When we experience a loss, an injury, or a betrayal, we often ask these questions. How we answer them figures powerfully in whether we bounce back quickly or stay paralyzed in trauma’s grip. One of the first ways we answer is by assigning blame: “It was the other driver’s fault,” “the doctor misdiagnosed my illness,” “I brought this on myself.” Often, assigning blame is an attempt to make someone pay for the pain he or she caused—even if that someone is you yourself. In a court of law, finding blame may lead to a financial settlement in your favor. But in your emotional life, holding on to blame may result in a lingering grudge, or guilt that just prolongs your misery. As we continue our discussion of resilience, that ability to recover from trauma, let’s take a closer look at what can happen when the urge to blame is replaced by the choice to forgive.
Judging who is responsible is a natural reaction to a trauma. It’s part of trying to understand what happened and prevent it from happening again. If we’re smart, we learn from our painful experiences. However, our judgments often have strong emotions attached to them—and those can keep us imprisoned in guilt or resentment for years, long after the original incident is over. Resilient people avoid this trap because they’re able to forgive themselves and others for the parts they played in the trauma. And in doing that, they free themselves to heal, and move forward with their lives.
WHAT IT MEANS: Sandra’s voice trembled as she recounted opening the email she had seen on her husband Wayne’s computer. She clutched her stomach and gasped for air as she struggled to make sense of the words on the screen. After 19 years together, and raising three children, how could Wayne do this? They had had the perfect marriage, or so it had seemed to her. She printed the email and confronted her husband with it that same evening. Mortified, he immediately admitted to what the message alluded to: an impulsive sexual encounter with a woman he had met the week before on a business trip. Wayne expressed deep regret for responding to the woman’s overture, and contrition for betraying Sandra.
I met with Sandra and Wayne several times over the course of four months. They both expressed their painful feelings, and undertook the difficult work of rebuilding shattered trust. They shared how they had drifted apart as Wayne’s travels and Sandra’s involvement with the children took them in different directions. They committed to doing whatever it took to get through the crisis. As they redirected their energy into their relationship, they rekindled their intimacy and found a deepening closeness. I have worked with people who chose to stay with their partner after infidelity and go through the painstaking work of trying to heal their marriage. I have also worked with those who began divorce proceedings the day after they learned of a betrayal. In both cases, those who bounced back best were able ultimately to forgive their partner and themselves, regardless of whether they stayed together or chose divorce.
If you’ve been hurt, forgiveness is a powerful way to clear away the judgment and blame that can impede your recovery. But know that forgiving is not the same as excusing. By choosing to forgive, you are letting go of toxic resentment that’s impeding your recovery, not condoning the actions of the person who hurt you. Buddha said it very well: Holding on to anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else; you are the one who gets burned.
Here are some ways to end judgment, cultivate forgiveness, and improve your own resilience:
• Remember that forgiveness is a gift you give yourself, not necessarily something you grant the other person.
• Stick up for yourself. Choosing to forgive does not mean being a doormat. You may decide to forgive someone, and still take steps to prevent that person from taking advantage of you in the future. Setting new ground rules or insisting on fair compensation can make it easier to be forgiving, since you won’t feel like you’re denying that you’ve been wronged.
• Ask yourself whether it serves you to hold on to judgment and blame. Does staying angry at a spouse, ex-spouse, family member, or friend really help in any way? If not, ask yourself whether you can retain what you have learned from the experience without holding on to the toxic resentment.
• Remind yourselfwhat you have learned from the experience. What changes have you made to prevent a recurrence of what took place? Perhaps you can now make better decisions about relationships or about protecting yourself. Maybe you’ve learned that you possess reserves of strength you were unaware of, or how much your family and friends are there for you when you need them.
• Most important, develop the ability to forgive yourself. It’s easy to blame ourselves when things go wrong, especially when there’s no one else to point the finger towards. Being honest about mistakes you made is fine. But if you tend to be your own worst critic, it’s important to learn to cultivate compassion for yourself. Start your day with a loving-kindness meditation, in which you generate feelings of kindness toward yourself and others. During the day, if you notice self-criticism seeping in, take a moment to breathe in, imagining that each breath is filling you with compassion for yourself. Over time, these practices can help you develop a more loving, accepting relationship with yourself.
Jeffrey Rossman, PhD, is a Rodale.com advisor and director of life management at Canyon Ranch in Lenox, MA. His column, “Mind-Body-Mood Advisor,” appears weekly on Rodale.com.