Mistake 3: “Stuffing” negative emotions
When someone causes you pain that is personal, deep and unfair, you feel that you cannot shake the memory and, no matter how hard you try, you cannot wish the enemy well. You want to protect yourself, so you may find yourself wanting to just stop feeling the hurt and to ignore it or stuff it.
If only it were possible to numb negative emotions and still feel the positive ones! The problem is that when you avoid or push down feelings you don’t like, you also shut out the possibility for joy, love and happiness. You become numb all over.
One key step to understanding how to forgive another person, or how to accept grace for yourself, is to understand your own emotions. Yet, we often cover up our own emotions. Sometimes we do so because we aren’t even aware of what our emotions are.
It may sound tough, but it’s time to get down and dirty. If you want to heal and if you want freedom, you are going to need to go into and through your feelings. That means you need to take the time to really feel them.
Some people find this step very easy. “I feel enraged, and I feel like killing that person!” Others find that it takes a little work to get to their feelings. If that describes you, use your thinking brain’s ability to name experiences. Once you learn to name experiences and name your emotions, you’ll find your thinking (neocortex) brain has an easier time helping you to cope and get over these types of upsets.
Emotional honesty is giving up that fear of being emotionally wounded, giving up a bit of that self-protective instinct, and diving right in. It is the strength to own and take responsibility for what we feel, including our pain. By listening to and being aware of our own emotions, we are able to get in touch with what is needed to bring us back into right relationships.
Action Steps: You can take the time now to practice a couple of simple exercises, including one to try out when you are with another person you can trust.
> One: Name the experience.
It can help to simply give the experience a name. When the other person did that painful thing to you, did it feel more like:
- a betrayal
- a loss
- a rejection
- a humiliation
You can think of several situations in your life, and give them one of these four names, until you can really feel the difference between them to the extent that it becomes natural for you to notice which kind of experience you are having.
> Two: Name the feeling.
There are lots of feeling words, and the more we practice using them, the more connected we start to feel with other people—even those who have hurt us. Thinking back over what happened, and the various experiences you had, which of these do you remember feeling? Write down any that apply, and what the situation was.
> If naming the feeling is difficult for you, or even if it’s easy, you can use your body for insight…
Notice where in your physical body that you feel the emotion.
For example, you may not cognitively know that you are angry, however, you may notice that your jaw is clenched, the muscles in your upper arms are taut, and that your stomach is churning. Or maybe you notice you have tightness in your chest, a constricted throat and extra energy in your legs—and later you realize that this signals fear for you.
These combinations of body sensations may not have a name for you now, but as you learn to recognize them, you can become very adept at noticing your body, the feelings the sensations represent, and the thoughts behind them.
This awareness will help you know that you are bigger than your emotions, that it is you who controls them and not vice versa, and that you can harness these emotions to become closer to people.
> Action step with another person. This one will help you move from emotional honesty within yourself to connection with another person.
The next time you feel a negative emotion, one that may make you feel uncomfortable or ashamed, tell someone you trust how you are feeling. Use the richest vocabulary you can to get to a good description. Remember, you can name experiences, name emotions, or simply name physical sensations in your body.
You can gain emotional freedom to the extent that you are able to connect with people you love, and even people you thought you hated.
Mistake 2: Thinking “It could have been different”
The problem with this way of thinking is its futility. Things are not different. What happened did happen (and it can’t be changed). The way you are feeling is the way you are feeling (and that can change).
Going back over and over, wishing that things could be different from the way they are causes an endless cycle of rumination, and keeps you from making positive changes.
> You can find yourself becoming depressed.
> Your energy levels drop.
> You can even become ill with upper respiratory problems, weight gain, a sallow complexion, high blood pressure and vague stomach and head distresses.
Instead, try accepting the situation. Just as you learned that you can accept yourself in your completeness, you can also accept circumstances. It doesn’t mean you have to like them, just see them for what they are.
Looking at difficult circumstances and difficult people with curiosity and acceptance can be an important step in moving forward. The fact that circumstances are not what we would have chosen doesn’t need to stop us from being happy and from accepting what is real. And being aware of what is real opens us to a world of possibilities.
When we interact with someone we do not like, our tendency is to judge that person. Accepting them, and what they did, does not necessarily mean that we approve of their behavior, or that we like their personality. It means that we see them as they are, with empathy or curiosity rather than judgment, and do not struggle to control them or change them. We insist on maintaining a positive regard for the person, which often leads to a natural change on their part.
Action step: an exercise in accepting emotions
Emotional Acceptance Exercise – Observing Your Emotions
This exercise can be done when you are having an emotion that is uncomfortable. If you are just starting to practice this exercise, it is best to choose an emotion that is not too intense. Pick a time when you are having an emotion that is strong enough that you recognize you are having it, but not so strong that you are feeling overwhelmed by it. After you get some practice with this exercise, you may want to try it with stronger emotions.
Step One: Identify the Emotion
The first step is to identify the emotion you are having. If you are having more than one emotion, just pick one (you can go back and do this exercise with the other emotions later if you want to). If you are having trouble identifying the emotion, sit for a moment and pay attention to your physical sensations and thoughts. See if you can give an emotion you are having a name (e.g., sadness, anger, shame).
Once you have a name for the emotion, write it down on a slip of paper.
Step Two: Getting Some Space
Now that you have identified the emotion, close your eyes (if that feels safe to do) and imagine putting that emotion five feet in front of you. Imagine that for just a few minutes you are going to put it outside of yourself so that you can look at it. Later on you will take it back, but for now you are going to allow yourself just a bit of distance so that you can observe the emotion.
Step Three: Give the Emotion a Form
Now that the emotion is out in front of you, close your eyes and answer the following questions: If your emotion had a size, what size would it be? If your emotion had a shape, what shape would it be? If your emotion had a color, what color would it be?
Once you’ve answered these questions, imagine the emotion out in front of you with the size, shape and color you gave it. Just watch it for a few moments and recognize it for what it is. When you are ready, you can let the emotion return to its original place inside you.
After the Exercise: Reflect
Once you’ve completed this exercise, just take a moment to reflect on what you noticed about your experience. Did you notice any change in the emotion when you got a little distance from it? What about changes in your reactions to the emotion? What size, shape, and color did you give the emotion? Did the emotion feel different in some way once the exercise was finished?
Practice this exercise once a day for a month. It won’t take much time out of your day, so it’s not a huge investment. After a month, see if you notice any changes in how you relate to your emotions. This exercise may seem a little strange at first, but many people notice that it helps them start to think differently about, and be more accepting of, their emotions.
Hayes SC. Get Out of Your Mind and Into Your Life: The New Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. 1st ed. New Harbinger Publications, 2005.
In time you will discover that when you stop striving to change what can’t be changed, and you live with acceptance, you are open to more love, vibrancy and connection with others.
This is step 1 in the “7 Steps to Freedom through Forgiveness” series. As we begin this work together and as you find yourself open to a more free way of being yourself, I ask you to be open also to God’s healing in your life. When you are open to God’s work, the healing and change process will be supported, easier and more effective.
You are welcome to contact me for one to one coaching at any time you feel you’d like to go deeper. And so, let’s begin…
“Anger, resentment, lust for revenge, even success through aggressive competitiveness, are corrosive… To forgive is not just to be altruistic. It is the best form of self-interest…It gives people resilience, enabling them to survive and emerge still human despite all efforts to dehumanize them.” Desmond Tutu
Mistake 1: Forgetting that you are loved and accepted
When you get into “kicking yourself mode”, finding fault with yourself, heaping guilt upon the behaviors you wish you could change, you are actually getting yourself further stuck in the mud.
As a result, you find yourself also finding fault with others, which leads them to find fault with you, which makes you feel worse about yourself…and the whole thing continues its downward spiral. You start to find yourself:
> withdrawing into yourself and shutting others out
> perpetuating exactly the behaviors that you don’t want to be doing
> seeing the negative and the hurt more and more.
Instead, try looking at yourself as a person who is doing the best that you can, given the level of awareness that you have right now. While you may not find yourself to be perfect, you can see that even your worst behaviors are done with positive intentions. You are probably protecting yourself, and the coping strategies you have developed have likely benefited you in some way in the past.
What does accepting yourself have to do with forgiveness? Only that forgiveness is impossible without it. If you want a lifestyle of forgiveness and a lifestyle of freedom, it starts with accepting and forgiving yourself.
When you accept yourself, you make an agreement with yourself that you will appreciate, affirm and support who you already are in this moment. You can see the advantages of who you have become and the experiences you have had. When you tell yourself that, “I love myself, even though I sometimes ________________________,” it makes it easier to change whatever that fill-in-the-blank is in your life.
Self acceptance leads to a new life with new possibilities that did not exist when we were caught up in the struggle against reality. Keep in mind that you don’t have to be unhappy with yourself to change things about yourself that you don’t like.
You can ask yourself these questions:
> When I behave in this way that I don’t like, what benefit am I gaining?
This may seem like a silly question, because at first it seems like you aren’t benefitting at all—your bad behaviors are just adding to your frustration with yourself. With closer examination, you may find that there are hidden benefits galore. Perhaps this behavior is protecting you from looking stupid, from being too vulnerable, from humiliating yourself in some way. Perhaps underneath it all, you are seeking to gain peace, respect, love, security… When you come to realize what these benefits are, it may feel like a sudden revelation. And all at once you know that there are better, more honest, ways to receive these benefits you so greatly desire. You can almost picture yourself breathing a sigh of relief.
> Am I more than my behaviors?
And you may already be starting to realize that there is a distinction between who you are and what you do. At times, you have behaved brilliantly and have found more internal strength than you could have ever imagined you had. At other times, your behavior seems childish even to yourself. So who are you?
In time you will discover that you are much more than what you happen to be doing, or how you happen to be feeling, at a given moment. When you believe that you have been wonderfully created to be a blessing in this world, and that—warts and all—you are uniquely designed for the tiny bit of the universe that you occupy, you can start to give yourself a bit of grace.
> What is my source of strength?
As you discover what you are really looking for—those good things that you want to see happening in your life, be it peace, kindness, security, love…–find out what belief you may want to hold onto that will help you to move TOWARD those good things. These truthful and kind beliefs are called your “source of strength”. For example, one person’s source of strength, who is looking for security, might be, “I am always supported wherever I go.” For another person, a source of strength may be, “There is enough love for me in this world.” For another, it may be, “I’m enough.” Your source of strength is waiting for you and will come to you when you are quiet and listening for a moment.
–> Take a few moments for this Action Step, which you can come back to again and again:
When you are ready, as you find yourself now a quiet place to take a few moments for this important first step:
You can begin by finding a warm, comfortable position in which you can sit or lie down in a soothing way.
While you adjust your posture to make yourself even more comfortable, maybe you can even take a few deep breaths, slowly and tenderly, and allow yourself to become even more relaxed.
Beginning to consciously invoke feelings of love and kindness toward yourself, perhaps by saying inwardly, “I am God’s beloved child. I am united with the one who created me just as I am. I am one in spirit with him. May I be free from anger, may I be free from hatred; may I be filled with compassion; may I feel God’s kindness toward me.”
And while you can imagine or picture yourself with this loving-kindness, imagine also what kind of unconditional love is available for you… that kind of love that accepts you and loves you as you are… Picturing yourself with your life story, regarded in completeness by One who is perfectly loving, perfectly wise, perfectly forgiving. Someone who appreciates you dearly, who sees the real you and loves you—the real you, with all your weaknesses. Just being in the presence of God in any posture that is comfortable for you, breathing softly, being still for awhile and enjoying the presence of that completely loving being, with whom you can be at one.
As you sit quietly, you may be surprised to find your source of strength appearing in your awareness. That knowledge that can go with you and be there when you can rely on it.
Take a deep breath once again and gently exhale as you go on into your day.
Mistake 2: Thinking “It could have been different” is coming next week….Watch this space.
To your life of Freedom.
I had malaria last week. It was the day before my birthday, and I had no idea that my family had great plans for and hiking in the Aberdares, so I was perfectly content to stay in bed reading and relaxing.
After only one day in bed, the medicine had begun to kick in, and I started itching to get out and about again. I found out about the camping plans and thought it sounded like fun, so we packed up and went camping after all (minus the hiking).
When we came back, I had a nagging headache and still felt nauseous. I ignored that because I wanted to see a few clients who were making some great progress on their goals. I had some volunteer work at my kids’ school I was interested in doing, and I had a newsletter to edit. Also, I was asked at the last minute to give a couple of presentations to new students at the university where I volunteer, and that also seemed worthwhile. Then I had a new client in a far-away time zone to talk with late in the evening. Wouldn’t want to miss that!
The only trouble is that by the end of my activities, I ended up back in bed with chills, fever and a pounding headache. In fact, I ended up sleeping through my Skype call and having to apologize.
Today, I have come to terms with cancelling everything for today and tomorrow, really resting and taking care of myself. I made a fresh squeezed carrot, apple and ginger juice for breakfast and headed back to bed with a good novel.
As I lie here in my bed, I am noticing the way my body is feeling, the way it is telling me to take it easy. I had ignored these signs before.
And yet, I know the power of rest. Some of my favorite spiritual passages are:
Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.
In returning and rest you shall be saved; In quietness and confidence shall be your strength.
Be worried for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God; and the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus.
Next time, I won’t wait for malaria to tell me to rest. Why not take some time for rejuvenation, for a lifting of the load, for peacefulness and a quiet mind on a regular basis?
Rest is so rich. It can mean rest from anxiety and worry, rest from work, rest can mean to be secure in a single belief, rest in the abundance and support of grace… A friend once offered me this verse, “The Lord gives sleep to the one He loves.”
And on that note, I’m going back to sleep.
Some people may say, “It’s definitely important to be firm about what is right and what is wrong. Otherwise, how can we maintain a moral society? How can we train our children? Your kids might turn into monsters, if they haven’t already. There is no telling what evil you may allow into your life, and into the world, if you just blindly accept everything.”
Other people may say, “When you accept people exactly the way that they are, without trying to change them, you give them the freedom to change for the better when they are ready. It’s only when people feel loved without conditions that they are able to even see their condition for what it is. Just observing reality and accepting it is far healthier than fighting for what should be.”
Where do you stand? When you observe your life, how do you want to be?
How do you feel when you react to something? Do any of these words sound familiar? Tense, tight muscles, irritated, helpless, powerless, angry, annoyed, overwhelmed, hateful, in fight-or-flight…?
What about when you respond to something? Peaceful, thoughtful, connected, relieved, sitting up tall, relaxed, thinking about possibilities, un-hurried…?
That’s not to say that going with a gut feeling can’t be powerful, and just the right thing to do in certain cases (read, for example, Malcolm Gladwell’s book Blink). There is a time to trust your instincts. And sometimes those instant reactions are correct-grabbing the child before he runs out into the street, for instance.
However, at many other times, that moment–the one between when the reaction floods our body and the actual measured response that we decide upon–is the moment that keeps us from folly and regret.
As Stephen Covey says in his 7 Habits book, “Between stimulus and response, there is a space.” Why not make that space work powerfully on your side?
Here’s what forgiveness is NOT:
- condoning bad behavior
- pretending that it didn’t hurt
- making excuses for someone
- acting nice to someone
- righteously proclaiming forgiveness from a pious sense of righteousness against someone who is all wrong
Here’s what it IS for me:
It’s a process of enlarging my perspective. The process goes something like this:
- Looking at myself from God’s perspective. Knowing that I’m completely loved even when I’m weak.
- Becoming crystal clear about the hurt–how it feels inside and the emotions that I’m carrying.
- Naming what actually happened factually–how big or small, who, what, when, where…
- Inviting the power of God’s spirit into my heart to see the other person with new eyes–eyes that see them not as a monster who hurt me, but as someone who is also a beloved child, who is capable of being hurt and who is also a complete human being.
- Releasing the pain and negative emotions to God–letting them disappear into his embrace. Receiving healing within myself.
- With God’s power, blessing the other person with everything they need to return to completeness.
- and MAYBE, and this depends on the other person, reconciling with them.
It takes some time, but it’s well worth the effort. Would you like to start the process, perhaps with a friend or with a journal, and see how far you can get?
I am a recovering perfectionist. I decided to put together a workshop on Grace–the most important topic in the world, in my opinion.
But, I want sooooo much for the workshop participants to really grasp the concept of grace, that I’m working reeeeeeally hard on making it a good one. Reading lots of books on grace, reading lots of books on how to develop an effective workshop that really transforms people, struggling to choose just the right learning activities that support the learning objectives….
And it hit me this morning, that I need to find God’s grace for me once again, trust God for the process, let God do his work… There is grace for me in putting this workshop together. I am supported by the One who invented the concept.
And, just in case this blog post isn’t good enough, here’s a link to another blog post that reviews David Seamand’s (love that guy) book about grace.
I drew a picture of myself and filled it with several words that best describe my values. Each person’s values are different, because each of us was born for a different purpose. Visually filling my body with those values helped me move to the next step: defining my purpose.
I defined my purpose in the form of two words–a noun and a verb (for you this could end up looking like “living passionately”, “nurturing the environment”, “blessing people”…)
From there, I was able to create a list of goals for myself that would show that what I am doing is in line with my values and purpose.
Finally, I wrote for myself five rules for living well. Just five habits to keep in mind as I go about my day that help to build me into the person of purpose that I was made to be.
Would you like to give this process a try? After you’ve gone through it, share it with a friend.
My 3-year-old son knows not to throw things. But he threw his boot, and it hit out neighbor on the head, knocking off his glasses. I came out of the house to see what was happening. He knew what my judgment would be about that, so he started to get angry at me, crossed his arms and yelled, “You’re not my friend! I don’t like you!”
I said, “Liam, I love you even when you throw things.” I had to repeat it three times before he could comprehend what I was saying. Then he started to cry. He apologized to the neighbor and told me, “Mom, I don’t want to throw things again.”
What a relief when someone loves us, even when…. It gives us the freedom to do the right thing, because we want to. Who can you love today, even when…?