Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Post Estrangement: The conflict of Forgiveness

A question that I see posted quite often is; “How to forgive?” Essentially, how does one move from being so filled with anger and resentment that we rage out saying “I will never forgive” to place where we become filled with compassion and the ability to day “I may be able to forgive”?

This is such a difficult topic. There are so many articles admonishing us to forgive.  There is always the implication that you can't heal unless you forgive, like it is an either or possibility.

Forgiveness is touted as the path to letting go, to moving forward, to not letting the past cloud your present.  There are so many euphemisms about why we should forgive. 

Sometimes reading them all it is like this huge cloud of guilt being shoved at me that if I don’t forgive I am somehow unworthy.  At times I resented those “holier than thou” preachers that demanded that I forgive if  I wanted to be a responsible, respectable, healthy person.  The opposite is clearly left hanging in the unaddressed part, there is something wrong, unworthy, unacceptable in me if I don't simple bend to the expectation that I forgive.

And yet as estranged parents; we are being asked to forgive offspring that are determined to never forgive us for our shortcomings.  After all the reason they estrange is because in their minds we have done such a poor job of raising them, that they feel justified in hurting and punishing us  for the rest of our lives for our  failures.   They have no intention of ever forgiving us!  But over and over again we are told by the “grief therapists” that we MUST forgive. 

As with so many other areas of estrangement there is this enormous and inexplicable double standard. 

One standard is applied to the offspring that do the estranging.  The some prevailing therapist wisdom is that they must never forgive; they must forever hold on to their veritable list of grudges, they must never seek reconciliation. They are told that they must continue to abandon loving parents because they are flawed (toxic is the word they use). They are even told that such  actions are justified, acceptable and excusable. Under no circumstances must they ever allow the thought of forgiving their parents enter their minds, and the estranging offspring actually form groups encourage each other to stand strong and united against the mistake of forgiving parents for the horrendous crime of not being perfect.  Forgiveness / reconciliation is a sign of weakness and must never be considered.  To apologize for hurting the parent with silent treatment and abandonment is never even contemplated, rather the ostracism is encouraged to continue lifelong rather than to open communication and mend the relationship.

A second completely opposite standard is applied to the parents that have been estranged. Estranged parents are told repeatedly that they MUST apologize profusely for every unintentional mistake they ever made.  They must not only own up to every parenting mistake they ever made, they are expected to take on the scapegoat role so that the offspring never have to face their own issues and responsibilities. Some therapists even advocate that the parent beg and plead for the opportunity to atone simply to make it easier on the adult offspring to not feel guilty.  
Estranged parents are told repeatedly that they MUST find forgiveness in their hearts. We are told by many that would counsel us, that in order to heal from the grief we MUST forgive the offspring for abandoning us. 

It is this implication that there is something wrong with me if I find it difficult to forgive that I have found particularly frustrating.  It is almost as though I am being punished for feeling aggrieved.  The implication is that  I am a lesser person because forgiving is difficult for me, that this
 somehow means that I am flawed.

It is when I am made to feel that
 I am inferior to those who do the hurting of ostracism and rejection and beneath those who refuse to forgive me, that I find myself becoming most obstinate.  The advice that I MUST forgive or be judged “a lesser person” is what I find particularly heinous. 

And yet, I find that for my own peace of mind I must wrestle with the concept of forgiveness far more than any estranging offspring struggles with the consequences of their decisions and actions to not ever forgive.

For me, forgiveness is a huge issue. There are parts of forgiveness that I still struggle with.  And I have been thinking about and reading about and writing about forgiveness since March 2015.  The conclusion that I keep coming back to is that forgiveness is an ongoing thing.  It is not something you do once and then say “there that is done.”   There are too many levels and nuances to be wrestled with. 

There is letting go, there is ruminating less, there is accepting what can’t be changed, there is examining the self to be aware of any tendency to remain stuck in retaliation thinking, there is learning about the difference between forgiveness and atonement, deliberating on the link between apology and forgiveness and finally there is the awareness of how one would handle an attempt at reconciliation and the preparation required to be in a frame of mind to deal with such a reconciliation.

In the process of studying forgiveness I have come to the conclusion that we use one word to express too many different concepts as though forgiveness is a simple thing, a question of either you do or you don't.

I don't believe it is that simple, I have come to believe that forgiveness is a complicated process filled with complex emotional connections within oneself and within the relationship one has with the person we feel we maybe ought to forgive.

Like the ancient Greeks who had many words of the different kinds of love and the Inuit who have many words to describe the different kinds of snow; I believe forgiveness should have many words to describe it.

However in our language and our culture we have only the one word and so in order to make sense of the concept of forgiveness we each have to struggle with how each aspect affects us an individual.

For me there were some very important things that I had to come to terms with. Let me share a few of them with you and thus possibly help you on your own journey of discovering what forgiveness means to you.  

#1 Let go of the rage
For me this was vitally important. I had to get over the rage that made me want to inflict retaliatory pain back at the person who caused all my suffering.  I am not a vindictive person, I have never in my life "repaid" others in equal measure to the way they treated me.  However for the first time in my life I plotted revenge.  This scared me deeply for it was so out of character for me and that was why this was the most important stage of forgiveness for me. 

To let go of my need to seek revenge was my primary goal during my initial attempts at healing.   I have seen it written that when you no longer seek revenge you have in fact forgiven the other person.  It was the hope that I clung to in my early healing days.  Over time I came to actually see this only as a first step toward forgiveness, with many other stages to follow. But for me it was a tremendously important first step. 

#2 To forgive myself
Another important step for me was to forgive myself.  I know this sounds strange to some people, but for a long time I blamed myself for everything that went wrong in our relationship.  I had all these thoughts that if I only could have done this or that differently; then it would not have come to this. 

I had to let go of the idea that I had some kind of super power to control the outcome of our relationship.  That I had the ability to change things if only I had been better equipped, more knowledgeable, been a better person, known the right words to say etc.  I had to let go of the thought that it was my insufficiency that caused the problem.  I had to forgive myself for not being perfect, for not doing everything I ought to have done simply because I did not know. 

For me it was accepting that my imperfection is what makes me human and I had to forgive myself for hating myself so deeply for not being perfect.  When I was able to forgive myself for this, when I was able to stop beating up on myself, I was able to become more compassionate towards myself, and in learning to be compassionate to an imperfect me, I learned it is possible to be compassionate towards others who are also imperfect.  And to accept that their hurtful actions toward me are part of their imperfections being acted out.

#3 Sometimes all I can do is be willing to forgive
I had to learn that there is a difference between being willing to forgive and forgiveness.  (Once again two different words would make it so much easier to come to terms with the concepts)

Simple forgiveness in my opinion means that I will never expect to interact with the offender again.  It is a done act, the relationship is forever over, and I close the book and never look back.  It is done and I move forward in my life never giving the offending party another thought.

Willingness to forgive is different.  It implies that there is reconciliation hoped for, making it something that I imagine as possible.  In such a situation I have to determine what my parameters are to protect me from being hurt again.  I have to create boundaries for self-protection.  For me this means I need the other person to recognize they have done me wrong, I need for them to be willing to work on atonement and I need for them to realize that reconciliation itself is a process, a work toward rebuilding a relationship and possibly trust.

A willingness to forgive allows me to put the past behind me, to get on with my life, to put the "work" of the relationship on hold until such time as the other person makes a move toward fixing the past by making an apology for their part in not handling a difficult situation in a better manner.

These three thoughts are the ones that I find I wrestle with the most.  There were others but they seemed to fade in importance as I came to terms with these ideas that really helped me to shift my thought process.

I do have to be honest though, there still are days when I feel anger over what was done to me, sometimes even rage over how thoughtlessly the situation was handled and how easy they find it to justify their actions. I find I am distraught over how easy they find it to be critical, judgmental and uncompromisingly unforgiving. 

On those days I sometimes feel that I have not made as much progress in my journey toward forgiveness as I would like, for I am projected back into the past by those thoughts.

I remind myself then, that I am only human, and then I once again I return to working on my self-compassion and through that I am able to come back to feeling compassion for the ones who also don't know any better how to handle difficult situations involving communication and sharing of feelings. 

They are flawed and it is from their place of being flawed that they inflict hurt upon others.  And I happen to be just one of those whom they have hurt because of their "flawedness" and their inability let go of their grudge, to find it in their hearts to forgive.  And then I find I have talked my way back to being "willing to forgive".

Does any of this help you a little to understand your own journey toward forgiveness?
I would love to know what you have learned on your own healing journey toward forgiveness.

Renate Dundys Marrello

2016 – 09 – 07 

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