This article is reprinted by permission from NextAvenue.org.
“Look at your stomach and your big ass,” my mother said with disgust, pointing at my belly. That hit me right on. Here comes another.
“Who would ever want to marry you?”
Is she done? I wanted to flee. Oh no, she’s got help.
“Look, it’s Shamu. Shamu, the whale,” my brother said, cackling.
The insults and criticisms kept coming. Mom led the way and the rest of my family followed. As I wore my scapegoat hat, their bullying continued for decades and my fighting back did, too. Although I had career success and received awards along the way, underneath it I was seething with anger and resentment. And that affected all aspects of my life.
Little did I know that the obstacles I faced in my childhood would end up being the biggest opportunity of my life. By facing those challenges, I figured out the secret to finding forgiveness and the power and freedom it gives you.
Forgiveness takes commitment and work
“Sometimes what seems to be a big tragedy turns out to become the greatest good in our lives,” writes Louise Hay, author of “You Can Heal Your Life.”
Today, my mother — the woman I wished would die during my childhood — is my closest friend. We speak daily and travel the world together.
Today, my mother — the woman I wished would die during my childhood — is my closest friend.
Think about your life. Who hurt you so much you have not been able to forgive them? In some cases, the incidents occurred so long ago that you don’t even connect the trauma you suffered as a child to your current problems, such as autoimmune illnesses, stomach issues or asthma.
Family and friends from my youth who observed my relationship with my mother marvel at the transformation. It took commitment and work.
These are the five steps I took to finding forgiveness:
1. Create a support system
We all need a team. Create a support system, which consists of friends, co-workers, spiritual leaders, therapists and support groups. Pets are a great source of comfort. Meetup groups are a great way to find others with shared interests. Surround yourself with positive people and remove those who bring you down. Choose people you can share your story with — people who have emotional intelligence and empathy. Holding it in, keeping it a secret, creates shame and grows inside us, which can make us sick.
2. Understand your abuser
Learn about your abuser’s past. What did the person go through? I learned about my mother’s pain, the untimely death of her baby sister, the financial hardships, her father’s suicide attempts and the childhood she never really had. Invariably, anyone who is abusive to others (unless they suffer from a serious mental illness) is often a victim of trauma. Hurt people hurt people.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who won The Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts in ending apartheid, said, “Healing comes through understanding…No one is born a liar or a rapist or a terrorist…but in any given day…we can easily be hurt and broken, and it’s good to remember that we can just as easily be the ones who have done the hurting and breaking.”
Now that you understand that your abuser was damaged, reframe how you look at the person. A lightbulb moment for me was when I played a psychological board game in a group. I threw the dice and when it landed, the facilitator asked me to stand, close my eyes and think of my mother as a little girl.
At that point, I knew about her childhood and saw a little wounded girl. Then, she instructed me to imagine myself as a little girl. I knew that I was a wounded little girl, too. Next, the facilitator said: “You both come together.” Wow! My mother was no longer my mother. We were both wounded little girls.
After learning about the tragedies in my mother’s life, I was able to feel compassion for her. I realized that she was doing the best she could and was able to forgive her.
Do not wait for the individual to acknowledge or apologize for what he or she did to you before you forgive the person. In many cases, the abusers won’t do either and will deny ever doing anything wrong. They are often clueless.
Forgiveness is a virtue based on the ability to love when others are not loving you.
You forgive for yourself. No one else. Forgiving does not mean we are condoning behavior. It doesn’t mean we necessarily want to have a relationship with the abusers.
Forgiving doesn’t mean we forget. We never forget. It means we want to heal ourselves and set ourselves free. Free from the negativity, the depression, aggression, anger and resentment.
5. Change your behavior
“When we blame another, we give our power away because we’re placing the responsibility for our feelings on someone else,” Louise Hay writes. “People in our lives may behave in ways that trigger uncomfortable responses in us. However, they didn’t get into our minds and create the buttons that have been pushed.”
Our brain is our most powerful organ. If we change our thoughts, we change our reactions, and in turn we change our life.
What gets us so upset are our unfulfilled expectations. As soon as I reframed how I looked at my mother, I changed my expectations. I no longer saw my mother as the person who should love, adore and nurture me, but as a child who was in pain herself and craved love.
As I took my power back, her insults eventually had no impact on me. And as she saw that, they eventually stopped. In time, I got to a place where I was able to start giving her love.
By showing kindness, compassion and love to someone you can actually transform them.
The benefits of forgiveness
There has been much research on the benefits of forgiveness. According to The Mayo Clinic, “If you don’t practice forgiveness, you might be the one who pays dearly. By embracing forgiveness, you can also embrace, peace, hope, gratitude and joy.”
Hanging onto anger puts you into a fight or flight mode, which affects your blood pressure and immune system, and increases the risk of depression, heart disease and much more.
Robert Enright, a pioneer in the field of forgiveness, points out, “Resentment can last so long that it can be passed to the next generation. Forgiveness, if we choose it, can be a way of leaving love, rather than anger, to our children.”
We all have a story. And we all have the power to forgive. It’s our choice.
I chose to be the hero of my story, not the victim.
Gayle Kirschenbaum is an Emmy award-winning filmmaker, TV producer, writer, TED speaker, photographer and coach. Her award-winning film, “Look at Us Now, Mother!” was featured on Netflix. She has been featured in the New York Times, NBC’s “Today Show” and The Washington Post.
This article is reprinted by permission from NextAvenue.org, © 2019 Twin Cities Public Television, Inc. All rights reserved.