The ideas, beliefs and values below, if held to strongly and tightly by an individual, tend to send the path of forgiveness into a detour, a dead-end or completely off the tracks (derailed!). While by no means a comprehensive list, the below options tend to be the biggies. If you’re struggling with one of them, start below. We recommend to also seek out a mentor to bounce ideas off of.
In choosing a peer, look for someone who is going to take you where you want to go (the person who you want to be) rather than further down your derailing track (it might feel ‘good’ to stew for a bit… and that’s likely not where you want to end up!). Your mentor will help you to choose peace, balance and wisdom – that’s how you’ll know you’ve found a good mentor for your path at the moment.
So now, the tip of the iceberg:
Options that will stall your path to forgiveness.
In a Dead-End, you’re spinning around in an endless circle – perhaps lamenting (“There’s nowhere to go now!” or “I’ve tried everything, it’s all pointless!”), and perhaps praying for a way out (“If only there were another way! I’m so tired of this!”).
Rumination is the technical term for recalling a negative event and turning it over and over in our heads. We might call this remembering, but ruminating is distinct from pure memory. We’re recycling the story and strengthening the negative aspects of it. In a study on memory and trauma detailed in This Emotional Life (a video series on the Education drive), it was found that when recalling a ‘negative’ event from our past, our body actually responds in the same negative fashion as when we first encountered the event: our pulses rise, adrenaline gets released, and we start to go into general panic-mode. When we have mindfulness around ruminations, we can start to notice and appreciate their recurrence. Especially in unoccupied times, our mind will drift to these negative events and begin to ruminate (spiral around) – rehearsing (and unfortunately strengthening) our negative associations with the memory.
When you notice yourself ruminating, this is a great moment to start with the first step of forgiveness. Ask yourself “What am I feeling” – and without pushing the rumination away, color in the picture. Ruminations rely on our denial, and on our lack of mindfulness – as in them, we recycle the most basic emotional picture. We can break them down through focusing more intentionally on our emotional register – what nuances are present? What needs are missing here? How can I welcome the full expression of that emotion into my present – and after feeling into it for several minutes – invite it to peacefully depart for now?
In her book Fierce Conversations, author Susan Scott affirms, “All conversations are with myself, and sometimes they involve other people,” (154). What she is driving at in this affirmation, is that we often pretend that we’re talking with other people, when really we’re having a conversation between ourselves and the images of other people that we invent in our mind. For example, think back to a time when you spent an entire hour (or maybe less, or maybe more!) chatting with someone purely in your head. Perhaps you were rehearsing an argument, or playing out a difficult conversation that hadn’t happened yet. You put up great points, and ‘they’ immediately countered in that snide way that ‘they’ always do – and then you snapped back to your senses and realized that you’d just spent all that time having a conversation with someone who wasn’t even in the room. Well, the real kicker is that even when they are in the room, we’re largely having conversations with ourselves – and inviting them to the party. If you find yourself saying “oh I KNEW you would say something like that…” or “Oh here we go, you’re gonna bring THAT up again…” you can be pretty confident that you’ve played out this conversation – and that the other person has very little to contribute. This would fall under the umbrella term of ‘enemy images’ – which can be challenging for some, because often we’re ‘enlightened’ enough to not resonate with the term ‘enemy.’ We might say “oh, I can’t have an enemy image around her – I mean, she’s ok – we just have some problems because she’s stubborn sometimes.” Ok, point taken – and enemy images aren’t always about believing that the other person is completely rotten to the bitter core.
Let’s focus instead on the word ‘image’ there – meaning something that appears to be reality but is an image – it’s imaginary. And who imagined that image up? You did! In your ruminations, and in your rehearsals, you’ve created quite a complex opera in which characters play their parts over and over much to your dislike. If you’ve combined this with your own victimhood (0% in control of what those ‘people’ say), then you have the perfect recipe for a complete dead end.
So what’s the recipe for jump-starting this dead path? It’s step one of forgiveness – politely invite the other people to leave your brain, and start to acknowledge that you’re the only one in there – just you! You might put on other-people’s faces as masks (yep, a little creepy) and parrot their mannerisms and their speeches, and at the end of the day, that’s you in a mask. The first step of forgiveness is to stop the show. Pull the curtain closed, come out from behind the various masks, and talk with yourself. Have a conversation that’s just you – what are you feeling? How are you?
Despair is the act of holding an absolute belief. ‘Always,’ ‘Never,’ ‘Forever’ are the heralds of despair – “It will always be like this;’ ‘He will never change;’ ‘I’m going to have to live with this forever.’ As with all speech, there are intentional ways to utilize these absolute terms, and often when they’re employed, they rob us of our agency, our power and our desire to make a change that will be in service to us.
A way to check, is when you say the phrase, does it open up your options and your powers, or does it shut down your options (usually to only include your current way of being)?
We can despair about our own situation – denying our own ability to make a change that will empower our lives. We can also despair about the nature of others – whether or not they’re able to make a change. By doing this, we lock that person into a static way of being that they may or may not agree with. Here, we have the option of characterizing our thoughts around that other person – often by challenging our assumptions about their nature.
Some ways to work through despair:
All emotions are temporary. Try adding temporary or time-related words to your thoughts and your statements. Instead of saying “I’ve never trusted her” try “I haven’t been able to trust her for 3 days.” You might also find when you attempt to put a time-frame on an action or emotion, that you’ll be able to shorten the time based on other experiences. “Ugh, I’ve been miserable for such a long time!” – “Can you remember a time in the past week where you weren’t miserable?” – “Well yea, yesterday I got some cake and that was awesome” – “Ok, so it sounds like you’ve been experiencing your current emotion for a shorter time than a week.” Reducing these moments and coming to a more ‘objective’ view of your temporary states will help to avoid the creation of despair narratives.
A little bit? This technique utilizes humor to both reimagine your current emotional state, and to erode the ‘always’ narrative. When you find yourself saying “I’m never going to…” or “I’m not going to…” You could find yourself saying “I’m never going to trust anyone every again!” to which you might reply “ok, it sounds like you’re in a lot of pain. And could you see yourself trusting someone just a little bit, sometime?” In cracking open the door slightly, you erode the ability to despair, because we’ve put the faintest glimmer of a possibility for change in there. Note that we’re still honoring the emotions and the experience, and we’re endeavoring to limit that experience to the present moments – remember, optimists see events objectively, limited in scope, and temporary; pessimists (those who despair) see events as personal, pervasive and permanent.
A belief that if held, will send us off the tracks.
Unlike dead-ends, we might not experience a feeling of being at-a-loss, or of coming up against a wall. Instead, we keep heading down the tracks smoothly, and then we hit a bump and go off to one side – we likely pick ourselves up again, say ‘that was odd’ and then go down the tracks again, perhaps even a bit further, before hitting that little bump again.
Benevolence is the act of ‘being the bigger person.’ Sound great? You have the most options on the table, you’re passionate about increasing the peace and beauty in the world, you let go of your attachment, and then you choose to support the other individuals in increasing the beauty of their lives. Forgiveness nailed! True, if you’re walking through these moments within this spirit – then ‘benevolence’ is a beautiful thing.
And, benevolence can also be a derailer when it’s engaged with in the spirit of a sneaky-should. For example, instead of moving through step one and coming to terms with your emotional responses, let’s say you hopped straight to forgiving the other person – because you believed that that is what good people ‘should’ do. So you walk over to the person, and say ‘hey John, I forgive you for stealing $50 out of my wallet,” to which John responds “Oh wow, that’s really big of you. Thanks man – that’s chill… oh, can I have another $20 then?” And then your eye kind of twitches and you say “WHAT? I’m over here giving you the best freakin’ gift on the planet, and you have the audacity to ask for $20 after you STOLE from me?! You know I could get you ARRESTED right?! But I won’t because I’m a freakin’ good person. So you better just shut up and think about your life, cause you’re messed up man!” … well wait a minute… that doesn’t sound like a peaceful engagement with another human being – that sounds like a lot of shoulding is still present – “you shouldn’t have taken money out of my wallet,” “You shouldn’t have asked for more money,” “You should be better than a thief,” “You should recognize that I’m being an awesome person right now.”
If you’re holding these understandings, and moving through forgiveness because you believe that you should do it – then you’re going off the tracks a bit. You’re being motivated by an external force (projected from/narrated from within) that’s propelling you onwards in the punishment/monitor sense. You’ve yet to connect with yourself and your emotions. What’s coming up for you? Where are those ‘shoulds’ coming from? Who do you imagine putting this pressure on you to forgive? What would it be like to truly release any attachment you had to that event, while still honoring the pain (and possibly surprise) you felt upon discovering someone had taken $50 from you?
The deeper you dig into what’s coming up for you, the more likely you are to see through sneaky or implied shoulds that may be directing your benevolence. What does it look like to be ultimately benevolent (or altruistic) towards another human being? How would you like to experience that in your life as you go forward from here?
Getting Over It
Perhaps three of the most toxic words in the process of forgiveness are “get over it!” Said to yourself, or to others, or by others to yourself, there’s not a situation we can think of where this phrase assists in fostering a balanced and joyful path towards forgiveness.
Often, ‘get over it!’ signals a desire to speed up the timeline of forgiveness – either from someone who is holding their own frustration at your process, or from yourself, indicating your own wish for peace now! “Ugh, I just wish I could get over this” or “Jesus! You’ve been angry and sad for months… I wish you’d just get over it already.” Label this sneaky-should and endeavor to offer some empathy – check out the ‘Many Frames of Forgiveness’ on forgiveness being a process, rather than a destination.
‘Getting over it’ also indicates a misunderstanding of the process of forgiveness. Forgiveness is never about ‘getting over it’ in the sense of fully letting go of a past moment (forgetting and moving on). ‘Getting over it’ in its most used form would mean either a lobotomy (ouch!) or the beginning of psychotic-criminal behavior (the removal of a feeling of remorse). As opposed to these, forgiveness is about returning the past to the past, and the power of the present to yourself. You’re not going to live another day without that event having happened to you (whether big or small). You are going to be able to re-story that event and its place within your life. You are going to be able to change the tone and tenor of that memory, and to re-open the possibilities of your present and future. And that immense work takes time – sometimes days, sometimes years. At the end of that time, you won’t be ‘over’ your moment, you will be living with it in a way that works for the person you want to become.
A different path that may or may not end up at the same goal.
Perhaps because of our life path, or our beliefs, or our upbringing, we’re not currently able to engage with one of the more direct paths towards forgiveness – and in jogging down the side-streets for a bit, we may find another way. We may also get lost – and so bringing mindfulness to our detours is an important part of swerving!
Tempest in the Attic
But I’m just sad all the time!
How can I ever experience joy again after something so evil?
In this particular detour, we’re holding on to a belief that we can or should only feel roughly one emotion at a time. Our way of speaking about emotions reinforces this belief: I am sad / I am angry / I am hurt. We use the same verb (‘to be’) as we do to describe other either/or, permanent states of being: I am white / I am female / I am 5’11” tall. In English, we make these qualities permanent and we make them singular. ¹
We have invented some terms to describe odd multiple-emotional states – ‘I’m feeling very bittersweet’ – and those tend to mean that emotions have mixed into a singular emotion – rather than showing two different emotions.
After a large-scale event (or even during a small one) we might begin to think of our emotional state as permanent and complete – “I am sad, and only sad, and always sad.” We may even go so far as to think of the sadness in a space of honor, as in “my best-friend died – it’s only right to be sad right now.” We might start to excuse ourselves from situations in which we might feel joy, because we find it to be ‘inconsiderate’ or ‘irreverent’ to our mourning. “No, I can’t go to the movies tonight! I’m too depressed about what happened.”
In these situations, there are a couple of forces at play. First, there is a process of mourning – our psychosomatic response to the events. For more on this in particular, check out the mourning and trauma appendix. And, at the same time, we’re affirming that we should feel a certain way in order to honor the event. We begin to fulfill a prophesy: we say that this event will eliminate all the joy from our life, and then we act in a way that eliminates all the joy from our life, so … we lose all the joy in our life. It’s at these moments that someone is likely to offer us the infamous ‘get over it’ injunction [see above].
Humans, and human emotions are complex. And, one of those complexities is that we’re actually capable of existing within multiple emotional states at the same time! We don’t necessarily notice this, mostly because as we said above, our culture doesn’t encourage us to see emotions this way. You can be deeply depressed, and see something that tickles you – and suddenly laugh. What does that mean?! Well, it does NOT mean that the depression is gone, nor does it mean that the laugher is here to stay, or that the laughter was somehow fake while the depression is real. Instead, it signifies that we are capable of occupying multiple emotional spaces at once.
Yes, your beloved puppy passed away last week. You’re feeling pretty sad, and you’re struggling to bounce out of bed with a lot of energy. And, at dinner, you’re surrounded by friends who are joking, and singing and loving and you’re filled with a sense of joy and appreciation. Your sadness didn’t go away, it’s still there. If you draw your mind to the memory of your puppy, the sadness is still there – and, when looking around at the faces of your friends, you find you’re also filled with joy.
We can label this quality “tempest in the attic” – referring to an aphorism that there can be “a tempest (storm – sadness) in the attic, while there’s still a warm fire in the hearth” – basically, that we can be filled with warmth, love and joy even as we are experiencing sadness, loss and mourning (or visa versa!). The first step towards embracing this belief is to release the should you may be holding around your singular emotional state (“I should be sad, and only sad”) – if you let go of this belief, what else could you have in addition to your sadness? Welcome yourself as a blended individual of many shades and possibilities. Always in a state of flux, every shade meaningful, none of them alone defining you.
If all emotions are equal and speak to my humanity,
then why choose being curious in place of being angry?
Response 1: Who do you wish to become?
When we feel angry, we project a ‘should’ out into the world. We cannot feel anger without seeing a ‘should’ in someone else or ourselves: they should have done ____, they should have been more _____, they should _______. ² If we’re feeling anger at ourselves, we’re turning that should inwards: I should have _______, I should have been more _______. This act of shoulding is not bad or wrong (in the spirit of judging a judgment). However, it does likely take us away from being the person we aspire to be, it closes us off and traps us into feeling only that feeling. We rehearse the scenario unable to move forward towards any other way of being, because this emotion (and those like it) intensify themselves through the retelling of the same old ‘should’ story.
Being angry is indeed part of being human, and being angry takes us a step away from our goal of being the person we thought of in the introduction to this Path of Forgiveness. If we are truly committed to that goal, then we are also committed to embracing the qualities and emotions that we associate with that future vision of ourselves.
In moving towards that vision, we forgive ourselves when we fall short. We embrace compassion and self-empathy.
- Other languages, for example Spanish, have two verbs for ‘to be’: ‘ser’ – associated with permanent states, and ‘estar’ – associated with temporary states. “Estoy triste” would translate to ‘I am sad temporarily’ – you couldn’t say ‘soy triste.’
- For more on anger from a different perspective, see Anger in a Page.