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 

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