Thursday, February 7, 2013

What I Learned By Forgiving Myself

In January 2007, I went on retreat with The Compassionate Listening Project, a not-for-profit that teaches the skill of Compassionate Listening as a peace building tool.  They got their start by working to heal the Jewish/Palestinian conflict.

The facilitator said, “We are all our own worst terrorist.”

This means that we repeat to ourselves other people’s criticisms of us over and over even more harshly than others do. 

I have done this all my life, but just before I went on retreat, I had made one of the biggest mistakes of my life.  I had driven away a friend and co-worker, Pavel (not his real name) with my intense criticism of him and his work.  My criticisms contained truth, but most of us learn best from our own experiences.  Most of us don’t respond positively to criticism, particularly harsh criticism. When we repeatedly criticize people or express anger at them, we drive them away.

So at this retreat I knew without hesitation which criticisms I was repeating to myself over and over.  

Virginia, you are too intense.

Virginia, you drove away Pavel with your anger and criticism.

Then the facilitator told us to think about what we were longing for.

That was easy.  I wanted to connect with the people, specifically Pavel.

So how did I forgive myself?  

My first step was to stop stating the negative as a negative but instead as the positive of what was longing for.


Virginia, you drive people away.


Virginia, you are longing to connect with other people.

By restating a negative as a positive, my next step forward became obvious.  

I shifted my thoughts and actions to how to connect with others.  Changing multiple unhelpful coping skills took me a long time.  It is easer to try to change just one or two things at a time, but it is also helpful to look forward to future steps too.  For example, I can at least try to name three ways I can better connect with other people:

  • The first thing I learned to do was to set my agenda aside until I had the kind of rapport that would open another person’s heart to my agenda.  In my case, I was always trying to get other Catholics to care about the clergy abuse issue.  I managed to alienate quite a few people and tire out a good many others.  I would talk to people about clergy abuse before I spoke about anything else.  Now I wait until people express an interest in the work I do before I mention it and unless they express more interest, I stop talking about the issue.
  • The second thing I learned to do is listen much more than I talk.  This is a challenge for me, but I keep working on it.  I try to catch myself talking and stop and just listen.
  • Ask people questions.  People are fascinated by you when you ask them about them.
  • Thank people for their time and attention.  Ask people how they are.  Say please.

OK this is four examples, but politeness and kindness work wonders to heal relationships.

My next problem that I faced at the retreat was that I had driven away my friend Pavel with anger and criticism.  Back in 2007, when I was on retreat, I was hurt by a third party, not by Pavel.  I didn’t blame Pavel, but I felt that he should have been more supportive and sensitive of my feelings and needs.  I did not like the third party and had no rapport with her.  I previously had a good rapport with Pavel, so Pavel got to hear all my feelings.  I have never managed to reconnect with Pavel so about the best I can work on is how do I manage to never again lose a relationship that is important to me through criticism and anger again.

To restate this as a positive, I want to learn to express my anger in ways that help me and others better understand what my needs are and why I am feeling hurt and angry.  I want to express my anger in ways that help me instead of hurt me.

When we are hurt, we go through the “fight or flight” reaction which nature programmed into us so we would survive meeting lions, tigers, wolves and bears.  Our heart beats faster.  We feel anxious.  Our human reaction is to defend ourselves or attack back.  It is not to listen and be compassionate.

The truth was I angry at this other person but I took it out on Pavel.  How often do we have a bad day at work and take it out on our loved ones when we come home?

So the number one rule is:

  • Be angry at the person who deserves your anger and not someone who does not.

The rest of the rules include:
  • Slow yourself down before you speak or send an e-mail.  It is a truism, but it is a true truism.  You can write down your feelings, but if you send them to anyone, send them to someone you trust and ask for their input.  Often when I am angry, I have learned that if  I just wait before I express myself, my need to express anger goes away or I express myself more diplomatically and more briefly and therefor more effectively.
  • Give yourself time and space to heal before you speak.  My self healing coping skills include taking a walk, gardening, hiking and even cleaning the house.  The house always need to be cleaned so I always feel better afterwards.  That way I kill two birds with one stone or feed two birds with one seed as Pavel would say.  Other ways of self healing are through playing music or singing, yoga, and dancing.  What helps you heal?

Last, but not least:
  • Find kinder and gentler ways of expressing your feelings when you are angry.

If I was to restate the several excessively long and angry e-mails I sent to Pavel, I would say this:

I really appreciate your hard work and dedication.  You have helped many people heal.  You have given of yourself selflessly to many people, including me, and many people, including me, have criticized you and gotten angry at you.  That is hard to take when you give so much time to other people.

I think you might feel that I used you.  I can see why you feel that way, that I came with my agenda and pursued it without regard to you or others.  Please understand that I felt that people needed to hear the truth I knew that no one had told them in public.  It says in the Bible that the truth will set you free.  I was merely trying to set people free.  I felt I had to speak about the truth because no one else would.  So maybe it is valid if you feel that I used you.  I am sorry.  Just please understand that I was trying to do good by using you.

Lastly, Pavel, I want you to know that there is nothing you said or did that was wrong.  The wrong is all other people and their actions.  If there was anything wrong, it was that your role in public events was too small.  If there was anything wrong, it was how blankety-blank facilitated things.  If I could have facilitated the event, I would have had you and Ivan share your stories.  I think that would have been much more healing and effective than what took place.  

My apology and my rewording of my anger at Pavel will probably never be acknowledged even though I have apologized other times with more words, maybe too many words. Regardless, I have two last pieces of advice to offer on healing through self forgiveness.

Keep whatever you say to yourself and others short and sweet.

Self forgiveness is what you do it for yourself whether or not other people approve or respond.  It does not matter that Pavel has never responded, it matters that I think about my actions and words, forgive myself for being human and try to move forward and do better next time.

2013 (c) Copyright Virginia Pickles Jones

Please help me work with survivors.

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