“What can you do if the people in your life, in particular family, continue to inflict wounds although you keep forgiving? Isn’t it better to keep them at arm’s length?” – Ruby
“Healing comes when we meet our wounded places with compassion.” — Stephen Levine
Last month, Step 4 in our series Ten was Are You Drinking Rat Poison? The Secret of Forgiveness Many readers thought I was saying that forgiveness means you make up with anyone who has hurt you and give them access to your heart again. NOT. You don’t want people in your life who inflict wounds. Arms length? Toss them out of your life altogether!
Forgiveness means YOU MOVE ON. You don’t nurture hate or revenge. You let yourself cry and heal. It does not mean that you ever need to relate to someone who hurt you. It means you don’t let that wound continue to fester inside you. You don’t keep fighting that battle that you shouldn’t have had to fight to begin with. You accept what happened, with full compassion for yourself, so you can heal yourself and move on. As Paul Boese says, “Forgiveness does not change the past, but it does enlarge the future.”
So today we have Step 5: Heal your heart, heal your life.
Sometimes, we just can’t let go of the past. We’re told we “should,” but we’re still resentful, or even furious. There’s a reason for that.
No, I don’t mean whatever wrong was done to you. You may well have every reason to be furious, but that doesn’t mean you have to be. Nurturing resentment over the years is a prescription for bitterness — not something any of us would choose. Quite simply, it hardens your heart, and that doesn’t serve you. And it keeps you from loving your child — and even yourself — with an open heart.
No, the reason we can’t move on is that we need our rage. It’s a defense against the agony. All that pain from your childhood is walled off in a corner of your heart. That made sense when you were a kid. It was the only way to keep the pain at bay so it didn’t swamp you, so you could keep growing. Anger makes a great blockade. (You’ve heard that the best defense is a good offense?) Which would be ok, except that it’s hard to love whole-heartedly with only half your heart available.
You may have heard the saying, “It’s never too late to have a happy childhood.” It means we can always embrace that sad or angry child within us and nurture him or her. The paradox is that to do that, we first have to face the pain that we didn’t get the happy childhood we deserved. In fact, we have to give up all hope of ever having a better past. That acceptance is what allows us to grieve. Think of grief as washing away the pain of the past. It’s what frees us to move on. To finally give ourselves all that love we were missing.
Ready to heal your heart, so you can heal your life? Believe it or not, all you need is half an hour and some courage. This is something anyone can do. Make an appointment with yourself right now.
1. Find a photograph of yourself as a child.
2. Light a candle and sit quietly. Breathe deeply.
3. Reach out to that child inside you who’s holding all that hurt. Look at your photo. Embrace that small child within you who’s still suffering from your childhood. Let her (him) tell you the whole painful story. Breathe.
Resist the urge to trivialize. If it hurt, it hurt. Accept that pain. Let yourself feel it. Don’t stop your tears, let them flush out the pain. Breathe. Stay in your body and your heart, not your head.
5. Notice the sensations in your body. When we focus on the feelings with words, we get caught in the story. Before we know it, we’re all tangled up in the past again. Or we feel overwhelmed and re-traumatized. There’s a much better way. Feel what’s going on in your body. The body is the unconscious, so that’s where our past is stored. Just notice. Don’t judge, don’t try to fix. Summon up all your compassion for that lump in your throat, that heaviness around your heart, that tightness in your belly. Every time you let yourself feel what’s happening in your body, and love yourself through it, you melt through some of the pain from the past.
6. Take that hurting child into the present, where you can keep offering daily nurturance and healing. It’s your job now to give him or her that happy childhood. Reassure your inner child that he or she is completely lovable and loved, and deserved better. Promise: From now on, I will make sure you get what you need.
That’s it. If there’s too much pain, make an appointment with a counselor so you have someone to hold the light while you do this.
This is worth it. It’s how you get your personal power back. It’s how you heal what keeps getting triggered with your child. Once you get through that pain you’ve been ignoring, you won’t need to hang on to any kind of anger. Pain and anger will still arise — you’re still human! — But you’ll be able to notice it and let it go, rather than acting on it.
Your compassion for yourself is the key to healing any place inside you that hurts. And it opens your heart to the unconditional love you’ve always deserved. Choose love.
Dr. Laura Markham is the author of Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids: How to Stop Yelling and Start Connecting. She earned her Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology from Columbia University and has worked as a parenting coach with countless parents across the English-speaking world, both in person and via phone. You can find Dr. Laura online at AhaParenting.com, the website of Aha! Moments for parents of kids from birth through the teen years, where she offers a free daily inspiration email to parents.