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The Heart Of Forgiveness

When we think about forgiveness we often think of something we confer on others- I forgive you. In truth we cannot forgive others without understanding our difficulties in forgiving ourselves. Forgiving oneself for addictive behavior is immensely difficult; alcohol, heroin or your drug of choice pulled you away from the world of the living. When you enter into a full time relationship with drugs your human relationships fade in importance. Addictions do this to people, regardless of who you are or where you came from. Do not allow your world to become narrow, for your shame and grief for the pain you have caused can make you avoid the very people you need the most.  It is quite possible, if you are open to a process that involves acceptance of human frailty and imperfections, to forgive yourself. I have seen people return from the abyss of shame and guilt to a position of understanding and forgiveness thousands of time.

When we deepen our understanding of human nature our view of the world and ourselves widens. From this perspective we discover forgiveness for ourselves and others. Forgiveness is an unfolding process rather than an act that is completed and set aside. Forgiveness comes slowly, as we continue to learn from the tragedies and traumas of the past in a continual effort to transcend them and return to a positive view of ourselves. With time, determination and effort we move forward, understanding the past rather than endlessly repeating it.

                                Perception

Our perceptions are limited by our experiences and our interpretations of our experiences. Most people who cannot forgive themselves have developed a critical self-voice that holds them to unrealistic expectations. If you have been criticized, ignored or shown little compassion in your life you have likely learned to blame yourself excessively for mistakes and errors in judgment. In addition if those around you do not understand the complexities of addiction you have probably been subjected to miss-understandings that have fueled a critical self-voice.

On the other hand, people who have been fortunate enough to be supported by those who do understand the complications of addiction, whether it is family members, friends or addiction counselors have received the necessary empathy and understanding that encourages forgiveness, without the burden of guilt that exacerbates addictive transgressions.

 Criticizing vs. Understanding

Every time we demean another person for their imperfections we re-visit the times the same behavior was done to us. By repeating this behavior we unfairly punish others for the lack of understanding we received, and in this process we cement our inability to free ourselves and treat others kindly.

In order to forgive yourself you have to turn inwardly and begin to understand how you came to be so hard on yourself. Instead of blaming yourself for irrational behavior while under the influence or simply for human errors it is necessary to realize that no child is born with a critical self-voice. The environment you were exposed to created your demeaning voice, complicated by your using days. Now it is time to seek a more accurate view of yourself. Forgiveness arises through the hard work of empathy. Seeking to understand, opening our minds and our hearts to what was once hidden from view, we see a view of our self we could not see before, and in that widened perspective, we see others with the same empathy and open mindedness as we now see our self. You no longer torment yourself with thoughts of what you should have done or should have said but rather see the truth of who you are today and that is finally enough.

                         Transformation

The change from a critical self-voice to an understanding self-voice is a transformation of the highest proportions. Kindness toward others is much easier than kindness toward oneself. When your internal voice is reasonable and fair your heart opens up to the world, we move outward from self toward others. This new understanding allows us to feel closer to those we previously judged, a defense used in order to create protective distance. We no longer need to be harsh toward others to shield ourselves. We no longer need to punish ourselves for actions under the influence, we take responsibility but we do not adhere to relentless name calling for what we now understand and will likely not repeat. We are committed to learning from the tragedies and traumas of the past in an ongoing effort to transcend them. With this formula we are able to move forward, building on the past rather than endlessly repeating it.

Forgiveness is the ultimate act of connectedness. In forgiving yourself you forgive others and are far less critical internally and externally. The world then becomes a kinder, warmer place.  Forgiveness now signifies freedom-releasing resentment, bitterness and pride-allowing us to live with ease within, and to love others with uncritical affection.

 

Arthur P. Ciaramicoli, Ed.d,Ph.D.

Author of The Stress Solution: Using Empathy and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy to Reduce Anxiety and Develop Resilience.

 

A Crisis of Goodness in America

No society could survive—let alone thrive—without maintaining a minimum level of goodness. Unfortunately, there is evidence of a crisis of goodness, at least in the heavily industrialized and digitized West. We live in an egotistic moment in history where we seem unable to effectively train our children in restraint; where narcissism and entitlement are rampant and concern for social approval is at a record low; and where stress and anonymity are pervasive and deeply problematic .Our current culture has been chasing the elusive pursuit of happiness to no avail. We are the most affluent culture in the world and yet according to The World Health Organization have the highest rating of mood disorders, anxiety disorders and overall stress. 43% of American adults suffer from the adverse effects of stress, with the cost of anxiety disorders to our society estimated at 42.3 Billion dollars. Our collective mood is worsening despite five decades of becoming “better off”.  According to the World Happiness Survey Bangladesh is the happiest nation in the world with the United States sadly ranked 46th. The findings of University of Michigan political scientist Ronald Inglehart, director of the World Values Survey, indicate that overall happiness is related to benevolence and expressions of gratitude, while also being factors that possibly extend life. Other sources tell us that we have one third fewer close friends than 20 years ago and Americans trust in their fellow citizens has dropped 15% in the past 15 years.

These indicators of course do not amount to an entire picture of today’s state of goodness in the U.S., but they are proof of a malaise. Quite simply, we suffer from a deficit of goodness. In our egocentric and narcissistic society feelings of entitlement thrive and the disregard for other people’s claim to comfort and contentment is endemic. A recent study at the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research found that college students today are 40% less empathic than they were in 1979, the largest decline coming in the last decade. It is all too commonplace for stress, anonymity or both to contribute to verbal and physical violence at home, on the roads, and at work. The quality of life in the schools has reached a point that news of rampant bullying finds us inured. It takes a bullied youngster taking his or her life to make us pay attention and express some dismay and consternation. Not only can on line verbal exchanges be dismally mean-spirited, the web’s low interaction standards are spilling over into the off line world. But there is hope: within this bleak landscape we perceive encouraging signs of a counter-tendency. A movement of rediscovery of goodness has begun in the United States. Today’s crisis of goodness is what prompted me to start the goodness renaissance project. http://www.facebook.com/pages/The-Goodness-Renaissance-Project/104778329611615

Arthur P. Ciaramicoli, Ed.D.,Ph.D.

The Holidays are Coming…

Holiday Stress Tips

It’s that time of year again and many of my patients are already anticipating the pressure and emotional turmoil that each of our families bring to the holiday table.

One of my clients just left a session saying, “I love them all but they drive me crazy”. I asked her what behaviors specifically drive her crazy. She talked about her uncle who drinks too much, her mother who is a perfectionist and has to have “everything just right”, making everyone uncomfortable. She talked of her husband not helping enough with her sons on Christmas morning, the cousins who talk to load, each too much, sing off key and the aunt who makes the same horrible cake every year and on and on. We were both laughing at this point as Marie is incredibly funny and of course her Spanish family sounds so similar to my Italian family that I couldn’t help feeling right at home.

I’m guessing no matter what ethnic background you come from you can identify. At one moment when Marie became a bit somber I asked her how it would be to be without her father, who died of a heart attack in July. She began to tear, and started recalling all the Christmas’s of the past, how she wished she could return with him to those days. I asked if her perfectionist mother, her uncle who drinks too much, her aunt who is the horrible baker and her cousins who talk to loud and sing off key were there. Of course she remembers they were all present. Despite their idiosyncrasies her memories were filled with crazy love despite the imperfections of her family.

Marie is feeling more pressure this holiday season because it will be the first without her father. She is less tolerant of the shortcomings of family members because her loss over rides everything else.

As we age the holidays can still maintain their magic but they also consist of many memories we wish we could re-enact. We all lose people and dreams along the way. Maybe were not in the marriage we fantasized about, or maybe some are alone and wondering if there magical Christmas or joyous Hanukah will ever be with a special someone. Maybe we never quite reached the status we desired, or made the money we thought we would, or maybe we, like all other human beings, are forced to cope with the realities of an ever-changing life. Our dreams have been disrupted and the season and our lives are not quite what we fantasized.

Marie realized as we talked about her Dad that eventually a holiday season will come when all these irritating people will not be present, and she may indeed miss them. After all her Dad was expected to be here for many years to come. He wasn’t perfect but he was her first boyfriend and he truly loved family. He taught her to cherish all family members despite their faults, and family to him was not just blood relatives but all those whom he engaged in a genuine relationship.

Let’s all make Marie’s realization our holiday perspective. Life and family seldom go according to our dreams but we can make awesome memories if we give in to the reality of the people in our lives. We all know what to expect, try to accept or at least develop gratitude for the fact that we are here one more year to celebrate togetherness. It takes little ability to get along with people who act exactly the way we desire. True compassion, empathy and wisdom exist when we give up control and develop a loving heart with the family we were given, not the one we created in fiction. Someone your sitting next to this year may not be here next holiday season, and it could be you!
Arthur P. Ciaramicoli, Ed.D.,Ph.D.
Author of The Stress Solution: Using Empathy and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy to Reduce Anxiety and Develop Resilience

How to Handle the Complexities of Grief

Parents throughout the world can understand the anger and grief displayed this week by Leonard Gengel, father of 20 year old Britney Gengel who is still missing in Haiti.  Not only is his loss devastating to the core of his being but he was mistakenly told she was found due to faulty intelligence. Leonard and his wife are beside themselves with grief and frustration as are many other families with love ones in Haiti. Of course Haitians themselves are stricken with overwhelming grief as their families are torn apart with no clear hope of a better tomorrow.

How does one cope with such agonizing grief? Is it even possible to overcome such emotional pain?

This morning one of my clients seemed on edge in a group coaching session. He is a mild mannered person, has wonderful character and is always reaching out to help others in group and in his life. Today he related in an uncharacteristic manner as he expressed anger toward me and immediately I thought something must be hurting him that he was not disclosing. As he went on to complain about certain aspects of his life it was obvious that these irritations were not enough to significantly change his typical temperament. Another group member commented, “I think what’s really bothering you is your still grieving your mother’s death, after all it has only been a few months”. At that moment my client began to tear and he began to talk of how he felt seeing his mother wither away to nothing, while she experienced inordinate pain. “I can’t get the images of her suffering out of my mind, I was so angry at being so dam helpless”.

As the session progressed other members shared similar reactions to deaths or losses they had experienced. One member talked of how his sister recently went to his father’s grave and screamed at him for not taking care of himself, he talked of how her anger seems to grow and grow every week. “I thought it was a good thing, getting all this anger out, right Dr. C?”

It is normal to feel anger when we fear losing someone we love or in fact do loose that person. Leonard Gengel’s anger is understandable to anyone who loves their children, just as it understandable that my client’s sister is angered by a father who drank himself to death. We are angered by our helplessness, by our lack of control and by our inability to change a horrendous outcome into something positive.

If embellished too long anger however can be a defense against acknowledging and working through more fundamental feelings. It is also dangerous as it stresses our physiology to an unhealthy point where it can cause heart disease and other life threatening illnesses. It is a natural first reaction, certainly one in Mr. Gengel’s case that can propel him into action until he obtains the answers he and his wife deserve.

Grief is not comfortable for anyone. We all would rather avoid it and the conflicts in our lives if we could. Some people believe if they avoid and turn away it will go away. Don’t fool yourself, it will not. Avoidance may bring you relief temporarily, but the emotions associated with conflict will come out sideways if not expressed directly. When they do emerge indirectly we end up arguing about the toothpaste being squeezed out of the wrong end, and those close to us begin to think we’re being irrational, stubborn and close minded. We are dismissed because the focus of our anger seems irrelevant and superficial.

My client’s irritation with me and earlier with his wife was an excellent example of this kind of avoidance. Why did he choose this direction? Well I don’t think it was a conscious thought, but somewhere within him he felt out of control, helpless, anxious and scared. Expressing anger over minor issues probably gave him a sense of control and relief for a few, brief minutes. Knowing his character I knew he would apologize after our session ended and he did. I told him I took no offense. I knew he was suffering and I told him it’s normal to express frustration  to those we trust when were overwhelmed. He began to tear, lowered his head and thanked me graciously.

If those close to you are grieving give them a little space, don’t be overly sensitive if their mood is off. When one party is in grief and the other is not there it is a relational mis-match for a time. My client’s wife cannot experience the death of his mother the way he does. If he is more aware of his mood going forward, explaining at times that his thoughts of his mother’s illness are haunting him, his mood will likely be more understandable to her. Consequently he is less likely to need to choose a non-related outlet.

What happened in our group session this morning is what needs to happen in anyone’s life if they are going to grieve constructively and overcome the effects of traumatic loss. If you are in the role of the helper expressing understanding, empathy, compassion, tolerance and having the ability to look beyond the surface are essentials to guiding the tormented person to health. If you are the person grieving  you are likely to find yourself experiencing the gamut of feelings, expect your mood to fluctuate and try your very best to not spend time on small irritations, it is a sign that more important concerns are being avoided. When we lose all control we naturally look to things we can control to escape our feelings of helplessness. Acceptance of our limitations is a key part of grieving and in many ways a key aspect to healthy living .We don’t get to choose how people live, we can’t control natural disasters or chronic illness but we can develop the tools that allow us to cope with as much resiliency as possible.

We grieve because we have loved deeply. We recover through love as well. The love of those who care enough about us to tolerate our fluctuating moods allows us to heal the wounds of a broken heart.

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