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Forgiveness - Healing Our Relationships




Excerpted from
The Magic of Forgiveness: Emotional Freedom and Transformation at Midlife, A Book for Women
By Tian Dayton, Ph.D.

No one is perfect. When we try to be perfect, we wind up feeling like a perennial failure; and when we insist on perfection in our relationships, we doom them from the start. Perfection is a fantasy, a flight from reality, a fairy tale, albeit a beautiful one at times. Forgiveness, of ourselves and others, allows us to embrace our own or other peoples imperfections, so that we can release pain and feel pleasure-so that we don't undermine our experience of joy.

Forgiveness, on all levels, whether you're forgiving the person who nudged ahead of you in the grocery line or your mother for ignoring you as a child, is relational in nature; it is about either restoring a relationship connection in the real world or restoring the connection that lives inside the self. Relationships are core to the world in which we all operate.

Forgiveness forces us to deal with whatever issues are blocking our ability to relate or to be comfortable with our own insides, and that's where the healing is. If our motivation is to forgive another person, then we've set the bar very high. It means the internal work doesn't stop until we can stand thinking about or being in the presence of that person without wanting to wring his or her neck. Stopping the work when we get emotional distance isn't enough-though true forgiveness paradoxically gives us that distance. Nor is stopping the work at giving up the fantasy of ever getting what we wanted, or still want, from the relationship and taking responsibility for filling that gap ourselves and moving on with our lives. Though true forgiveness ultimately can take us there, too. Nor is it stopping the work at shoring up the self, feeling deserving of all the good life has to offer and going after it or accepting it when it comes. Forgiveness asks us to go all the way. All the way through the self toward the other and back again. That's why it's so powerful and healing. It goes full circle. It is often motivated by a growing awareness that the bitterness and rancor we may carry toward another person are doing more to harm us than them. We begin to question whether nursing a grudge or waiting in the wings for our moment of revenge is worth the calories we're burning by feeling the hate and hurt living inside us. Entertaining ideas of forgiving another person actually makes us more aware of ourselves. This may seem like a paradox because forgiveness appears to be aimed outside the self toward another person, but in truth, identity is fluid, not static, and incorporates, at least to some extent, pieces of those who raised us.

In our childhood developmental stages, we take in, at least in part, the personalities, points of view, morality and belief structures of those closest to us, and we incorporate them into our own character structure. They become a part of our internal world. Our self-image is, at least in part, formed by the reflected appraisals of others. We internalize the way those close to us see us or are with us, and that becomes incorporated into how we see or are within ourselves. Nature and nurture work together in a dynamic fashion to form a neural imprint that builds on our genetic structure, impacting the creation of "us." Our biology is not static. Each tiny interaction we have with our caretakers affects our neural wiring. They are the neural bricks that build the foundation of who we are. The nature-versus-nurture argument reflects a kind of black-and-white thinking that is anathema in nature. Nature is much deeper and wiser than that. We come into this world with a genetic predisposition, and from that point on, nature and nurture interact every step of the way to develop an ever-evolving work of art: us. Our limbic systems, which we will delve into in chapter 2, have carefully recorded our emotional interactions and ways of being with those close to us, causing us to go into the world with those attractors as our biological gravity, pulling toward us those with patterns that in some way correspond to ours. The story of who we are is recorded on our corpus, and continues to be recorded as we move through life. It has much to do with defining who we are and who we choose to be with, and it continues to be written as we live inside our intimate relationships.

This is where the line between self and relationship naturally blurs. Our wish to see the self as completely independent and having little to do with those around us is as unrealistic as our fantasy that we can fuse with others and become them. People exist in a context. To deny the impact that others have on our sense of basic security and neural wiring does not bring us strength; it only distorts our own picture of ourselves.

We can view our drive toward forgiveness as an attempt to restore equilibrium within the self and/or the system in which we live. This doesn't mean that we should encourage a premature, false sort of forgiveness. Nothing rings less true than people who force a sickeningly sweet smile and feign forgiveness. Even if they believe it themselves, others rarely do. We sense that their smile is hiding anger, or even contempt, and we instinctively don't trust it. If we deny our authentic feelings, be they wrong or right, we deny part of ourselves. We make those around us feel crazy-they hear one thing but sense another. We force the emotions we're not looking at into the basement of our psyches. They will inevitably find their way back upstairs. The more we have psychological constructs that disallow our own negative feelings, the more those negative feelings get played out in toxic ways. Forcing forgiveness is like forcing any other deep emotion, such as love. If it's not there, it's not there.

If we sincerely wish to forgive someone for a wrong we feel they have done us, we need to be willing to examine the ramifications of that wrong as it has impacted us. If we're angry and pretend we're not, then our mouths are saying one thing but the rest of us is carrying a different message. There is no short-cutting this process. Most of us have to flail around for a while, feeling angry, hurt and betrayed, explore our wish for revenge, and eventually recognize it's probably in our own best interest to work toward some kind of forgiveness so that we don't perpetuate negative feelings in our own homes, friendships or workplaces (to say nothing of our bodies, hearts and minds).

Forgiveness is hard work. We may need to nurse a grudge before we become willing to let it go. It may be critical for own sanity and sense of self to experience the full extent of our rancor for some time before we can consider getting past it. We may have to grieve what happened, or never had a chance to happen, before we can move along in our process and come to terms with the feelings we carry toward ourselves or whatever our part might have been in setting up a painful relationship dynamic. Even if we've been innocent victims, we may still carry a sense of irrational culpability and blame, imagining that, "if only we'd been stronger, wiser, sharper, tougher," we could have kept harm at bay; or if we'd played our part somehow differently, we wouldn't be where we are now. Many innocent victims carry these feelings of irrational guilt, and even though what happened may have in no way been their fault, they may have been left to make sense of it with only the developmental equipment available to them at the time the hurtful situation was happening. They may not only need to grieve the wrong, but also rediscover the wounded little person inside of them, who will have to come to terms with having been hurt in a way that can't be undone, per se. The undoing or reworking will come not from denying or rewriting the original set of wrongs, but from honestly exploring the effect they had on forming who we are today. So the forgiveness of both ourselves and another person will arrive, if it arrives, as a by-product of facing the painful issues that are blocking our ability to move forward in our lives. There is a broad continuum along which our individual forgiveness issues might fall. Getting past the pain resulting from serious situations will require deeper work for a longer period of time, while smaller hurts may require no time at all to let go of. It all depends on where our individual issues fall within the continuum, on how serious the offense was or is.

Forgiveness is a sort of umbrella organization for powerful emotions within the self or directed toward others. It is a way of living that keeps us honestly confronting the petty grievances or significant wounds that keep us in a state of emotional fight, flight or freeze. It is a motivator for examining ourselves and our relationships, inspiring us to keep them clean and up-to-date, so that we can live within them in an authentic and genuine way; it greases the wheels for overhauling our internal engines and getting emotional tune-ups.



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