Monday, March 10, 2014

Forgive and Let Go through Empathy

I experienced a good deal of stress the Fall I completed my Master's degree.Thesis deadlines loomed and I often felt panicked, wondering if I could actually complete all the work to be done while also passing as a half-way decent wife and mother. I wasn't sleeping well and when I did sleep, I was having a lot of anxiety dreams. They weren't the kind where you suddenly realize you're naked in a public place or where you show up to an exam and realize you have never been to the class. Instead, I would dream about people from my past. More specifically, they were people with whom I had been very close, but our relationship had ended with some degree of conflict. Dreaming about them was not pleasant and I woke feeling pretty lousy.

In all cases, I had assumed that I was over the hurt and disappointment caused and that I had sufficiently grieved the end of the these relationships. As I continued to have the dreams and to ruminate, however, I realized that, deep down, I was still wounded and angry. Part of me was holding a grudge and it was hurting no one but me.

It was unhealthy and I needed to let go. But how?

I did some research on forgiveness and tried anything that seemed like it would help me fully forgive. I wrote letters of forgiveness. I listed all of the good things that came out of the relationships and practiced gratitude. I envisioned the people who had hurt me and held them with thoughts of loving kindness. The dreams and the unpleasant feelings persisted.

I then came across a mediation tool in a book about compassion (see below!) and adapted it to my own circumstances. The point of the exercise was to use empathy to understand the series of events that made up the past conflicts from the perspective of the person I wanted to forgive. The exercise was simple, but challenging. Through the process, I had to open myself to a completely different story from the one with which I was comfortable and familiar. In this new story I wasn't always painted in the best light. Ultimately, I had to take responsibility for my part in the conflict, shifting from the victim to the participant.

In the end, I felt I had a more complete and honest understanding of the past conflicts and new-found compassion for the others involved. I was able to forgive them, and myself, for the hurt that had been caused. And, over time, my stress dreams reverted back to the public nudity and unprepared exam types.

If you've been struggling to forgive someone, from your past or present, I offer you this Honest and Gentle exercise...

  1. Create a chart with three columns. 
  2. First Column: What Happened? Make note of all of the events or behaviors that contributed to the conflict. 
  3. Second Column: How did I feel? For each event, take a few moments to close your eyes and remember how you felt in the moment. Without judging them as good or bad, write down 2-3 feeling words to describe your experience in the second column. 
  4. Third Column: How might ____ have felt? Now, go back through each event, this time imagining how the other person/people involved may have experienced it. Try to recall how they reacted, what they looked like, their voice tone and choice of words, and any other behavior that would give you insight to the way they were feeling. Without judging them as good or bad, write down 1-2 feeling words describing the way you suspect they may have felt at the moment. 
  5. Now What? Sit with this for a while, focusing on the feelings of the other person and what they might mean. Imagine going through the same events as the other person.  From here, you can simply move forward with new insight and compassion. Or you may want to write a letter - to burn or to send. Or you may even want to make contact and have a conversation. Honor what feels right to you. 

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Image credit: Colours by Camdiluv, cc license

Here's a great read: Field Notes on the Compassionate Life: A search for the soul of kindness by Marc Barasch