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Blog #2 Forgiveness: Freeing your Mind/Soul

Last week, I wrote about making sense of our difficult times by coming to terms with the kind of person whom you would like to be when all is said and done. I drew a distinction between being a White Blood cell versus a Virus. A person who chooses to give strength to others or a person who inflicts harm upon the world. The body of humanity is suffering and we have a role to play in it’s recovery.

As we have considerable time on our hands due to the quarantine, we can take some time for self healing. One task is to prepare ourselves for the future by letting go of the anger that has built up from our past experiences. Holding onto grudges and tying ourselves up with emotional pain and suffering blocks our minds from creative energy that will be required to make adjustments with the new normal facing us.

Letting go and forgiveness was a an essential component of therapy for many of my clients. I would like to share with you a section from my memoirs addressing this topic. I will also share with you a personal experience in forgiveness.

A major obstacle to a healthy relationship and for inner peace is to learn to forgive those in our past and current life. We need to also forgive our own short comings as well. Anger from holding a grudge can be so powerful that it will dominate our lives and suppress happier emotions. Anger shuts us down. Unresolved anger suppresses all other emotions.

All of us can look back at hurtful relationships we have experienced. It could be anger at our parents, siblings and friends. It can be a current relationship where our partner has slipped up and acted inappropriately. It is especially important to clarify that my point of view is not to say that whatever events had occurred were acceptable. Many events were quite bad. I am primarily concerned with being able to let go of the anger. We can live better with feelings of frustration, annoyance and disappointment (FAD) rather than horrible, awful and terrible feelings (HAT). We can try to see what we can learn from those experiences. Carrying anger is a heavy burden.

To demonstrate my point, I often asked my client to hold their arms out as if they were carrying something very heavy. They were told to imagine the weight. I then would ask them to imagine I was offering them something very yummy to eat while they are still holding up the heavy object. In order to enjoy the feeling of the yummy they had to choose to drop the weighty object or forgo the pleasure of the yummy treat. It is the same with anger. It is too heavy a load to carry. We lose precious time to enjoy life yummies if we stubbornly hold on to the anger.

Another way I have tried to demonstrate my point is to draw a circle on a blank page. This circle represents the total amount of our emotional energy. It is the energy we can use to relate to the world. I also place a box in the center of the circle. Within the box are painful or angry memories and experiences. These bad emotions want to break out of the box. We however are afraid to release them to rise to awareness. What we do then is to take energy from our emotional world and build thicker and thicker walls around the box. We invest so much of our possible emotional energy that little is left to feel anything accept the anger being used to suppress the emotions in the box. The box gets larger and larger taking up more and more of our available emotional life. The walls need to come down to let emotional energy be available for more constructive positive emotional experiences.

I want to emphasize again that overcoming abuse is hard enough. What happened was not fair. Carrying a life-long angry crusade obsessing on the angry victim role is your choice. What happened may have been bad, but what we do with the feelings is our decision.

Do not wall off your painful experiences. Use them to become stronger!

I have particularly noticed that so many of my clients have held years and years of hatred toward their parents. They often addressed their parents without even a reference to them as even having first names. They make demanding comments such as: Mom and dad should not have done this or acted that way! They were supposed to have acted differently! They should have followed a “Disneyland” fantasy of behavior! There is no willingness to be aware of or understand what their parent’s lives were like. It is quite common that little children often look at parents as if they are devoid of personal lives. Many of my clients were still consumed with a child parent conflict, holding on to hate/anger. They cannot grow into an adult ego state unless they can find a way to let go and forgive.

Some of my treatment procedures I called are “They Have a First Name” and the “Walk in Their Shoes” techniques. I will often share an important aspect of my life to demonstrate this approach. This is the story of Steve and Barbara, my parents.

I believe that there is a time in therapy when sharing the therapist’s experience and showing how we addressed painful issues can be helpful. Authenticity and honesty help clients to gain hope and direction. Modelling courage and adult thinking is supportive.

Everyone has a life story. This is my story. I grew up in a household in which love was a bad four-letter word. I spent many a night crying at bedtime. My parents were not very kind to my sister and I. Mom was a specialist in throwing guilt while dad was very heavy handed. Positive attention was not easily given. I also lost my dad when I was 13 to an unbelievably bad violent tragedy that happened to him while on his job. I spent my teen years turning away from my better friends and seeking out other angry and depressed peers. I lost myself into drinking, drugs and rebellion. Therapy was never offered as an option at that time of my life. The result of these years was to produce a withdrawn, socially anxious and under achieving person. My sister and I fought terribly as well. I hated my parents.

Forming relationships and being emotionally open were hard things to do. Everyone sensed an emotional wall I had around me. I avoided getting close to others. I did manage to hold onto a C average in high school. Everyone saw my potential accept me. I went to college because I had no idea of what else to do and to avoid being drafted into the army. It was the time of the Vietnam war. I genuinely believed that the Vietnam War was immoral and joined in the loud protest that my generation expressed.

I did very poorly in my first year of college and as I was flunking out when I got a notice that I was being drafted into the US army. My mother had wanted me to go to college to learn to be a dentist. I was not able to grasp the science classes as well most classes in college that first year. I was fortunate to be given a probationary status period by my college and was not drafted. I found my wake-up call. I had to take control of my life before someone else did. I took classes in subjects that I never heard of such as psychology. It was love at first sight. I really connected to the subject. I pledged to work hard and got straight A’s for the next three years. Psychology opened me up to aware that something understandable was going on with my mind and life. Becoming a psychologist was in part my therapy.

As I grew with my psychology studies now into grad school, I became very much aware of the need to bring my emotional walls down. It was time to address my anger to my parents. To that point I knew of my parents lives but like a child never really understood what was driving their behavior. Why wasn’t I good enough for my father’s attention? Why was my mother incapable of warmth? To grow was to see them from a new perspective. I had to see them as first name people Steve and Barbara and what it was like to walk in their shoes.

Steve and Barbara grew up in the Holocaust. They were late teens when the World War II destroyed their world. My father was a survivor of Auschwitz one of the worst Nazi death camps. He lost nearly everyone accept one brother. He lost his twin brother, my name sake. My mom and most of her family survived in work camps since they were cooks and bakers. My mom and her sister although had to endure sexual abuse while in captivity.

Prior to the war they had loving families growing up in Hungary and Czechoslovakia. All at once everything was violently shattered. After being liberated my parents met in a relocation camp and quickly married. My sister is four years older than me and was born in Germany. They came to America where I was born. Like most of the immigrants of the time they had very little and worked any way they could to survive. Life was not easy. Mom sewed dresses for wealthy women while dad found his way into working in gas stations. They worked hard and eventually moved into their own home. Life was hard in that there was little money except for food and shelter.

They were slowly connecting into the community we lived in. They were starting to connect to others. They were thought of as very nice people in the community. At home they were not so nice. We were taught not to trust others, don’t get too close or express an opinion. My parents could not foster loving feelings. They were still working through their anger and post traumatic experiences. Their anger suppressed love. Dad would not get close out of fear of losing love ones again. His violent death set us all back just at a time when he seemed to be making good strides in his own recovery. They had first names, Steve and Barbara. To walk in their shoes was unimaginable. What horrors they experienced I can never personally know and hope no one else ever has too as well.

How could I hate them? They tried to do the best they could. I dropped the anger. I however did not find myself loving them more. Love was not an experience I had with them, but hate was no longer a feeling I needed to carry. My emotional barriers were coming down. I accepted their rejections without viewing myself as a reject. I was able to see some important lessons they taught me. One such lesson is that you must keep trying and working harder to make things better no matter how bad events were. You pick yourself up and keep going forward. Indeed, I do pride myself as a hard worker. I still work on my exposed nerves as we all must do.

My awareness of my emotions has made me a better father to my children and helped me to get other fathers to be better with their children who were my clients. Telling this story to my adult patients helped them to be open about their stories and heal their exposed nerves. I have heard so many equally and worse tragic life stories.

Forgiving ourselves involved accepting our imperfections, to stop trying to irrationally please everyone and to develop a better self-image. Some of my clients were able to embrace what I call the Experience Road philosophy and took strength from what had happened to them while some were so reluctant to give up the Failure Road and choose to stay in the victim poor me path.

It is possible to forgive and let go of the past and its control over the present!

So while you wait in quarantine take some time to look at your hurts in a different way. Try to let go, forgive and not carry the weight of anger. Be stronger and ready for the challenges of the new normal.

Dr. Mike

Clinical psychologist 45 years in practice. Worked with children and adults. Love nature, hiking, photography and drums. Retired living in DC.

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