Coping Challenge: Practicing Forgiveness for People from My Past

Disclaimer: this is a place of learning, safety, and hope. Take what you want from the post and forget the rest. Maybe this will help you. Maybe it won’t.

*Trigger Warning: This post may contain triggers; read at your own pace*

*Caveat 1 – This is a journal-entry style post so it looks like a first draft with errors, etc. *

Forgiveness does not change what has been done, but frees your future.

~K. M. Shea from the short story “Forgiven” in Snowflakes

Flashbacks

It’s funny what memories and experiences certain times of the year bring to my consciousness.

August is full of memories about relatives and school experiences. The excitement of learning something (always feels safe) combined with the dread of having to deal with people again (never feels safe even now) makes me feel jittery. Yes, jittery.

People were kind because they wanted something from me. Or they were mean because the adults were mean – some even encouraged the racism and bullying. Very few people from my past were genuinely kind and supportive. They stand out like beacons even as the rest of me drowns in fear and hate when the flashbacks take over.

That makes physical triggers (appearance, tone of voice, gestures, etc.) a minefield of traps outside of my safe world. Phone calls, work messages, social interactions outside of my apartment, they all have the potential to trigger a flashback. And that’s when the agoraphobia kicks in…

Reflection

Forgiveness is something I choose to practice as often as possible in all parts of my life. But it’s complicated. Because sometimes one’s words, actions, or choices don’t appear to stem from forgiveness. Or many people’s idea of forgiveness.

That is something that often troubles me. Because while I choose to forgive people and offer chances, I also maintain strong boundaries and do not easily let people back into my life. So am I practicing forgiveness? Or am I just speaking about it without backing up the words with actions?

And what about the alter personalities? Just because one part of me offers forgiveness, doesn’t mean all parts of me do. Or that alters will stay out of interactions with people from the past as we meet in unexpected ways. Because all parts of me get involved when one or more sense potential danger. And interacting with people from the past is a red flag for potential danger.

This is another instance where INTENTION MATTERS. If the intention behind my words and actions is forgiveness, then that is my goal even if the outside world perceives the interaction differently.

Plus, I can forgive people and still be reserved around them. I can choose to be polite and kind without being friendly, open or trusting. And I can keep out people who don’t change in order to stay safe.

Forgiveness

The words are easy to say, but putting intention and action to back them are more difficult.

I’ve had the opportunity to encounter people from my past over the last few years. They often do not result in a positive experience. Random encounters with people from my past scare me and bring out my alter personalities. It’s often a 3/4 to complete switch where I don’t remember words or interactions. And my alters do not often share the experience with me or anyone else either.

But what I can say is that all parts of me have embraced the tenets of Dialectical Behavioral Therapy and use the Interpersonal Effectiveness tools as often as possible no matter who is in charge. In that sense, I am not worried about the words coming out of my mouth being abusive or mean or derogatory.

All parts of me do worry about whether or not the words coming out are in alignment with the value of practicing forgiveness or something else.

For me, the definition of forgiveness is in the quote at the top of this page. I don’t offer forgiveness to change people. I offer forgiveness to free myself from the past. That freedom gives me space to grow, change, and bring more love into my life.

Love, acceptance, kindness, forgiveness, empathy, consideration…all those positive words that include all living beings and connect me to something greater than myself.

So when the fear takes over and my alters are in charge, I trust them to consider our shared values as they interact with people from the past. Forgiveness means letting go of the past in order to move on in the present and future. It does not mean forgetting or allowing toxic people to continue hurting me or people I care about.

And that you see is my conundrum. While I do practice forgiveness, I have a hard time giving people from childhood through young adulthood a chance to be in my life again. I don’t trust the people they are connected to not to hurt me whether directly or indirectly. Which means I can’t relax and be myself around them.

The fear gets in the way.

And so I work hard to offer forgiveness while maintaining a healthy skepticism and not letting many people back into my life. For a chance to re-build a relationship, the other person or people must be willing to meet me in the middle in terms of give-and-take, open communication, and acceptance. Trust and respect come later.

The sad part is that many people from my past often come into my life in order to spy on me or get information to use against me. And so I nip that in the bud with brutally honest, borderline rude, sometimes mean-sounding words and actions. I try polite and kind first, even when I don’t recognize or remember them at first.

Because they don’t understand kindness or respect boundaries, I have to use harsher methods to make them understand that they won’t get away with their old manipulations in the present.

And if people who recognize and remember me choose to pretend I don’t exist (my preference), I do the same and continue on with life.

Visiting Home

This is why I am terrified about visiting the city where I grew up. It’s why I feel conflicted about going back to Massachusetts sometimes.

And why I am not excited about visiting family or going to my parents’ home, yet extremely excited to see them, my brother, and my puppy niece.

Forgiveness offers me a chance and a pathway back to my family and some people from the past by offering me freedom from the trauma.

But only I can truly make this work. And that will always be a work-in-progress lifetime goal.

Thanks for reading.

Series: 2017 Reflections Part 2

Facing Past Fears

This year, I spent 3 months living in emotionally and verbally abusive situation beyond my control.  3 months because that’s how long it took to acknowledge the truth of my situation, go through the proper steps, and find the courage to get out of the situation using legal and banking resources.  The two individuals involved in this situation acted and treated me like the female figures in my past – maternal, care-taking, educational, authoritative, peers, and bullies.

Before this, in spite of all the work I’ve done to heal and trust outsiders, I’ve never really shaken the belief that I don’t deserve help from legal services, government, financial services, etc. or that asking for such help is a viable option.

The deal is done.  I spoke with the attorney.  He listened to my story; reviewed the documentation, and agreed to help me.  Within 1 day, the letter was written, lease broken, and freedom on the horizon.  The financial situation is not asa good as I want, but a bank loan will help with that.  Fingers crossed that the loan goes through in time, so I can make the necessary payments.

2018 Resolutions & Goals

This year’s resolution is simple.  It’s five words:

Gratitude

Compassion

Acceptance

Love

Forgiveness

What this means…

Live, laugh, prosper in safety and good health.
Not just for me, but for my loved ones, my enemies, and others in this world.

Be vulnerable and my authentic self as often as possible
No matter how much it hurts.  No matter what challenges I face.  Because in finding and expressing my authentic self at all times, all parts of me integrate and work together as on whole person no matter the stress or triggers or whatever that comes my way.

Work towards improving my physical health
untangle the connection that confuse pain with any other sensation I feel when moving or active.  Then maybe start biking and feel more physically confident to travel and do things.  Accept and view my body in a positive way instead of a neutral way.  To not automatically connect my physical body and appearance with my past and instead connect it with my present.

Feel more comfortable with being an adult female and accepting aspects of my personality related to the trauma aka sexuality
I’ve abstained from sexual contact for almost 18 years and have no desire to try it again any time soon.  But I’d like to be able to acknowledge and accept my sexuality without being triggered or automatically connecting sexuality to abuse.  I’d like to feel comfortable in my own body/skin, accept my appearance in a way that is body positive instead of body neutral.

What are your resolutions and goals for 2018?

Thanks for reading

Coping Strategy: Gratitude Prayer

What is a Gratitude Prayer?

It’s a way of expressing gratitude or thankfulness to the Universe, a higher power, God, or religious deities for the blessings, miracles, good things in life.  It’s also a way to show appreciation for direction, support, help etc. while also asking for the same information. By asking the Universe for help, I am demonstrating my faith in a higher power and the value of its guidance in my life.

When do you practice?

I practice every evening before bed and every morning upon waking up to help me relax, feel safe, and be grounded in the present during that in-between time of waking and sleeping.

You can practice as often as you like.  No rules.  Just practice.

What do you say? / How do you do this?

My gratitude prayer is a silent offering of thanks to the Universe and/or a request for assistance or answers or direction about specific topics/ideas/people/places/goals.

Yours can be an offering of thanks to your religious deities, spiritual practices, nature gods, mentors, a higher being…you get the picture right?

And the thanks can be for or to anyone and anything on your mind.

Why Practice this?

Because practicing gratitude reminds me of the joy I feel in being alive; reinforces the value of being alive; shows appreciation for the blessings and positive influences in my life; and helps me be kind to myself in others no matter the situation or the experience.

By practicing gratitude I stay focused on the positive, life-affirming influences instead of the other ones.  I can forgive, feel compassion, empathize, and let go of my past easier.  Shame is also healed through gratitude, forgiveness, and compassion.

Does it have to be a prayer?

  • No, you can call this whatever you like
  • Gratitude Practice
  • Gratitude Meditation
  • Compassion Meditation
  • Forgiveness Meditation
  • Substitute Practice for Meditation, Affirmation, Poem, whatever feels safe and right to YOU.

How long do I have to practice before I see any changes?

I honestly don’t know how long a practice takes before changes take place.  I can tell you that changes are not immediate.  Persistence and consistency are the key to getting the most out of this kind of strategy.

If you only practice once a week for 7 weeks, you might see changes, but not right away.  Same if you practice multiple times a day every day for a month.  Mostly success and change opened on the individual and her or his commitment to the practice.

Here is my favorite Gratitude Prayer

Dear Universe,

Thank you for my life.

Thank you for the blessings in my life

For helping me find safety and stay safe

For my independence and my internal gifts

Thank you for the amazing people who share this life with me

Thank you for your protection and guidance as I travel on this journey.

Please help me stay safe.

Please protect my apartment, the property & its caretakers, my neighbors, and my neighborhood.

Please Help my loved ones and protect all living beings, but especially the vulnerable.

Please guide me to resources so I can follow my path, make good choices, and achieve my goals.

Thank you for always bing here with unconditional love, support, and acceptance.

Recovery: Thinking about forgiveness

Background

Often I get asked about forgiveness and being able to forgive, not just myself, but also the people who hurt me in the past.

If I do/can/have forgiven those people, how/when/why did I forgive them?  What is the importance of forgiveness?

If I do/can/have forgiven myself, how/when/why?

What is the difference between forgiveness and acceptance?  Are both important?  And again, why?

My Thoughts

Disclaimer: any content written here is based on my personal experience combined with education via trauma informed therapy, self-help resources, psychology books, and learning from other victims/survivors/educators.  They are NOT professional opinions, facts, or theories based on academics, professional education, etc.

Forgivness and Acceptance are two separate but inter-related concepts.

Forgiveness is very personal and subjective – depends a lot on an individual’s personal goals – that can help individuals move beyond recovery & living towards thriving after surviving trauma.

Responsibility is not the same as Accountability.  I do not hold myself or others accountable for choices, actions, or reactions because I do not expect anything from myself or others.

I do hold myself and others responsible for choices, actions, or reactions because I or they chose to act or react a certain way.
Then I can CHOOSE TO make reparation or not, but I don’t HAVE TO do that.
Same with other people; they can CHOOSE TO make reparation or not, but no one expects them to.

Making reparation for a mistake or apologizing is something learned based on morals and ethics.  And the concepts are learnable at any age.

**Forgiveness is a never-ending work in progress that moves in cycles and can transform lives**

Forgiveness of Others

Yes, I have forgiven the people who hurt me, especially my parents, immediate family, and relatives.  I forgave them a few years before starting this website and blog.  And continue practicing forgiveness as more and more memories come back.

But forgiveness is hard.  I struggle with not being able to forgive these people all the time or unconditionally because the pain and memories can feel so strong.  Plus sometimes I still think that forgiveness comes with strings attached when it doesn’t.

So I can forgive my parents and still maintain a no-contact stance.  Same with other people in my family. I can forgive friends and still feel afraid of interacting with them in person or letting them back into my life.  Finally, I can forgive other relatives and feel good with the choice to maintain limited contact with them.

Why?

  • Holding on to anger and grudges only hurts me by reinforcing my fears and holding me hostage within the limitations these people created for me
  • These people are human beings with pasts and experiences beyond their control that influenced their choices and actions as adults
  • Blame doesn’t help anyone; it only shifts responsibility and choices away from responsible parties
    • they can rationalize, justify, make excuses and find ways to turn the blame back on victims with guilt, shame or emotional blackmail
  • Holding these people responsible for their choices is a positive perspective on what happened that validates anger without the negativity of shame, or guilt that causes blame
  • These people made choices and are responsible for those choices, so I can feel angry with their behavior and hold them responsible without blaming them
  • I am learning about compassion and perspective as part of my recovery.   Part of compassion is being able to understand experiences from another’s point of view or perspective and understanding that forgiveness is part of compassion
  • By forgiving these people I am also reducing the influence my past has on present choices, experiences, and goals

Forgiveness of Self

One thing predators and abusers excel at is shifting blame to the victims and convincing the victims they are both responsible and at fault for experiences and circumstances beyond the victim’s control.

It took me a long time to be able to forgive myself for not being able to escape sooner.  And even longer to stop blaming myself for what happened to me.  Some parts of me still blame themselves for what happened.  Others are now capable of feeling compassion for themselves and understanding the difference between blame/fault and responsibility of one’s choices.

But I couldn’t make progress until I learned to at least forgive myself and really know in all aspects of my sense of self that I wasn’t responsible for the trauma of my past.  Without awareness of my behavior/thoughts/feelings and how they were influenced by my past, I couldn’t consciously make choices with conscious awareness either.  So my past was controlling my present, and I felt ashamed because my life was out of control.

Therapy in group and individual settings helped me learn to forgive myself instead of blaming, shaming, guilting, and feeling angry with myself for how I acted and reacted sometimes.  Then these professionals gave me the tools to help take back control of my life and my choices.  The small successes built on each other and helped me realize something important:

  • I am not responsible for my past or what happens when I feel triggered without awareness – in my mind I am protecting myself
  • I am responsible for my choices once I do have awareness of these triggers because I can change the negative reactions into positive ones or apologize & make reparation for mistakes or misunderstandings or miscommunications caused by me
  • Finally, I am human and make mistakes because mistakes are part of how humans learn, so I can forgive myself for making mistakes and take the opportunity to grow instead of shutting down

Conclusion

Like compassion, forgiveness can help heal wounds and offer perspective that allows victims and/or survivors or anyone really to move past negative feelings or blocks.  The concept is easy to understand.  The practice is difficult and not something that is accomplished once and then done forever.

Forgiveness is an ongoing practice, a life choice, and a way of life like compassion that can help ease suffering.  There are many misconceptions about forgiveness, but it’s up to each of us to question what we know and challenge ourselves to look for different answers.

That’s how I stumbled onto this definition of forgiveness.

And learned:

  • that forgive does not equal forget
  • that a person who can forgive while holding the other party responsible is stronger and more resilient than a person who holds on to anger and grudges
  • that accepting responsibility for my part only doesn’t make me weak; it makes me stronger and more confident because I am taking control of my life and my choices

I hope that someday even if my guests can’t forgive the people who hurt them, they can forgive themselves.

Thanks for reading