Lies and Elephants

The county jail program I write about from time to time is operated by a nonprofit organization named Resolana.  Resolana helps incarcerated women make life changes to reap their true potential, which includes staying out of jail.  The program has a life skills class, and last week we started a unit on self-esteem.  As always, the women exhibited admirable candor and had profound insights.  It’s fitting to share some of those insights here, as they illustrate the lies we believe about ourselves described the last post about shame.

The self-esteem unit starts with a rather sad description of how captive baby elephants are trained not to roam.  By tying the baby elephant to a stake it isn’t strong enough to break, the animal is trained to think it can’t overcome the obstacle, and eventually it gives up trying.  Adult elephants are easily strong enough to pull the stake out and to roam free, but they are trained to think they can’t, so they don’t.  The adult elephant believes a lie about itself.

The women pondered the lies they believe about themselves.  One shared that she believes she is a bad daughter.  Her parents divorced when she was young, and like so many kids who experience the loss of a parent, she blamed herself for her dad’s choice to have a relationship with his girlfriend’s children instead of with her.  Another described being indulged as a child.  Her mother invariably protected her from the consequences of her own actions.  As an adult, she had an attorney who extricated her from legal tangles.  Her lie was that rules don’t apply to her.  Somebody else described a home where keeping up appearances was all that mattered.  She believed she had to project an enhanced image of herself because the truth could never be good enough.  It was heartbreaking to hear one woman describe a widespread family pattern of sexual abuse, a pattern that she and another young family member together managed to break, but not before being imprinted with the lie that being used sexually was all she was good for.

After calling out these lies, the women wrote affirming statements that tell the truth about themselves.  I am a good daughter.  My dad’s addiction kept him from being a good dad.  I have to follow the same rules as everyone else.  My truth is better than my image.  I am a worth saving.  I love myself.  For many women, the affirmations felt good and true.  Other women were so accustomed to the lies, they struggled to find affirming statements that felt authentic.  One woman was moved to tears when pulling away from a painful stake in her past left her feeling suddenly free to be.  The class ended with encouragement to speak the truth to oneself—and to others—70 times a day for seven days.  It is the surest way to find hope for healing from shame.

Join the conversation.  How has your “training” held you back from reaping your true potential?

Copyright 2012 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved.  Visit http://www.AcrossTraditions.com.

Healing from Shame


The tentacles of shame can reach through decades of a person’s life, wrapping around seemingly unconnected events and wrenching the joy from life.  I have friends whose shame originated in childhoods in which they never felt up to grade.  They always felt deficient in some significant and identity shaping way.  For some it was a constant stream of criticism.  For others it was as seemingly benign as a home focus on appearances rather than on the truth, subtly but unmistakably suggesting that the truth is never good enough.

I also have friends whose shame reaches up out of childhood trauma.  That trauma might have been the sudden loss of a parent or, as the Penn State abuse scandal tragically highlights, more often than we want to acknowledge it is child sexual abuse.  The child is made to feel that he is in some way culpable for his own abuse, or in an insidious distortion of logic, the child believes the fact that the trauma happened stands as proof that it was deserved.

The truth, though, is that shame has little to do with the bad things that happened to someone or the bad things someone did.  It has everything to do with the lies that someone started believing about himself when he tried to make sense of a bad situation.  Believing a lie—that the truth is never good enough or that children are responsible for adult actions against them or that you are not credible and no one will believe you—keeps the tentacles of shame alive and strong.  Even incredibly successful people suffer from shame.  In fact, it is their unending need to prove to themselves that they are good enough that propels their success.

While some lies are memories from a long past childhood, or “childhood tapes,” other lies get constant reinforcement.  Many messages propagated in our media, particularly those that connect one’s worth to appearance or wealth, are lies.  Anyone with a TV is constantly exposed to them.  When thinking about parents who won’t forgive, I realized that elderly parents can perpetuate shame lies also.  In the case of forgiveness, people may hold on to resentment because it is the only connection to another person they think they need in their lives.  Paradoxically, the resentment is rooted in intense desire—not rejection.

Similarly, disapproving parents might ache for the time when their kids prized their parents’ approval.  As kids grow up, they find their satisfaction not from parent approval but from the mark they are leaving on the world—in their careers, relationships or communities.  Parents may perpetuate criticism hoping against hope that the adult child will respond by seeking the parent’s approval again.  In any case, it is a lie.  More specifically, it is a manipulation designed to elicit a certain response rather than an honest observation grounded in reality.  The notion that one needs a parent’s approval is a lie as well.  Is it nice to have?  Certainly.  Is it necessary for happiness and joy?  By no means.

Healing from shame doesn’t happen magically when we recall the events that triggered it.  It is when we call out those lies and speak the truth about ourselves to ourselves that true healing begins.

Join the conversation.  Are there lies that you believe about yourself?

Copyright 2012 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved.  Visit http://www.AcrossTraditions.com.

Public Apology

 

George Zimmerman, the man who shot and killed unarmed teen Trayvon Martin, is in the news today for his public apology.  Here is what he said:

 

“I want to tell everyone, my wife, my family, my parents, my grandmother, the Martins, the city of Sanford and America, that I’m sorry that this happened,” he said, staring into the camera lens. “I hate to think that because of this incident, because of my actions, it’s polarized and divided America. And I’m truly sorry.”

As difficult as it is to release resentment in an act of forgiveness, it is also hard to admit one’s wrongs and to ask humbly for forgiveness in an apology.  Unfortunately, this is not what Zimmerman has done.  His words do not suggest he has taken responsibility for his choices or that he recognizes them as wrong.  Expressing regret for the consequences (“I’m sorry this happened”) is rather different from expressing regret for the choices (“I followed when dispatch said not to”).  In fact, Zimmerman said specifically that he does not regret his actions. “I’m sorry I got caught” vs. “I was wrong to rob that guy” is a more obvious variant.  It does not count as a genuine apology in my book.  My teenage kids wouldn’t even try to get away with a deflection like that.

Another deflection often heard in psudo-apologies is, “I’m sorry you feel that way.”  Like the statements above, this offers commentary on consequences while failing to assume responsibility for the precipitating actions, and so this, too, is not a legitimate apology.  Worse, it defects blame onto the one who expressed feelings, adding insult to injury.

Zimmerman takes the deflection one step further by throwing God into it, stating it was God’s choice, not his choice.  It is hard for modern believers to conceive of murder as God’s will, although there is plenty of it in Judeo-Christian scriptures.  Ancient scriptures notwithstanding, ascribing feelings or desires to God is a slippery slope.  Anne Lamott said it best:

“You can safely assume that you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.”

What is the right way to make an apology?  My godfather taught me this handy script:  “I realize how wrong I was. Will you forgive me?”  We have banned the word “sorry” when making an apology in our house (too many ways it can go wrong with teenagers), and we try to use this instead.  The useful thing about it is it separates actions from consequences and encourages us to examine whether we have genuine remorse for our choices. We’ve learned it is best not to try to fake an apology if genuine remorse is absent. In a heated moment with frayed feelings, asking for time to think about one’s choices is infinitely more respectful than forcing an insincere apology or deflecting blame.  Simply acknowledging that one’s actions merit introspection sets the stage for healing.

Join the conversation.  What did you think of George Zimmerman’s apology?

Copyright 2012 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved.  Visit www.AcrossTraditions.com.

When Parents Won’t Forgive

A woman struggling with forgiveness made a profound impression on me once.  I met her in a reconciliation workshop, and her struggle was with her mother.  Although her mother was in her 90’s, she refused to forgive her daughter for hurtful episodes in adolescence.  The daughter, elderly herself, had expressed sincere remorse and asked for her mother’s forgiveness repeatedly through the decades, but her mother refused.

Recent posts examined reasons for clinging to resentment rather than choosing to forgive.  One reason mentioned is thinking I need to keep someone who did me wrong in my life somehow, and if the relationship is badly damaged, my anger and resentment may feel like the only thing left between us.  Have you ever had a romantic relationship that intellectually you knew was over even though your heart still ached for intimacy?

That doesn’t describe the woman’s relationship with her mother, but it may come closer than it appears at first glance.  Adolescence is an exquisite time in parent-child relationships.  Parents embrace their children as the young adults they are becoming, and simultaneously their children still depend on them heavily.  It makes for an intense kind of intimacy.  The challenges of adolescence only amplify the intensity.  One could make the case that it is the most challenging and most intense stage of relating in a parent and child’s entire lifetimes.

And where does it go from there?  Adolescents grow up.  Maybe they move away for school or a job.  They become independent emotionally and financially.  They find partners and perhaps start their own families.  Along the way, emotional bonds to parents make way for stronger emotional ties to new people in their adult lives.  A parent who aches for intimacy and intensity with her long grown child might cling to resentment, as misguided and destructive as it sounds, because it is the strongest connection back to a more intimate time that she can lay her hands on.

What can the adult child do about it?  Not much.  A post a year ago examined Jewish wisdom for seeking forgiveness, but ultimately, forgiveness is at the sole discretion of the one holding the resentment.   The unforgiven child has choices, too.  Setting appropriate boundaries is healing.  The boundaries may inject more emotional distance, but they may also allow the adult child be present to the parent’s angst.  Recognizing that the resentment is rooted in intense desire—not rejection—may open a new window of compassion on a parent living in an angry past.  That awareness doesn’t compel anyone to endure to an occasional vituperative rant, but it does allow one to see the rant for what it is and to cherish the holy spark of love buried deep in it.

Join the conversation.  Have you ever found a holy spark buried deep inside a painful episode?

Copyright 2012 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved.  Visit www.AcrossTraditions.com.

Forgiveness: Do I Have to Tell?

The last post considered whether true forgiveness requires us to tell the people we’re forgiving that they are forgiven.  The question arose out of a conversation with women in the county jail, and they shared several thoughtful observations.

One said that telling the person who had wounded her that she forgave past wrongs was an important point of closure to her painful past.  What if the person who did wrong is dead, someone pondered.  How do you get closure and healing then?  One inmate created a memorial on paper to signify her forgiveness and peace with the past.  It served to remind her that forgiveness was the demarcation between a past in which her choices were limited by her woundedness and a present in which she is free to choose who she wants to be.  The memorial provided closure and healing without facing the other in person, something appreciably more difficult when one is incarcerated.  Another inmate hoped that forgiveness would be a way to hold onto love, even if there was no way to hold onto the abusive relationship.  There was also discussion about what to do if the forgiven person doesn’t have the capacity to receive forgiveness.  Initiating contact with a violent abuser deeply mired in denial and blame, for example, can compromise one’s physical emotional safety.

This question comes up every time I lead a forgiveness workshop, and here’s my answer.  No.  You don’t have to tell the people who caused you harm that they are forgiven.  Forgiveness is not a simple intellectual decision.  Holding a grudge is sometimes described as eating rat poison and expecting the rats to die.  As logical as that sounds, forgiveness involves more than logic.  Resentment has tentacles that reach deep into our emotions and psyches.  The tentacles wrap around our sense of fairness and cling tightly to our desire for accountability.  The process of extricating them in forgiveness is a journey, and the journey most certainly takes longer when the offender lacks sincere remorse and has made no effort to amend past wrongs.  Previous posts have described the process in five steps to forgiveness.  When people ask me whether they have to tell, I encourage them not to worry about that but simply to take the next step on the journey.  I promise that the question will look different at the end of the journey than it does at the beginning.

The truth is once resentment has truly been released—when we have let go of what we hoped for but never came to pass, our claim to hold the other to account, possibly trust or even the relationship itself—we care a lot less about what the offender thinks or knows.  That’s because the process of forgiveness takes the offender and what he deserves out of the center of the matter and puts our spirituality there instead.  When we can honestly say we care more about our own spiritual reality and our personal relationship with God than we care about what our offender deserves, we are on the home stretch to forgiveness.

Join the conversation.  What difference has forgiveness made to you?

Copyright 2012 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved.  Visit http://www.AcrossTraditions.com.

A Question about Forgiveness

A question came up when I was listening to a group of women in the county jail talk about forgiveness last night.  It didn’t surprise me.  The question comes up every time I have led a forgiveness workshop.  It is particularly meaningful to those being honest with themselves about whether they really want to forgive the one who did them wrong.

“Do I have to tell the person I’m forgiving that I have forgiven him?”

Several different motives can give rise to the question.  Sometimes we cling to our resentment because it is our only connection to someone we think we need in our lives.  If we let go of our anger or our claim against the person, there would be nothing between us at all, and that can be a painful reality to accept.  Even when we have known intellectually for a long time that a relationship is over, letting go of the relationship on an emotional level by releasing resentment can be much more difficult.  Other times we hold on to resentment because we don’t want to let the one who wronged us off the hook.  We want those people held accountable, and perhaps no one else is stepping up to that job.  Our sense of fairness tells us those people deserve harsh consequences, not forgiveness.

That sense of justice or fairness is, ironically, what can help us break through a stubborn case of resentment and be free to forgive.  When it seems our offender lacks appropriate remorse or is not suffering the consequences he deserves, we can take a cue from Sister Helen Prejean.  She was the nun behind the movie Dead Man Walking, and movie trailers quoted her saying, “The question is not whether death row inmates deserve to die.  The question is whether we deserve to kill.”

Like Sister Helen, instead of focusing on what my offender deserves, I can take a cold hard look at what I deserve.  No one escapes emotional wounding of one kind or another, and for all of us, those wounds impair how we treat others.  My first response to an angry friend cannot be reaching out in compassion if my first response is protecting myself.  Only one can be first.  In ways that are subtle and blatant, the injuries we sustained get tangled up with the injuries we inflict on others.  In forgiveness, we cannot escape looking honestly at both.  When I take a searching and fearless look at the ways I allowed my wounds to impair how I treat others, I come into awareness of the forgiveness I need.  This is not victim blaming.  It is control claiming.

Whether you think of this inner inventory as taking responsibility for the footprint you are leaving in the world or as healing your personal relationship with God, it is a spiritual exercise.  Take your offender out of the middle of the situation and put your spiritual reality in the center instead.  It is the ultimate liberation to see forgiveness not as a response to what an offender deserves but as a response to the grace we have received.

Join the conversation.  What frees you from dwelling on what your offender deserves?

Copyright 2012 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved.  Visit www.AcrossTraditions.com.