Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Forgiveness.

I have been thinking a lot about forgiveness recently.

What happens in my life (often) is that there will be a theme that keeps coming up, and I won't notice for a while. It will impose itself everywhere, in songs and conversations and client meetings. The same concept will present itself over and over until finally I pause and allow myself to consciously consider what it is and what I need to take from it.

So right now it's forgiveness. Giving and getting. You know that cheesy country song by Tim McGraw about living like you were dying? That song has crept into my head recently after spending time with someone I really like and respect who is unequivocally dying. I've never really been close with anyone in this way, but I have found that I have the emotional space for it and actually feel honored to be part of her life at this time. My friend is coming to terms with her life and her pending death and she's actually quite positive in her outlook, despite the terminal prognosis. It's made me think a lot about the idea of dying (something I rather intentionally avoid thinking about) and what sorts of things I might do differently if I weren't so unreasonably confident that I have **plenty of time**. Hence the country song. The line "I gave forgiveness I've been denying" is particularly resonating. I've been thinking a lot about whether there is anyone I've been denying forgiveness to or that I need to ask forgiveness of.

I also recently had a conversation with someone who carries a lot of emotional baggage around with him, namely in the form of held grudges. He has a running list in his mind of all the people who did him wrong in all the different ways over his entire lifespan. Most of his friendships and familial relationships are struggling or have ended, and he doesn't connect to the idea that it isn't that surprising considering he has basically just been taking inventory of all the the things that have pissed him off or hurt him. He has forgotten to put forth effort into developing the good aspects of these relationships. He doesn't seem to notice when anyone in his life does kind or loving things, because he is hyper-attuned to being let down. Too, he doesn't take any degree of responsibility for the condition his relationships are in. He is convinced that they are all just selfish, harmful, thoughtless people…which to some extent, they probably are. We all are. But we are especially inclined to be that way when someone meets us at the gate with the expectation that we will let them down or harm them. When we feel like we are starting at a deficit, it makes it really hard to climb back into someone's good graces. It feels impossible, daunting, not worth the effort. Most of us will eventually just give up.

What I try to explain to him is that these same people are probably also giving, loving, thoughtful, and kind as often as they aren't. But they are more likely to be that way when they are in relationships with people who expect them to be kind and loving and who approach them with kindness and love. And grace. And, most importantly, forgiveness.

I've suggested to him and many other people in similar situations that instead of assuming everyone is going to let you down, maybe just assume people are mostly good but also mostly unaware of their impact on others. If it's someone who matters to you, don't take it personally when they aren't always perfectly good. Forgive them, unasked, when they make mistakes. Let go of the small things that you *could* take personally and get hurt by, because if you know the person isn't intentionally trying to harm you, it does nothing positive for the relationship if you insist on punishing them for every single misspoken word or thoughtless action. I promise: if there is one thing I've learned about humans it is that most people are decent, they just don't realize how they are coming across. They are only thinking about how they themselves feel.

So the best thing you can do to radically improve your relationships is to forgive people for this self-centeredness, and recognize and reject it in yourself if you hate it in others. Give your loved ones constructive feedback, and ask for it in return. Teach people how to treat you. Show where your boundaries are and maintain them. When you are hurt, say out loud some version of "I don't like when you do that; it hurts my feelings. Can you please do it another way?" and give the person an opportunity to treat you how you'd like to be treated, instead of getting angry or hurt and refusing to offer absolution or resolution.

This is a thing I have learned the hard way, after allowing small damages to quietly expand and ultimately tear down my relationships over many years. I have learned to offer forgiveness without even being asked for it, if only because it feels better to me to not drag around the burden of unnecessary hurt. I have learned to forgive myself when I mess up in this way. I have also learned to express my needs and ask to be treated in the best and most respectful way for me. Often, people just don't know they are hurting you, and how would they? You didn't tell them, or you told them, but in a passive-aggressive or aggressive-aggressive way that they were unable to hear behind the defensive screen they put up to protect themselves. It's a vicious cycle of hurt and disconnect. For some reason we find being righteously angry with people for the harm they have caused us very satisfying. But generally speaking, the satisfaction of holding a grudge is fleeting, and not worth it.

I also know a lot of people (in counseling and my personal life) who are angry with their love partners, and so every time they fight, they feel compelled (or justified) to dig down in their sack of ancient hurts and pull out something their partner did ages ago and hurl it at them. Nothing ever gets resolved, then, because every fight is about old shit. It's never about "the thing you just did that isn't that big of a deal"- it's always "you never" or "you always" which really just boils down to: "I feel hurt."

The interesting thing about this to me is that when I probe to see if a person who does this a lot wanted to maybe let some of it go, they panic a little bit. It's almost as if all of that pain and all of that "justified" anger provides some measure of comfort. It's almost as if they wouldn't know how to be without it. It's like: if I am not historically and justifiably angry with my partner, then I may find that what I am left with underneath that is a sadness or loneliness in my relationship. And because sadness is much more uncomfortable than anger, I choose to be angry instead because then it is always *their* fault and because then I don't have to feel vulnerable. I don't have to ask for something and risk the rejection of not getting it. I don't have to try and teach my person how to treat me and have them fail or not try. I get to just be mad at them instead, which also doesn't feel good, but it's safe. I understand this feeling. I withhold forgiveness because it is easier for me.

So, this may sound familiar to you, even. Frankly, I know a LOT of people like this, to varying degrees. People who one might describe as having that proverbial "chip on the shoulder" in a specific relationship (or all their relationships). People who are denying forgiveness to others because being angry and resentful and hurt feels safer or more comfortable than opening themselves up to the possibility of being hurt again. But again, a grudge is cold comfort. True intimacy and vulnerability and trust and the building or rebuilding of a meaningful connection is worth whatever forgiveness costs. (I promise).

So, because this and everything is ultimately about me (because we are all self-centered to varying degrees) all of this coming up has got me doing some deep inventory to make sure I am not unconsciously carrying anything similar. I mean, I don't think I am, since I've never been very good at holding grudges even while irrationally feeling compelled or justified to hold them. It's a lot of work to me, so when I was younger, when I would hold grudges they would occupy an inordinate amount of emotional space. It feels like a literal burden. Learning to release that feels like freedom.

So at 35 years old, if there is a thing I am good at in my own relationships, and a thing I am qualified to teach others how to do, it is this: expressing how I feel and offering space for the other person to express how they feel. The key is to do this **in real time**. No holding on to things that are inevitably going to slip out passive-aggressively later anyway. I have learned to forgive the small things without being asked, and to offer the benefit of the doubt. I have learned that forgiveness feels liberating. Granting people grace feels good, and kind, and loving, and creates space to have entirely positive relationships.

I also accept all sincere apologies as a standard practice, and I am generally happy to let go of whatever animosity or anger I feel. I am glad this theme has come up so much, because while I am telling other people how to do this, it's important that I also sort through and make sure I'm practicing what I preach.

www.millercounseling.org

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