The Straight Facts About Forgiveness

More FireHey, it’s the holidays, and for a lot of people, they just suck. Old resentments and family feuds, piled up on top of unrealistic expectations can give even the most well-adjusted individuals a persistent twitch, and for the rest of us, a full-on round of bleak depression. Can you say trigger? Yeah, that. Holiday get-togethers are terrific opportunities for facing our inner demons head-on  ….which leads me to the ever-annoying topic of forgiveness.  Before I begin, let me just start with a small rant about HOW MUCH I HATE all that pious, utterly useless advice to be noble and forgive, how beneficial forgiveness is to your body (and society, the world, fiber yields from llamas in Uruguay, and Labrador retrievers), how you can save the world through forgiveness, how much God wants you to forgive, blah, blah, blah. If it were so simple, everyone would be doing it. AND we’d have world peace.  Well, the TRUTH is that forgiveness is NOT easy. I’m going to give you the straight story on the how and why so you can get some real peace, instead of some pseudo-bullshit intellectual peace ……especially when you are still incredibly angry and hurt. One last thing before I start, forgiveness is NOT about letting people off the hook for their behavior. They will keep themselves neatly on the hook as long as they don’t acknowledge how they wronged you and try to make some kind of amends. Their process is NOT your problem. This is about YOUR process so you can move ahead and be free of the hurt and anger.

I am going to make this really simple, mainly because it IS simple. (Warning: I said simple, not easy.) Here it is in a couple of short sentences: Feel ALL your feelings until they pass. Look for the message. Be really nice to yourself while you are going through it.

If you’re thinking, “WTF?!”, keep reading.

The basic problem is that we have been taught from Day One that feelings are bad and need to be “managed”, “controlled”, “shut down”, or “hidden.” If you grew up hearing messages like,”No one wants to hear you whine/cry/be sad,” or “Shut up. You’re embarrassing us,” when you were sad or angry, ESPECIALLY if you were sad or angry, then there’s a pretty good chance the mere idea of feeling your feelings has about as much appeal as getting a root canal. I mean, feelings are dangerous and scary and make interactions with painful people infinitely more scary and painful. If you grew up with people who did not know how to listen to their feelings, then you either had the pleasure of 1. the volcanic family where feelings spewed like red hot lava and scorched everything they touched, or 2. the volcanic family where everything was tamped down tight in FEAR of the volcanic explosion that would erupt and scorch everything it touched. Fun times.

What if I told you that feelings were not good or bad, but simply information delivery systems telling us useful data about our environments?  “Happy” tells us something is good; get more of this. “Afraid” means Danger! RUN!” “Proud” means Yay! “Angry” means your boundaries are being violated.This is critical to grasp because getting through anger to forgiveness is a path through the dark side of our feelings.

(Feel ALL your feelings until they pass. Look for the lesson. Be really nice to yourself through the process.)

So here’s the setup: Someone has done something large (or small) to you and you’re angry. It doesn’t matter if the offense was some tiny little matter or a a whopper, the process is exactly the same. The process typically goes much faster for little irritating hurts, and can take  hefty chunk of time for the horrible soul-wrenching hurts. Obviously, when you’ve been the victim of a huge hurt, it’s normal to be angry. (Anger = Your boundaries are being violated.) The first thing to know is that you get to be as angry as you want for as long as you want and need, so long as you don’t harm yourself or others. After all, there really isn’t any point is heaping insult upon injury, is there? Let yourself FEEL how hurt you are. Just quietly face the anger and don’t run from it. If this is a new idea (sitting with your feelings), it ca be scary, but know that the feelings won’t drown you, kill you, wipe you off the planet. A feeling is JUST a feeling. It’s nothing more than information, so don’t assign more value to your feelings than that. Yes, I KNOW it’s upsetting and hard and feels like it will go on forever. Well, you’re wrong. Feelings typically only last roughly 15 to 30 minutes inside your body. (If it’s a whopper injury- wash, rinse, repeat 1,000 times.) Just sit with the feeling, noticing it, but not acting upon it and not judging it. Try to pinpoint where you feel the feeling inside your body. Is your stomach churning? Your neck and shoulders tight? Does it feel like you are going to throw up? The top of your head come clean off? Don’t judge yourself; just notice what is there with a gentle compassion and curiosity. Ask yourself,”How do I feel?” And then just listen. And I want to emphasize, you don’t have to do ANYTHING about how you feel. Just try to be patient and sit with the feelings.

Now, here’s the big secret no one ever tells you. Underneath that first feeling (typically anger), is where the real solution to the hurt is dwelling. Underneath the anger or fury or tears or whatever it is you are feeling, and this is especially true if you are ANGRY, underneath all that rage is a sad.  Yes, you read that correctly. It’s sadness. The real work of forgiveness is letting yourself really feel that sadness. Put a name on it. Ask the sadness to speak to you and then LISTEN. And let yourself FEEL how sad you really are in this moment. For a small sadness, this may only take a couple of minutes; but for a major betrayal, it could take months or years before you finally listen to your feelings long enough for them to subside. I want to reiterate, your feelings may feel like a tsunami that is threatening to drown you, especially if you haven’t ever stopped to listen to yourself. IT WILL PASS. Really. You can trust yourself, and this moment will pass. Even if you are so angry you feel like you are choking, even if you are SO SAD you think that you’ll never stop crying, IT WILL PASS. And when it passes, when you have cried so much you never thought you could choke out another tear, you will be left with a divine peace that surpasses anything you can imagine. Yes, the people who harmed you will still be walking around and breathing (even if they don’t deserve it.) But what’s more important is that YOU will be walking and breathing, and not loaded down with anguish courtesy of the offenders. And you will notice that you, gasp, may even feel some compassion for those who harmed you! Yep. Now that you aren’t loaded to the rafters with your own emotional baggage, you will be able to see them for exactly what they are,  you might even feel a twinge of compassion.

So why does this work? The key to forgiveness is found by telling yourself the truth, then feeling your feelings around that truth. When we finally let ourselves FEEL our feelings, we are basically telling ourselves that we are important and we truly matter. When we know we are genuinely loved and accepted, then people may do all sorts of horrible things to us, but we don’t have to take it personally because we know it was never about us. It was always about the person who did the hurting. Always. Okay, sometimes you’ll notice you could have made different, better choices, but you NEVER are to blame for other people’s behavior. They get to own that all for themselves.

It is a critically important to know that feelings do NOT go away by ignoring them or swallowing them or pushing them away. The ONLY way to get “over” a feeling is to feel it, period.  And remember, just because you FEEL a feeling, does NOT mean you have to DO anything except acknowledge it. Just sit with it until it is completely felt and acknowledged and then “presto”, it goes away! If any of this sounds just too overwhelming or scary, get yourself a therapist. They will help you safely walk through this process until you can get comfortable enough to do it on your own. For those of you who think seeing a therapist is only for the weak, you couldn’t be more wrong. On the contrary, it means you are strong because you are determined to thrive and not settle for a half-lived existence. (And yes, the therapists of this nation must be eternally grateful for our consumerist society where the strong feed upon the weak….but that’s another blog rant.) Last piece of advice… extremely kind and compassionate with YOURSELF. NO CRITICIZING YOURSELF. This is not a race or contest and you get to do the “forgiveness process” on your own schedule and in your own way.

So in the spirit of teaching, nothing is better than a real-life example. And since I have the most intimate knowledge of my own hurts and crap I’ve had to forgive, I’m going to use an example from my own life. (This seems like a good time to remind folks that this is a moderated list and no ugly comments or, God help us, unasked for advice will be tolerated. This example is for informational purposes only!) I think I’ve told the renter-from-hell story on this list in prior posts. So here we go….

I bought a really beautiful home and put a considerable amount of money into it after I bought it. As I was single at the time, I invested a considerable amount of additional money after the purchase to bring it into “like new” condition. When my sister and her family lost their house, I moved out and leased the house to my sister. So a year-and-a-half goes by and they announce they are moving in 30 days so I might want to consider getting another renter or  selling it….but they couldn’t ever seem to be able to find a time to let the realtor in to check out the house. Next thing I know, they have moved out of state and when I finally get in the house….it is completely trashed. We’re talking holes in the walls, broken bannisters, doors completely destroyed, carpet and walls trashed….the list was long, painful and expensive. At their suggestion, I called a couple of their friends who were contractors to get bids for the repairs which exceeded $15,000. I tell you this so you know the extent of the damages. In short, it was catastrophic because the house went from sellable to completely unsellable in 18 months, and they refused to pay for any repairs. That’s right. None. So here I am with a house that cannot be sold, I’ve got my mother begging me to not sue them, and guess what? To make life even MORE interesting, I find out I have a brain tumor and need invasive medical treatments. Talk about a perfect shit-storm. Long story short, I cannot make the repairs and lose the house. Could they have afforded the repairs? Absolutely. (They make in the high six-figures.) They chose not to because they thought I had no recourse due to my illness and expenses. (They were right.)

For the longest time I was utterly furious they refused to pay. Absolutely ragingly furious. No-words-I-was-so-pissed-furious. And even more furious with our mother who begged me to have compassion for them. (Seriously!) It took a good two years of being angry and endless ranting before I finally calmed down enough to hear the horrible wailing sadness under all the anger. WHY was I sad? I was betrayed. Betrayal is always sad. It’s the death of a relationship, and in this case, it was the death of the relationship with my sister…..and after a longer while, I could finally face what I always knew to be true, that my relationship with my mother was based on pretty flimsy stuff as well. I cried for myself, for my huge loss, for finally acknowledging what I had always known to be true, that I was basically an orphan. That is some pretty sad stuff! So I cried and cried and cried and cried. Eventually, the sadness began to lift and I felt stronger and less crazy and more at peace than I had in years….because through a really painful experience, I was able to face the truth of my life. Looking back, could I have made different and better decisions? Of course. But in the end, the destroyed house was just a house, and the money I lost (pretty much everything I had) was only money. By far, the absolutely MOST painful part of this whole experience was facing that the people I grew up with, the people who said one thing (I love you), were miserably broken, never had the capability to love me, and could never be trusted. When I stopped to think about it, it’s pretty scary to be a little kid and know that the adults who are in charge of your safety and care are all a bunch of loose cannons. It made perfect sense to believe their “I love you”s when I was eight; it almost destroyed me to continue believing that when I was 50. The gift in the whole train wreck was finally being free of the illusions, however, painful, and go live my life without a pervasive sense of misplaced responsibility or simmering anger. At long last, I Was Free. Really and truly free. Free-like-I-never-thought-I-could-be-free. How long did this take? A little over three years. As long as it needed to take.

So to summarize, the process was feel the feelings (tell myself the truth and listen) and let the feelings be until they pass; look for the feelings UNDER the initial anger, acknowledge and feel those feelings until they pass, ….oh look! Truths hidden inside THOSE bedrock feelings, and then sweet blessed relief.

It’s ugly but it’s the truth. There is no way around having to feel ALL the messy, uncomfortable, painful feelings, but if you don’t, you’ll NEVER be able to forgive. And if you don’t feel all your feelings, you’ll never get the gift hidden inside of every truly awful experience. Do feel-good slogans and religious platitudes about forgiveness seem easier and less painful? Probably. But do they actually work? Not as far as I can tell. The ONLY thing that works is telling yourself the truth, walking through the truth no matter how painful, crying your head off if you have to, and then finally being able to let go and move on. It’s also absolutely true that this path is not for the faint of heart, but I can guarantee that if you have the courage to face the truth, no matter how painful, you will live through it and you will have a peace that NO ONE can ever take away from you. And those people who hurt you? They won’t even matter. Guaranteed.

And hey, Merry Christmas. You’re welcome.

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