Sunday, November 30, 2014

Forgiveness: Door Mat to Door Master (Part 2)

I LOVE this guy!! 
photo by Imagerymajestic
And returning to the idea of Forgiveness ...
You may be reading these posts and thinking I'm Pollyanna-crazy. 

"That works just fine in fantasyland," you might say, "but in MY world, there is no way I could go to this person and talk to them about our conflict!"  Yep.  That happens.  What if you have absolutely no expectation that the person can deal with you in anything resembling a healthy way?  What if you've tried to talk to that person and they absolutely refuse to come to the table to work on a compromise?

Forgive anyway.  Write it off.  Let it go (With or without singing the "Frozen" song).   

Do not let that person control you with their refusal to acknowledge fault or even that they might have hurt you inadvertently.  Do not give them power over you by letting them make you nervous that you might run into them at a family function or at the grocery store.  Stand right up and be relaxed about it.  After all, THEY are the one that should be uncomfortable.

Own your boundaries. 

What if they come to Christmas Dinner?  So what.  Be pleasant.  Be polite.  Be generous, and wish them the same happy holiday you would wish the bell-ringer at Wal-Mart who is a total stranger.  Genuinely wish that Bob has a pleasant time.  Because that will make him a healthier person for you to deal with in the long run.  Don't let fear that being nice to them somehow makes you vulnerable turn you into a crunchy, cranky, uncomfortable version of yourself.  BE YOU.  Smile.  Say "Hi Bob."  Let Bob squirm.  Because let me tell you, unless Bob is truly clueless, he is ready for the fight.  He's ready for you to let him have it and give you his pre-prepared defenses.  When you don't give it to him (and this applies equally to Barbara), he is off-guard.  He is wondering what happened.  He is uncomfortable.  Because now, he has to let go if whatever grudge or anticipated conflict he made up too, or at least wonder when you will lower the boom.  Who has the power now?  That's right.  You do.  Because at the end of the day, no one will have anything to say about it because you didn't act like a jerk and give Bob the opportunity to play the victim.

What if Bob thinks he's off the hook?  What if he thinks you've forgotten his evil deeds, or given him a get-out-of-jail-free card?  WHO CARES.  We're talking about YOUR emotional well-being here.  If Bob labors under the misperception that he's off the hook, you can set him straight if and when he tries to engage you on a deeper level.  Then?  Step up with the limits to clarify your boundaries.  (See previous post)  Until that moment?  Think of yourself as gloriously, blissfully IMMUNE to Bob and his narcissistic short-sightedness.  Karma, as they say, is a bitch.  Bob will get his.

Don't let someone else's unhealthiness drag you down.  If a person is unwilling to mend a relationship, the relationship isn't worth mending.  You're not missing THAT relationship.  You're missing the fantasyland picture of the relationship you have in your head that doesn't exist anymore.  Pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and start all over again, all the while feeling GREAT about the fact that you rose above the petty BS that gives me job security. 

Bask in it.  Wallow just a little, if you will, in the knowledge that you didn't participate in the passion play that erodes human relationship.  Shoot me an email and tell me about it.  I will be proud of you.   

Friday, November 28, 2014

Thankful ... MORE OR LESS.

Well, here we are, all stuffed with Turkey and nursing the aftermath of over indulgences of one kind or another (#pie).  I wrote this blog in my head yesterday, but never had a chance to put it in a format that was accessible to anyone else. 

Thanksgiving.  We are long past the idyllic days of old where tables were set in the school hallways, covered with brown butcher paper, and adorned with turkeys made from tracings of our hands while we wore pilgrim hats or Indian bonnets made from construction paper.  Now we must face reality.  The Pilgrims were horrible, malicious marauders who forced the hapless Indians ... wait - Native Americans, no FIRST Americans ... anyway, those nasty Pilgrims (can we still call them pilgrims??) ... oh who cares.  Let's just forget history altogether because someone will get their feelings hurt and goodness knows we can't have THAT.  Besides.  The stuff we would eat at those feasts wasn't gluten free, bought from a store or had a label.  I'm not sure how we survived.  Anyway, Sorry kids, no more cool fringed Indian outfits made out of paper grocery bags.  Let's do some MATH.   

Yet we persevere ... each year at this time, we briefly take a time-out from bashing each other on facebook, waving our arms about the injustice of forcing those poor people to work on Black Friday ... or waving our arms about the people who wave their arms about the injustice ... I can't keep track ... and get around a table with people we may or may not like.  It's all well and good for those who have some sort of Normal Rockwell experience, but what about people in the thick of it?

It's hard to hear about being thankful when all you can see is what is going wrong. 

Human brains are hard-wired to pay attention to problems.  In 20 years as a therapist, not one person has ever reported to me that they are obsessed with thoughts of how GREAT things are, and how WELL things are going.  "I keep thinking about how AWESOME my life is.  I can't get anything else done!  I can't work, I can't sleep, all I do all day is think about all the things I'm GRATEFUL for!!  Can you help me with this?"  Said no one, ever.  And if they did, I would immediately start screening for mania.  That's just not the way things work.

Life is HARD these days.  That is just fact.  If you're not struggling, congratulations.  If the little bubble you live in is intact, good for you.  If you manage to be untouched by the horrors and tragedies in the everyday lives of so many people, I mean beyond the sympathetic "oh golly, isn't that AWFUL???  Those poor people!  BLESS THEIR HEARTS . . . " then it's easy to find things to be thankful for and let that gratitude just ooze from your pores.  There's your thankful right there.  In my humble opinion, you now have a responsibility to get out of your bubble and go help someone. 

We DO have things to be grateful for.  We may not have as much money as we want, but we did get to take that vacation 2 years ago . . . .and maybe there's no money for vacation, but we have a home and enough food .... or maybe there's not home and food, but we have our health ... or maybe we don't have health, a home, any family, or like a family in a small Texas town where my high school BFF lives, maybe they lost 5 of 6 kids in one terrible night.  Harder to find gratitude in times like that.

We have the platitudes.  "God is in control," "Everything happens for a reason"  "Yes, you lost both your legs, but aren't you super excited you still have arms???"  Reality??  Those things bring little comfort when you're grieving a loss, or wondering how you will pay your medical bills, or how you're going to afford the new"affordable" healthcare plans with double the premiums and half the benefits.  In those times, brains believe that the way to solve a problem is to think about it.  A lot.  And brains fight us when we try to take a break from balancing the checkbook ONE MORE TIME to see if we missed something somewhere and indeed things are going to be all right.  Replay the tragedy ONE MORE TIME to try to find a way to make it un-happen.  Brains don't know that solutions aren't easy these days.  Brains keep trying.   

In those times, gratitude helps us find balance, yes, but it is unreasonable to think that some goofy gratitude journal will somehow take the sting out of losing 5 kids.  So if you're one of the millions out there who are finding it hard to maintain an "attitude of gratitude," take heart.  You can still get through the holidays.

1.  It's OK to say no.  Evaluate whether social gatherings are helpful.  Sometimes it's like getting over a speed bump.  Once you get there, you actually do feel better for a while.  If that is the case, persevere through the speed bump.  Sometimes a good enough reason to do something that will be difficult is that you know that later when you're feeling better you'll wish you had.  You can go to a gathering, and then beg out after an hour too.  If anyone gives you a hard time, tell them to call me.  I will explain it to them.  Conversely, don't be a hermit if feeling alone is the problem, and BEING alone makes it worse.  Spend time with people who feed your soul, even if those are total strangers in a coffee shop and you never say one word to them.  Shared experience is healing. 

2.  Self Care.  Do things that make you feel better.  Get the responsibilities taken care of, yes, but otherwise get enough sleep, don't OVERindulge in vices (my favorites include peppermint ice cream and red wine).  Go to the dollar store and get one of those massager roller thingies and use it on those shoulders that are tired from carrying the weight of the world.  Go sit in the massage chairs at Bed Bath and Beyond.  Those things are AWESOME.  Paint your toenails.  Here's Someone else's cool list.  

3.  Don't be a Grinch. If you can't go out and have fun, stay home and have fun.  Go to a movie and escape reality for a while.  Yes, even by yourself.  No one is looking at you.  They are way too wrapped up in themselves.  Don't expect the whole world to slow down because you're struggling.  Many people are having fun this time of year.  It isn't a personal insult when others are happy. 

4.  Don't Mope.  Taking time to rest and regroup is one thing, out and out wallowing in self-pity is another.  Now don't get me wrong, having a good wallow has its time and place, but healthy wallowing is time-limited, and while you're wallowing you know you will stop in a while and resume problem solving.  Trying not to acknowledge things that are going wrong is like trying not to breathe.  We are humans.  But we are at the top of the food chain because we can think about the future and plan for things.  Do it. 

5.  Give back.  This does really help.  Find a charity and go volunteer, if you have the time.  If anxiety, or a crazy schedule keeps you from going to a soup kitchen, donate a coat.  Or mittens.  Or something.  Bake cookies for a military unit overseas.  Go read to someone at a nursing home.  Give back with the click of your mouse.  Shovel your neighbor's walkway and let them wonder who did it.  Or heck, just send a nice card to someone you know. 

 6.  Look to the future with at least one squinty, jaded eye.  It won't suck forever.  If you're going to think about how bad things are, spend some time making plans or taking action that will make it better.  Get a better job.  Ask for help.  Join a support group.  Read a book on whatever you're struggling with.  Pick ONE THING that might make a difference and do it.  Feng Shui says if you simply MOVE 20 items in your home, it will release stuck energy.  So re-arrange that living room!!

Most of all, hang in there.  34 days till January 2.  You can make it till then.  After that, the lights come down and we get busy forgetting our New Year's resolutions and hunkering down to get ready for taxes, and everyone is grumpy again.  :)

Friday, November 21, 2014

Forgiveness: 4 steps from Door Mat to Door Master

Once you’ve wrapped your heart around forgiveness, you come face to face with the very human instinct to avoid that which causes us pain. It makes sense to stay away from toxic relationships. No one can fault you from keeping distance with someone who is a repeated source of relational chaos.

The easy thing is to just summarily cut the person off. To slam and deadbolt that door and to stop giving them the chance to hurt us by making sure they aren’t within striking distance. How much we need to involve the other person in the process of forgiveness and relational repair depends on how important the connection is to you.

Close personal relationships are a little more challenging than the guy who flips you off in traffic. These aren’t throw away people with zero impact on your life, this is the meat and potatoes of our relational selves. I think the biggest thing that gets in the way of relationship is our inability to manage and tolerate conflict. We either go over the top into grandiosity and self-riteousness or shrink away like WE did something wrong. Somewhere along the way we learned as a society that we should never make anyone uncomfortable. We’ve taken it too far. Feeling uncomfortable is important in maintaining relationship because ideally, it keeps us from acting like jerks.

So. Step 1, gather up your best assertiveness and conflict management skills. (Note to self, write about conflict management skills) Have an awareness of your ability to protect your boundaries by setting and holding limits. Say to yourself “however this turns out, I can handle it.”

Step 2: GO TO THE PERSON YOU HAVE AN ISSUE WITH. NOT TO SOMEONE (or several someones) ELSE. Even the bible backs me up here. I’m out on the whole get your pastor involved approach if the one on one goes south, but I’m all over the idea of dealing with things directly. Use assertive language, I statements, and good boundaries. Stay in your own energetic space. Address what HAPPENED, rather than your armchair psychologist assumptions about the motivations behind what happened. This sounds like “I care about our relationship and I’m struggling with getting past how hurt I am about some of the things you said to me yesterday,” or “I’m having a hard time wanting to make plans with you because the last 4 times we were supposed to meet you either didn’t show up or cancelled at the last minute, and I’m feeling disrespected,” not “you can’t treat me like that, you’re an idiot and you need to stop being a jerk.”

Offer concrete solutions for how you would like to resolve the situation, up to and including specific words you would like to hear the person say, if that’s the way it is in your head. “You know Bob, what I need to hear you say is that you understand how your words/actions impacted me, and that it matters to you how I feel.”

There’s a great deal of debate about how to deliver this message. In a nutshell, here’s my 2 cents. ANY WAY YOU CAN. If you have the relationship skills to have a sit-down with the person, keep your wits about you and look them right in the eye, that’s awesome. Most of us don’t. Most of us get overwhelmed and emotionally flooded in the face of conflict and will pull out our less-than-helpful communication habits (see amygdala hijack and how the part of your brain where you store all those awesome relationship and communication skills is more or less locked out when you’ve got adrenalilne running through your system). Secondly, face to face conversations can feel like a blitz attack to the other person and set up some defensiveness right from the get go. For my money? Pick up a piece of paper and a pen. Write words. I think email is a completely acceptable option. Text. Send the message by carrier pigeon if you have to, but GET IT OUT THERE. Keeping it inside your head fosters resentment and impedes forgiveness.

Step 3: Wait to see what happens. Don’t play the big fight over and over in your head. Don’t rehearse all the nasty biting sarcastic comments you could possibly make. If you’re going to practice for the other person going on the offensive and waging an attack, prepare for level 2 de-escalation which sounds like “hey – hold on – I’m not attacking you. I care about our relationship enough to come to you and try to work this out between us. You’re a good person. I know that. I want you in my life. Can we talk about it?” Yep. I know. This flies in the face of everything we have learned from TV and movies. Please refer to my future best-selling self-help book entitled“Being healthy is really boring.” No one makes movies about GOOD communication. There’s no crisis. No opportunity for denoument and the swell of violin music. There used to be this series of greeting cards with a couple little ants having a conversation. One ant said “forget your troubles” and the other one said “ok.” Now that’s brief therapy!

Step 4: LET GO. Communication about conflict has one of two possible outcomes. Either the relationship continues or it doesn’t. If the relationship continues, stop beating a dead horse. Don’t beat the other person with it either. Don’t lay in wait for them to offend again. It’s human nature when we’ve been hurt to feel a little guarded. Own it. This might sound like “I know I’m a little guarded. I’m working on it. Thanks for your patience with me.” (note to self: write article about how to respond to this statement) It does NOT sound like accusing the person of offending in the FUTURE. “Oh yeah the moment I let my guard down you’ll just do it again.” If you’re in that corner and won’t get out of it, leave the relationship. You’re done.

If you’ve gone through level 1 and 2 of respectful resolution and the other person just isn’t getting it – they blame you, they don’t even admit what happened, or they justify their behavior and maintain their defensive and angry position, you might need to limit your interactions with this person. But with forgiveness. Not “I can’t deal with him” or “she’s just a toxic person.” With an understanding that whatever is going on for that person right then, they weren’t able to come to the table and work it out. It’s not a commentary on your worth as a person. It’s not an attack or an insult. It’s sad. It’s a shame. Shake the dust off your feet and move on, energetically wishing the person well and keeping the door cracked open just in case they read my next blog on the flip side of forgiveness. Don’t expect Francis Ford Coppola to come knocking at your door for the screen rights. It won’t be dramatic enough. Grieve. Accept. Move on.

“This is the way the world ends – not with a bang, but a whimper.” - TS Eliot 

Friday, November 14, 2014

5 Myths About Forgiveness

What's all this business about forgiveness?  Doesn't that mean we walk around as human doormats?  Powerless victims over those who are more willing to act out their self-centered, myopic agendas?  Nope. 

Forgiveness is as much (if not more) about what you’re going to carry around with you as it is about how you handle the other person.  When we forgive, we let go of the resentment that eats away at our ability to be peaceful in the world. 

Myth 1. The other person has to apologize for me to forgive them.  This is a nice theory, and it is easier when someone owns their own behavior, but reality is that most people don't know how to apologize.  They know how to slink around, lay blame, avoid you, be defensive and give you 45 reasons why you shouldn't hold them accountable . . . but they don't know how to apologize.

More often than not, someone's bad behavior has less to do with you than it does with their own insecurity and lack of relationship skill. When you know that, you can forgive, knowing that there WAS a reason for whatever offense was committed, and that the reason probably had very little to do with you personally. You can realize that the other person is doing the best they can with the tools they have in the moment ... and that you don’t have to be a punching bag. You have compassion for whatever pain they must be experiencing to make it seem acceptable to behave the way they are, and you LET IT GO. You don’t stew about it, or play nasty conversations over and over in your head. You don’t form a committee of your 76 closest friends to make sure they are on your side. You don’t put it on facebook, you don’t text nasty messages. You don’t turn and walk the other way to avoid the person at church. You stop insiting that they change their behavior, and you change yours. 

Myth 2.  Forgiveness comes after a big, dramatic confrontation worthy of an Oscar nomination.
Sometimes, you can pull off forgiveness without involving the other party at all.This rarely works if the relationship in question is a close one, so keep reading for tips on how to appropriately confront and ask for an apology if one is not forthcoming.  However, there are situations in which it isn't possible to get resolution, or where the attempt to get resolution is likely to turn out poorly.   If you’ve been treated poorly by a fellow driver on the highway, for example, odds are this isn’t a relationship you’re going to nurture and depend on. So someone swerves in front of you AND flips you off. Smile. Wave. And for the rest of the day instead of thinking how dare that JERK disrespect you and running through the list of searing insults you would be happy to deliver, energetically wish that person peace as you smile and wave. Energetically understand that they’re insecure and scared inside if they need to be that outwardly aggressive and hope for them that they have the opportunity to heal. Take the opportunity to reflect on how thankful you are that you’re secure enough in yourself to not need to be a jerk in return just to show that total stranger that you won’t stand for being treated like that by golly. Let it go. Notice how much less it takes a bite out of your mood. In 5 minutes you won’t even remember it happened. Similar skills apply with someone you think won't respond positively to an attempt to work it out and you decide it isn't worth your time.  And if it is really that hard to not flip off some jerk driver, or make a nasty comment to the server/customer service person? Take a good look in the mirror at your own insecurities and low self-esteem. 

Myth 3.  Holding a grudge is the same as boundaries.  Boundaries are often confused with WALLS.  Forgiveness REQUIRES good boundaries.  It means that you no longer have to avoid a person or be mad at them because you know that if it gets uncomfortable, you can handle the situation with grace.  You can set limits, including limiting how much access the person has to you.  Including whether or not to be around that person.  The difference is whether or not you have to skip Thanksgiving dinner at Grandma's because your sister will be there, and whether or not you feel uncomfortable about being there.  Good boundaries mean you go, and you feel fine.  If it goes south, you can make choices about it, up to and including leaving the scene. 

Myth 4.  Forgiving someone makes you a doormat
Forgiving someone does not give them power over you.  It means that you’re not going to give the situation power OVER YOU and let it ruin your day.  Forgiveness is the energy with which you set limits.  Kind, loving, and sometimes sad limits, as in “I’m ending our relationship because I can no longer be around you AND be respectful to myself.” Forgiveness is not a “get out of jail free” card for the offender.It is an opportunity – a partially open door– for relationship repair and growth.  Anyone who demands forgiveness is avioding responsibility.  No one DESERVES forgiveness. True Forgiveness is a gift.  Continued relationship depends on what happens next.

Myth 5.  Forgiving someone lets them off the hook.
Forgiving someone doesn't mean their behavior acceptable. It doesn’t mean you condone or accept what they did.  It also does not mean the door is open for that person to continue to treat you badly.  Forgiveness just means that you're not going to carry around a grudge about the LAST event, and that if you continue to be around that person, you will treat them with kind limits, and protect your boundaries.  You will not let their acting like a jerk lead you to act like a jerk.  Take the high road. 

But how do you forgive and still have expectations?  Aren’t those opposites?

I don’t think so.   Stay tuned.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Forgiveness is an attribute of the strong.

Here we go into the Holiday season once again.  The season of parties and dinners and sitting around the table with those nearest and dearest, and often with whom we have the most conflict.  We tend to talk a lot about forgiveness, and conflict, and how we ought to treat each other.  Especially forgiveness.  Turn the other cheek and all that, forgive, forgive, forgive.
Well, that sounds like a lovely idea and all, but what does that mean and how do you do it?  I think society has watered down the powerful force of forgiveness to a point where it feels like we must be the proverbial doormat, and totally give up on being respected.  Au contraire.  Buddhaghosa, the 5th century commentator, is credited with the saying "by holding onto anger, you are like a man who wants to hit another and picks up a burning ember or excrement in his hand and so first burns himself or makes himself stink.” Visuddhimagga IX, 23.   Forgiveness frees us from this.  Anger and resentment are cancer in relationship, eroding trust and inhibiting connectedness; both of which are absolute must haves. 

I think there are many ways to practice forgiveness, all the while maintaining our boundaries and personal integrity.  Forgiveness isn’t pretending it didn’t matter, or forgetting it happened.  It isn’t saying “that’s ok” when it’s not ok.  I’m not talking about that kind of forgiveness, which is the fake surface-level crap I often complain about.  It isn't “Oh ... I’ve forgiven that selfish, vindictive, spiteful person for being the awful person she is .... I’m praying for her ...” which gets repeated over and over to anyone who will listen.  Hey folks.  That’s complaining.  That’s an underhanded way to publicly assassinate someone’s character and still get to wear your “LOOK HOW HOLY I AM” t-shirt.  If there’s one thing that makes my blood boil it’s using God as an excuse to act like a jerk. 
In my opinion, forgiveness has to do with an understanding that the other person isn’t necessarily doing whatever they’re doing TO you, they’re doing it NEAR you.  Their big fault is not NOT doing it to keep you from being collateral damage to their wounded process.  Once upon a time when I was a baby therapist I had a lot of judgments about “bad” people out there.  I couldn’t understand how poeple could carry out the atrocities they inflicted upon each other.  20 years later, I get it.  I get that the more horiffic the offense, the deeper the underlying pain.  Take my word for it.  I’ve walked with people through some of the most unimaginable hells and heard every nightmarish detail of how, in the moment, that behavior is all that makes sense. I understand way more than I ever set out to. That doesn’t mean it is acceptable, of course. And it definitely doesn’t mean I have to watch it happen on the news.

Forgiveness is for the forgiver. It's a way to keep from internal combustion. It may or may not have anything to do with the person who wronged us. Stay tuned for a series on how forgiveness and boundaries work together. Just in time to deck the halls.