
Forgiving is not the same as denial, because we make this decision with full awareness of our losses and our future risks. It involves no forgetting. We respect all the information we have gathered, in case we need it again. We respect all the feelings we have gone through, because they are part of the truth of this experience. We just decide to start withdrawing our energy, turning off that faucet, and shifting our attention to other things.
What forgiving is and isn’t
Forgiving is a decision we make and then gradually follow through, adapting that decision to our own comfort level. It is a decision we make from a position of power over the one thing we truly have power over, our own choices. Especially that supreme choice of where we place our attention.
Forgiving is something we do, knowing that we cannot totally control fear, because our bodies have their own agendas and they will generate fear if they feel it is necessary. So it also involves a deal with our bodies that we will listen to their fear, that we will not become airy-fairy pseudo-Buddhists who try to stuff their fear because they think it’s unfashionable. But we make a deal with our bodies that it’s better for the entire organism if we manage our fear, reducing our investments in fear about things we already know about, and saving our big extravaganzas of fear and anxiety for the surprises.
Forgiving is about trust at two levels. First, trust that certain bad things will happen. We can look at this statistically, if we’re inclined. A certain fraction of people we meet will be destructive emotional cripples. A certain fraction of things we buy will turn out to be unusable junk. A certain number of conversations with our relatives will include uninvited comments about our choices, our characters or our weight. Trusting that these things will happen eliminates the surprise factor and enables us to plan around these statistical likelihoods.
Second, forgiving is also a kind of trophy we get for doing the work and coming out the other side of the trauma processing. In that sense, it is about renewed trust in ourselves and in the universe. What was once a huge deal is now fully digested and just a learning experience attached to some unpleasant memories. We are whole again and on generally good terms with the big intelligence that runs everything.
In all of this, you’ve probably noticed how little I’ve talked about the perpetrator. And I’m sure you understand why. Because this is really something between the various forms of intelligence in ourselves, and it is something between us and the big intelligence that runs everything.
But still we need to get down some practicalities too. So here is what forgiveness is NOT:
• It is not condoning or acceptance of anything we find hurtful, unethical, uncaring or anything else that is bad for us. (We may find ourselves releasing negative feelings about something, when we come to understand why it happened, but we don’t have to. This is not ultimately about them. It is whether we’re ready to move on.)
•It is not about compartmentalizing or denial. We are not “stuffing” it or pretending it never happened. We’re not trying to convince ourselves that we haven’t just been through a battle or deluding ourselves that we’re more powerful than we are. We are just gradually shifting our attention away from it, as we feel comfortable doing so. We are gradually reclaiming our interest in other things.
• It is not a reason for re-involving ourselves with people or situations that hurt us. We don’t forgive so we can jump into that pool again. The only reason we would do that is if we have evolved past the point of being hurt by what hurt us before (something that doesn’t often happen) or if the person or the situation has gone through some kind of cosmic surgery and is now something else. Remember, forgiving comes AFTER we have learned self-protection in the angry phase and let go of whatever got us into this situation. If we forgive because we want to do the same thing all over again … well, you don’t need me to tell you what you’re volunteering for.
• Likewise, it is not a social cure. If we’re forgiving because we’re embarrassed about being such a bore, or because our bad feelings are alienating our families, or because we want to get along better with people who just don’t get it, we victimizing ourselves all over again. We’re giving away our authority over our own feelings, and trying to force ourselves to feel something we don’t, in order to be accepted. If it’s really important that we not communicate the full force of the outrage or grief we’re dealing with – like in a work situation or in court — we can do that. We can selectively choose where, when and how much we share, while we continue to work through our trauma privately. The ability to do this — letting some people in and keeping others out — is good practice in developing the skills of conditional trust.
• There is no reason that we have to forgive people to their faces or even let them know about it. In fact, if we’re really ready to stop wasting energy, we probably won’t. We don’t just stop bothering with them in our heads; we stop bothering with them in real life. We avoid engagement. If we have to spend energy on some kind of mop-up or dealing with continuing drama from their side, we handle it with an eye toward ending all of it, because we want to be done with it.
Finally, forgiving is not an all-or-nothing thing. Nor is it a carved-in-stone solution. We don’t say, “Oh, I’ve decided it’s not worth caring anymore about what he (or she) did to me, and now I have to not care about the new thing he (or she) is doing to me.” It doesn’t work that way. Forgiving is a way of allocating our own resources. If new circumstances require us to grab a sword and slay a few dragons before dinner, then we do it. After we come home and shower, we can decide whether we’re ready to forgive the loss of our afternoon, or if we need to spend more time processing that little irritation.
And if we absolutely feel like we must announce our decision to forgive to the sociopath, here’s a suggested forgiveness note:
I’ve decided not to give you any more attention. I’m not going to track you down, hire a hit man or sue you for theft or mental suffering. I’ve dealt with my losses by myself. But don’t confuse this with weakness. The next time you show up, it won’t be such a pleasant or profitable experience for you. I also advise you to you grow up, for your own sake. Not everyone is as forgiving as me. As Henry the XV said to a murderous friend, “I pardon you, but I also pardon whoever kills you.”
In the next article, we begin on the wonderful topic of becoming who we want to be.
Namaste. The wise emotional accountant in me salutes the wise emotional accountant in you.