Mar 122013

Inner peace begins with forgiveness: forgiveness for ourselves and forgiveness for those who have wronged us. Without this, peace will always elude us.

Let’s take forgiving ourselves first. As I’ve said before, I find it very helpful to remember that in the past I did the best I knew how at the time. ‘Should(n’t) have’ is one of the most corrosive concepts there are and I strongly encourage you to keep it under firm control. Something a friend taught me that has changed my life dramatically is how utterly pointless it is to dwell on what I should have done, either twenty years ago or this morning. He didn’t mean I shouldn’t learn from my mistakes, because obviously that would be silly. What he meant was, forgive yourself and move on. Wishing the past different is a waste of energy that you could be using to shape your future.

Forgiving other people can be a delicate balance but it’s a vital part of the process of breaking free. As long as you go on harbouring resentment, anger or even hate, the object of those emotions continues to have influence over you.

We are all products of our upbringing and experience. Some of us learn, explore, change, and others don’t – usually because they’re afraid to. The people who have hurt me over the years are damaged individuals who, in their own misguided (in some cases, warped) way, were doing the best they knew how, just like me. They were trying to survive, trying to make sense of the world, trying to deal with their own pain and fears. A bad character is made, not born, and once I was able to see those who have hurt me in that light, I was already halfway to forgiving them. Once I’d forgiven them, I was free; their power to hurt me vanished.

Let’s be clear about this: forgiveness is for your sake, not theirs. In fact, it’s probably better if you don’t tell them you’ve forgiven them, lest they think it means what they did is OK. I’m recommending you forgive, not forget. Almost all the people I’m talking about I have swept out of my life and I have no contact with them any more. With the few I have to go on seeing, I have withdrawn emotionally, so I can go through the motions of maintaining a relationship while keeping the inner me, the vulnerable part, safe.

If you feel the need to get back at someone, forgiving them is the best way to do it. As Isaac Friedmann said, “Forgiveness is the sweetest revenge”. It removes their hold over you and leaves you free to get on with your life in a positive way.

For me, forgiving the people who caused me to suffer went hand in hand with throwing off the mantle of victimhood – and I can’t tell you how empowering it feels to have done it.

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Feb 122013

Following on from my posts about perfectionism and magical thinking, let’s have a look at guilt and shame, two concepts that loom large in the lives of a lot of us who struggle with our mental health. They are also two concepts that are often confused and, while I actually don’t think it really matters for the purposes of developing a healthy relationship with them, for the sake of academic interest let’s distinguish them.

Guilt is generally acknowledged to be regretting and feeling bad about something one has done, with the focus on the action (or the lack of action, if one feels guilty about having failed to do something). Shame, on the other hand, is feeling that taking (or not taking) that action means one is a bad person, with the focus on hating oneself as opposed to one’s behaviour. Neither is inherently negative, as is pointed out in this article from the BBC. It discusses the findings of some recent American research into guilt and shame proneness and draws attention to several positive aspects of having that propensity. In many ways, this is nothing unexpected: people who know right from wrong, who hold themselves to high standards and are sensitive to the feelings of others, make good bosses, friends, lovers, citizens. Up to a point, guilt and shame serve a useful function in society; they just need to be kept in proportion.

The problem is that guilt – and especially shame – are so often greatly exaggerated by those who had turbulent childhoods, with too much expected of them at too young an age. If, like me, you find it useful to understand how these things happen, you may find this page from Anxiety Care UK sheds some light for you. For this post, though, I’m going to concentrate on how to prevent shame and guilt from ruining our lives.

For many years, my first thoughts as I woke up every morning were the harshest, most withering criticisms of practically everything I had said and done the previous day. This little ritual, conducted before I’d even registered what the time or the weather was, left me cowed and slightly afraid, ill prepared to meet the challenges of the new day. It has taken a great deal of effort to reprogramme myself and there is still the occasional blip, when my internal parent starts whacking me over the head before I even realise what’s happening, but on the whole these days I am free of that paralysing weight of shame. Here is what worked for me:

Don’t go there! It takes a lot of mental discipline and (for me) many months of practice but you can train yourself to put negative thoughts out of your mind. Worrying about something actually does nothing to affect it; the people concerned will have no idea whether you’re thinking about the incident or not – so spare yourself the stress! Let it go; move on.

All anyone can do is the best he/she knows how at the time. This is a concept I learnt in my therapy training and has helped me a lot. Beyond berating myself for everything I’d done the day before, I also used to have frequent mini panic attacks as memories floated back to me from years ago of episodes that induced overwhelming feelings of shame. I now understand that this stuff is just part of life. We all make mistakes and that’s OK. Armed with greater knowledge and experience, I would do things differently now, but at the time I did the best I knew how and nobody can do more.

Look at yourself from a different perspective. Take someone who loves and understands you (if there is no such person in your life right now, imagine someone) and look at yourself through their eyes. If you’re weighed down by guilt and shame, the chances are you’re actually a very decent, thoughtful person, who cares about other people and what they think and learns from mistakes you’ve made. This is great! This is enough. You don’t have to be perfect. Let yourself see what the person who loves you sees in you and cut yourself some slack.

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