Forgiveness: Is It Necessary for Healing?

Forgiveness: Is It Necessary for Healing?

I recently attended a beautiful healing retreat in San Diego. I have been thinking about forgiveness a lot lately. While reflecting during the retreat I realized that I've been holding on to some resentment that has been a barrier to my relationships with important people in my life. As painful as it is to have this barrier in those relationships, I realize that it is actually creating a barrier to my own relationship with myself as well. Self-forgiveness is a key factor in being able to forgive anyone else. Taking the time to reflect helped me see that and let go of that old stuff, and as a result, I feel better and I'm relating differently to the important people in my life.

This subject frequently comes up in my therapy sessions with adults who have experienced childhood abuse, neglect, or other traumas. It's also a popular theme in our culture. Click on the image to the right to listen to Episode #10 of the Baltimore Annapolis Psychotherapy Podcast on forgiveness.In it, I discuss the concept of forgiveness and offer some thoughts on the role of forgiveness in the healing process. I also offer resources for forgiving in a way that is authentic and true. Here's a summary of what I said in the podcast:

In the last episode of the Baltimore Annapolis Psychotherapy Podcast, I asked whether you'd ever had a loss of relationship with someone with whom you were formerly very close. Something happened which led you to decide that you do not want to communicate with this person anymore. Or maybe you are setting boundaries around the role they have in your life because continuing to be close after what happened feels too painful. 

I raised the point that our culture tells us, both through religion and our popular culture, that forgiveness is a requirement for healing. But what if the person hasn't asked for your forgiveness? What if they deny that they did anything wrong? What if they have passed away, and you will never have the discussion about how their actions hurt you? What if they have apologized in a way that feels hollow? Is forgiveness really about the person who did wrong or about the person who has been hurt? Is it for your healing or theirs? Or the healing of the relationship?

Healing childhood trauma involves allowing oneself to feel the painful emotions we may have been avoiding, consciously or unconsciously.  Before jumping to forgiveness it is important to acknowledge these painful emotions. Self-compassion is extremely helpful to healing these hurts and moving the process of forgiveness forward. I offer resources for increasing self compassion in the podcast.  

Researcher Kristin Neff, PhD has researched and written extensively on the subject of self compassion. I highly recommend her book, "Self Compassion," and her website: http://www.selfcompassion.org/ to facilitate healing and allow forgiveness of yourself and those who have hurt you. 

If you're in the Baltimore area and looking for a therapist to begin or continue your journey of healing childhood trauma, get in touch with me at (443) 510-1048 or laura@laurareaganlcswc.com to talk about how I can help. See below for places to get more of what I have to say. 

Find me on FacebookTwitterPinterest and Google +You can listen to my podcast here and sign up for my e-mail newsletter here.  Check out my website, www.laurareaganlcswc.com for information on upcoming workshopsgroups and retreats. I'd love to talk about how we can work together!  

 

                      What does asking for forgiveness look like?

                     What does asking for forgiveness look like?


Click on the image to listen to the podcast episode on forgiveness.

Click on the image to listen to the podcast episode on forgiveness.

Laura Reagan, LCSW-C Psychotherapist, Clinical Supervisor, Podcaster, Consultant

Laura Reagan, LCSW-C Psychotherapist, Clinical Supervisor, Podcaster, Consultant

It's Easier Not to Care - Or Is It?

Feelings are hard.

Tomorrow is going to be hard. I'm having my dog euthanized.

I'm so sad about this but I know it's time.

I don't want to do this! As tears stream down my face I'm thinking, "I don't want to deal with this. I don't want to deal with this!" 

Why have a pet when you know they will die at some point? I mean, why did I even open up my heart to a new puppy 11 years ago, when I knew I would eventually have to say goodbye? I'm remembering when we had to put down our other dog (10 years ago). It was so sad, definitely one of the hardest things I've ever had to do. And now we are doing it again tomorrow, and this time our kids are old enough to understand. Crap. I don't want to feel these feelings!

This is part of life. Part of love. Life is not just the happy times, or even the neutral times when we are just chugging along - not really happy or sad. Life is filled with ups and downs. Overall, I've noticed it's more ups than downs. But the downs stand out more! 

Can I just not feel this?

This is hard. I wish I didn't have to feel this and that I could protect my family from having to feel this. Tomorrow is going to be SO HARD. Not having our dog anymore is going to be so sad. 

Part of me would prefer to pretend this isn't happening. Part of me would like to look online for puppies to adopt through a rescue organization and pretend my dog is already gone. You know that scene in the movie "American Beauty" when Annette Bening's character cries and screams for about 10 seconds and then fixes her makeup and acts like nothing happened? Part of me wants to do that. 

I want to numb my feelings. The problem is, as Brené Brown says, "We cannot selectively numb emotion. Numb the dark and you numb the light." 

Numb the Dark and You Numb the Light - Brené Brown

It's not possible to truly enjoy the companionship of your dog or cat (or your people) if you avoid opening your heart to him or her. When you do open your heart you can have countless hours of fun and mutual companionship with your pet over his or her lifespan. But the price you pay for opening your heart is that you must feel the pain of loss at some point.

Love hurts.

Isn't that true of all of our relationships? We never know when they'll be lost, but at some point they will. One of the people in the relationship will die and the other will experience loss. We never know when this will happen, but at some point it will. Wouldn't be easier just to keep our hearts closed off, protected, guarded by barbed wire, and never let anyone in? 

Well, yes, easier...if you don't mind feeling alone and lonely for your whole life. But we humans aren't made for that. We are social creatures and we need connection to survive, beginning at birth. The key to tolerating the pain of loss is the make sure to enjoy the good moments, really feel them and experience gratitude for them. And even in the neutral moments, can you find something to be grateful for? There is always something. It helps make the ups of life stand out as much as the downs.

So I will do this hard thing tomorrow. I will treasure my last hours with my dog, whom I love, and tomorrow I will take her to the vet so she will not suffer anymore. I don't want to do it and I wish I didn't have to. But I will. And I will open up my heart to another puppy (maybe two!) because it's worth it. I choose to feel because that's what life is.

"Carry on, warrior."

This morning I discovered that Glennon Doyle, Melton author of "Carry On Warrior," has a TED Talk. I have followed her blog, Momastery, but I haven't read her book yet. I watched the TED Talk today and - full disclosure - I cried through the whole thing. Maybe I'm just extra raw because I'm saying goodbye to my dog tomorrow, but I'm sharing it here because I feel pretty sure you will find it meaningful too. 

I think I need to read Glennon's book. It might take my mind off of being sad (or I will cry more - a win/win situation). I'd love to know what you think of the video and of this post in general. Please comment below!

And if you believe that risking heartbreak in the pursuit of connection is worthwhile, you'll probably want to read more of my posts. If you want support in opening your heart, get in touch with me by phone (443-510-1048), e-mail (laurareaganlcswc@gmail.com); or click "Work With Me" on my website to discover what I offer that can be of help to you.

Letting Go Part 1

Letting Go (Part 1)

This week is an exciting one for our family, as our oldest child graduates from high school in a few days. It's a joyful and exciting time - but there are some underlying feelings of sadness and loss which have caught me by surprise.  I know that many of you are experiencing a similar transition in the life of your family, as graduation and wedding season begin. I thought I'd share my thoughts and feelings, and how I'm coping with the changes, in hopes that it will be helpful to you, too. 

Update: Click here to listen to my podcast episode on this subject! 

My thoughts

As I've been eagerly anticipating his graduation I've been very proud and excited for my child. My thoughts are that this is a wonderful milestone in his life.  I'm so happy that he has successfully completed his high school career and that he plans to go to college in the Fall. I have high hopes for what this young man will accomplish as he matures. I am looking forward to seeing what he decides to do for his career after college. I know that this is a normal developmental process, in which my child will leave the nest to become  a fully realized adult. Although it does not happen overnight with this event, this milestone is an extremely important rite of passage in our culture. I want him to move through this process, because it's what is right for him developmentally. But...he's my baby!

Then...there are the feelings. Feelings? What feelings?

I knew something was wrong when I noticed that I didn't seem to have any feelings about the graduation. I actually felt kind of numb. I knew intellectually that I felt happy and excited and maybe a little sad because he won't be living at home with us for most of the next four years. But I didn't feel it. In fact I was telling myself that it is not time to feel sad yet, because graduation is a happy time, and going away to college is something that will happen later this summer, so I can feel it then. Ha ha! Joke's on me!  

I noticed that I was feeling a little detached, as if I've been going through each day - being in the moment, yes - but just crossing each passing day off the list like a countdown to the Big Day. Meanwhile, I had agreed to do something important for a friend and when the day came I completely forgot to do it, which is very much out of character for me. I know myself well enough to recognize this as a clue that something else was occupying my mind.

What's really going on here?

As a therapist I teach my clients to notice how they feel and connect the feelings to their present and past experiences. To be able to teach this, I have to know how to do it myself. It takes work! Therapists, just like everyone else, have difficult times in our lives that we have to work through.  

Our defense mechanisms, the strategies we employ to help us avoid feeling uncomfortable or painful emotions, spring into action when feelings arise that we don't like. The defense which I was unconsciously using to deal with my feelings about this transition is called intellectualizing. Intellectualizing is when you try to understand something cognitively (using your thoughts and the logical part of your brain) as a way to avoid feeling it. Defenses are, by nature, mostly outside of our conscious awareness. It's helpful to know your go-to defenses, which makes it easier to notice when they kick in, and ask yourself what you need help with.

Examples of intellectualizing include thoughts like "I shouldn't feel upset about this, it happened a long time ago." Or in my case, "I shouldn't feel sad about my son's graduation, it is a happy occasion and he's not going away to school until August." As if I can't start feeling sad about something happening in August two months earlier! And anyway, my emotions are not following the rules that the logical part of my brain is trying to set about how I am supposed to feel and when. How I feel is how I feel, and it is real and valid, no matter whether I like it or not. 

But I don't want to feel this way.

Since I don't like the feelings, because they're painful, maybe I can just "skip" feeling them and keep going through the motions. After all, this isn't about me. It's my son's big day, and I don't want to take away from his enjoyment of the celebration. That sounds very selfless, doesn't it? Those of us who are super great at taking care of others and lousy at taking care of ourselves feel most comfortable stuffing away our feelings and focusing on everyone else.  You know who you are!

But that doesn't work for me, and it's not going to work for you, long term.  In the moment it might seem like the best way to handle overwhelming feelings. But when you do this, the feelings are still there. You can't feel them, so you aren't aware of them - like me when I felt numb - but since you can't control them, they're controlling you. For example, me forgetting to do that important thing I promised my friend. And there are some other ways they were running the show that I wouldn't like to admit to myself - eating less healthfully, exercising less frequently, having trouble sleeping. I've told myself I'm just really busy. Insidious, isn't it? 

So what do you do with these feelings you can't feel?

So if our defenses are blocking us from feeling our feelings, what can we do? The only way out is through, as they say. We have to break through the defenses and let the feelings out. How to do that? I will tell you what helped me. I've often recommended these strategies to clients, and they can be very powerful. Read more after the image below.

Image credit: Pixabay

Image credit: Pixabay

Journaling

Knowing that I needed to get down to what was really going on, I started by taking the time to write in a journal. When you do this, one way to begin is to start writing whatever comes to mind. You can also use prompts such as "How am I feeling right now?" or "What is blocking me from feeling my emotions?" I asked myself how I felt about the graduation. As you write, pay attention to your body. Are you noticing any sensations? Write down what you notice and continue to examine the process while you write. Doing this regularly can help you understand emotionally, as well as intellectually, what is happening in your mind and body.  

Art journaling is another option. If you feel inclined to create art in a journal, rather than writing narrative-style, you can try collaging or drawing your responses to the prompts. Or pick up your favorite medium - pencil, chalk, paint, marker, or something else - and see what happens when you try to connect with the feeling.

Meditation

Meditation, whether self-directed or guided, can be helpful in getting you grounded. Being grounded means that you are fully in your body with awareness of your thoughts and feelings. You are not blocking out body sensations or emotions. There are three guided meditations I find very helpful and frequently recommend to clients who are attempting to process difficult emotions. All of them are available for free on the website of the wonderful Dr. Kristin Neff, a researcher who focuses on Self Compassion. 

The first one is called "Soften, Soothe, Allow"  and it is great for helping you connect with the feeling in your body, allow  yourself to feel it, and comfort yourself. The other two are a Loving Kindness meditation, and a Self Compassion/Loving Kindness meditation.  She also offers exercises for Self Compassion on the site.

Practicing Gratitude

When you are mindfully present in the moment and aware of how you feel, you can lean into joy by practicing gratitude. This is a simple practice that anyone can do at any time. You can repeat the things you're grateful for in your head when feeling vulnerable.  I keep in mind that no matter what is going on, I woke up today and I'm still here. That's a starting point and something I can always be grateful for - until I can't - which is exactly the point! You can also keep a gratitude journal. I have a wonderful daily planner I use to keep track of my schedule and it has a little box at the bottom of each page where I can write down what I am grateful for every day. During times like these, when my coping resources are stretched, it is more important than ever to be mindful of the many reasons I am grateful. Have you tried incorporating a daily gratitude practice into your meditation time? Some people enjoy using a  special journal solely for practicing gratitude.   Do whatever works best for you.

After following my own advice, I'm more aware of how I really feel about this transition in my family's life. It's possible to feel happy and sad at the same time, and knowing I feel this way I can be more compassionate toward myself - which allows me to be more mindfully present at home and at work. Consequently I'm more available to offer the support my son will need as he weathers this huge life transition.  If I stayed checked out and numb, I wouldn't be as aware of his needs. So while my first instinct as a helper might be to try to ignore my own feelings and take care of his, it is the very act of taking care of how I feel that allows me to be there for him when he needs me. This is true all the time, not only when a family is experiencing a transition. We parents and caregivers must take care of ourselves in order to offer support to others. Remember that life transitions, even positive ones, include the loss of how things were before. Sometimes we have to take the time to grieve so we can move forward.

Stay tuned for Part 2! 

In Part 2 I will talk about why it's so important for us as parents to let go and allow our children to  grow up, even when we want to hold on to them and keep them safely in the nest. If you're finding it difficult to let go, or to take care of your own needs, get in touch with me. You can call me at (443) 510-1048, send me an e-mail at laurareaganlcswc@gmail.com, or visit my website for more information and to schedule an appointmentWe can talk about working together to help you find strategies to improve your self compassion skills. You can also read more by following me on Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest and by subscribing to my e-mail newsletter.

Source:

Neff, K. (n.d.). Self compassion guided meditations and exercises. Retrieved on May 22, 2015 from: http://self-compassion.org/category/exercises/#guided-meditations 

The only way out is through