An alternative to Forgiveness – 6

In the last few blogs, I’ve gone on about forgiveness, crossbows, Dillon, and dogs.

There’s an exchange in “Eat, Pray, Love” that has nothing to do with forgiveness at all; but it does have to do with moving the hell on:

“But I love him.”

“So love him.”

“But I miss him.”

“So miss him. Send him some love and light every time you think about him, then drop it.”

So you can’t forgive someone, and you can’t send them love and light; but you can still drop it. When it comes back up, which it will, you can drop it again, and again, and again. Chances are that over time it will come up less and less, or at least you’ll get better at dropping it faster, and eventually it may disappear off your mental landscape altogether.

The same applies to self-forgiveness. I’ve mentioned self-forgiveness briefly in my first blog, and then ignored it completely, but it’s not because it’s unimportant. It’s just that the same process, or lack thereof, applies regardless of who we’re forgiving, including ourselves. Self-forgiveness issues can be just harder to see at times because everything is internal, and too close to us to get a clear focus.

Self-forgiveness is an interesting concept. I’ve read a lot about it in various guises, and never really got anywhere with it until I read Matthew Stover. It’s particularly important for children who grew up in abusive households, because that kind of environment can seriously mess up the connection between actions and punishments, but even the “normal” connection can be bent in unhealthy ways.

Children are generally raised to see a connection between their behaviour and parental responses. A child does something good, and that behaviour is rewarded. A child does something bad, and that behaviour is punished. Whether the punishment is severe or mild, whether it’s a beating or a sharp word or a disappointed look or a boring lecture, a connection is form between the original behaviour and the punishment. Children aren’t born with a rule book; in a very real sense, they only learn what actions are bad and what are good by looking at the responses of the people around them.

Problems can arise when that line of thinking is never abandoned growing up, or when children are subjected to suffering that has nothing to do with their actions. A belief can take root that if bad behaviour leads to suffering, all suffering is the proof that we must have done something bad. That belief doesn’t have to make sense to us. We might discount it rationally, but that doesn’t mean that it’s not affecting us subconsciously. And just because our adult self considers the whole thing laughable, it doesn’t mean that inside us there isn’t a child who firmly believes that, whatever it was that happened, we must have somehow deserved it.

For children who grew up in abusive or dysfunctional households the problem can be even worse. One of the characteristics of toxic parents (and difficult people) is that they don’t differentiate between a child and their behaviour. Rather than attack the behaviour (please get off my toes), they attack the child (move, you clumsy oaf!). Abusive parents also don’t always wait for the children to genuinely misbehave in order to punish them; that’s not always convenient. However, that’s not a problem, because it’s remarkably easy to convince children that they are being punished not because they’ve done something bad, but simply because they are bad. Whatever punishments the parents throw at them, the children deserve them because of some deep-seated badness inside their hearts. It’s remarkably easy to internalise that kind of belief, particularly when we’re exposed to it at a young age.

So, when someone does something awful to us, it can be easy to see it as a punishment. We must have done something wrong, somewhere. We must have played a part in this. And what we originally did caused us to get hurt, so we have a right to resent ourselves for it. Lo and behold, we can end up engaged in the judgement-forgiveness trainwreck at ourselves, unable to forgive ourselves, unable to forgive ourselves for not forgiving ourselves, resenting ourselves at multiple levels, and generally giving ourselves a terrible time, indefinitely. Given that we spend 100% of our time in our own company, this is hardly the recipe for a happy life.

The good news is, we don’t have to do this. The same kind of thinking that can get us moving on from not-being-able-to-forgive others can help us deal with ourselves.

We’re under no obligation to put ourselves on trial, pass judgement on ourselves, and then forgive ourselves for our trespasses. We can choose to assess ourselves instead – to carry on a factual evaluation of our actions and our likelihood of committing those actions again. Then we can put into place whatever mitigating measures we think are required so we don’t get trounced again. And then we can drop it.

None of this is easy, but practice makes it easier. It doesn’t much matter who we practice on, either; the skills are transferable. Obviously, we don’t have to do any of this. We can just carry on as normal; though we might find it hard to forgive ourselves for that, too.

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