Why can’t people forgive those who have hurt them? Why can’t they let go of their anger and give themselves relief from their emotional pain?
When we suffer an intensely painful feeling, the body releases hormones into the bloodstream as part of the fight or flight response. These hormones turn our experience of the intensely painful emotional event into strong memories. These memories are strong to ensure we do not forget such an episode and promote our survival.
This makes sense for our hunter gatherer ancestors who had to remember the constant threats to their survival. However in our modern world, threats to our physical safety are rare, but threats to our emotional safety are omnipresent.
However when we feel the same emotion in the present, it triggers our emotional memories for the past experiences when that feeling occurred. The problem is that we have lost sight of the original anger-provoking event that stimulated the secretion of these hormones in the first place. In counseling, our task is to restore the connection between the past and the present so that the anger will be relieved properly, and the “pumping” can stop.
Here is a client who is having problems trusting others. We need to find out the underlying problems, so his pain can be identified and relieved the right way.
Therapist: “It must have made you very angry when your father yelled and criticized you in front of your friends at your fifteenth birthday party.”
Client: “I’m not angry anymore.”
Therapist: “That’s true. You don’t feel angry. Your anger has been down there so long you’ve lost touch with it. But it’s an obstacle to your health and happiness, and you aren’t even aware of it. We need to make you aware of it so you can get rid of it once and for all. It’s a pain you cannot feel.”
Client: “That doesn’t make sense! How can I have a feeling I can’t feel?”
Therapist: “Now you’ve got it. Feelings and emotions don’t make sense.”
Client: “I make sense. I’m a logical and rational man.”
Therapist: “Yes you are, until your feelings from the past kick in and take over. They override your adult judgment. Has anything ever happened to remind you of that terrible event?”
Client: “Yeah, come to think of it. I went to a movie once. I didn’t know what it was about it. I started to cry. I couldn’t stop. I had to go home. My father laughed at me for crying. He told my relatives all about it. He did that so many times.”
Therapist: “Your father expected you to be perfect, no ‘weakness’ in your character. He got very angry when you let him down. He took it personally. He didn’t know how else to take it.”
Client: “I stopped telling my problems to my parents. I couldn’t trust them any more.”
Therapist: “Did that make things better?”
Client: “No. I didn’t expect ‘better,’ only ‘less worse.’ I had no one at all to talk too, not even my sister.”
Therapist: “You were all you had. Did you feel alone and abandoned? Did you feel unloved and helpless?”
Client: “Yes, I still do. All the time.”
Therapist: “When did you get over these painful lessons about your parents, yourself, and towards life?”
Client: “Never. I didn’t even know they were down there until now. What do you mean lessons about myself?”
Therapist: “You may have learned from your childhood experiences that, I am alone misunderstood, invalidated and abandoned. I don’t belong and there’s nothing I can do about it!”
Client: “That sounds like me.”
Therapist: “What was your attitude toward life growing up?”
Client: “My attitude toward life? With all these strikes against me, I haven’t got a chance, so what’s the use of trying? There wasn’t anything I could do about anything!”
Therapist: “Except protect yourself by avoiding talking about your problems. You swallowed your anger and grief at all these betrayals of your trust. Later, you found that you could escape from the pain by pushing others away with anger! That was your solution, the cure for what ailed you!”
Client: “What’s wrong with that?”
Therapist: “It didn’t scratch where you itched. The pain is still down there.”
Client: “Which pain?”
Therapist: “The pain from your anger at others and at yourself. The pain from your anger at life for treating you so unfairly. You don’t deserve this grief, but you’ve got it anyway.”
Client: “Well, I don’t want it anymore!”
Therapist: “The fact that you haven’t thought about it for years doesn’t mean you’re free from it. It’s still down there and it only takes one snowflake to cause an avalanche. If something new happens in the present to make you angry, your old wounds will resurface, and your pain will hurt all over again.”
Client: “So I just won’t let myself get angry!”
Therapist: “That isn’t a realistic choice. All humans get angry sooner or later. And when you do, you bottled up feelings will spill out and you’ll blowup. You will be sensitive to anything that reminds you of that early victimization by your parents and so many others. That wound is still down there bleeding. We want it to heal.”
Client: “I’m handling it all right.”
Therapist: “Denial is not ‘handling,’ it is ‘postponing.’ It will still be there tomorrow. Nothing has changed. In the meantime, your life is more difficult than it needs to be. This is your chance to break the chain that binds you to your unhappy past. Do you deserve a break today?”
Client: “Yes. I’m way overdue.”
Therapist: “Do you want to learn more about yourself as a person? Can you tolerate more pain than you could as a child?”
Client: “I guess I can, but I won’t like it.”
Therapist: “I didn’t say you had to like it. But, if you do it right, it only hurts for a little while. One thing I’d like you to do is to forgive these people for what happened on those occasions! Can you do that?”
Client: “Sure I can, but I won’t!”
Therapist: “Why won’t you?”
Client: “Why should I, after what they did to me? It not fair to forgive them after all the pain they caused me.”
Therapist: “Does not forgiving them help you?”
Client: “I don’t know and I don’t care.”
Therapist: “It’s worse than that – you can’t care. Your feelings won’t let you. They are in control. They are making your decisions for you.”
Client: “Good. That saves me the trouble.”
Therapist: “It saves you the trouble: the pain of making a ‘wrong’ decision, but it causes other troubles you don’t even know are down there. These are the troubles that are making you sick, physically and emotionally. They are killing the happiness you could be enjoying right now. You are paying a high price for this ‘principle of fairness” you are upholding so nobly.”
Client: “That’s right. I have principles!”
Therapist: “Do you have these principles or do the principles have you?”
Client: “I don’t know what you’re talking about!”
Therapist: “Now you’ve got it! You don’t know. You’d be better off physically and emotionally if you did. Would you like to know what I’m talking about?”
Client: “I guess so.”
Therapist: “I’ll settle for that. I’m talking about your obstacles to forgiveness. It’s not a choice you are making, to forgive or not. Your feelings made that choice for you years ago and nothing has changed. Your emotions are the same now as they were when it happened way back when. They are frozen in time. They haven’t been adequately identified for you, let alone relieved. How many more years do you plan to suffer with this unfinished business?”
Client: “I didn’t know it was up to me.”
Therapist: “Who else have you got? You just learned something. You are responsible for the consequences of your choices. You can choose to to take ownership over your own happiness. If you don’t give yourself a break, who will? Would it help if you knew what ‘forgiveness’ means?”
Client: “I know what it means.”
Therapist: “What does it mean?”
Client: “You know, forgetting about it.”
Therapist: “That’s exactly what you can never do! The human mind is too powerful to forget. You have such a wonderful memory that these experiences will always be with you. But we can reduce the emotional weight they carry. Forgiveness means letting go of anger, not for others benefit, but for your own. These people who have hurt you will never know about it. It’s none of their business who you forgive. It’s for your benefit. If you don’t forgive, the anger will stay down there inside you forever. Is that what you want? I don’t think so. You have the power of choice now.”
Client: “I never thought of it that way.”
Therapist: “You can choose to write out your anger. Writing your thoughts and feelings down on a piece of paper makes them tangible and concrete before our very eyes. You cannot evaluate abstract thoughts in your mind about your life or about yourself. However, we can begin to sort them out when you see them in black and white in front of you.”
Client: “How do I begin?”
Therapist: “To start the journaling process it maybe useful to ask yourself focusing questions. By answering these questions you are able to make your internalized, unconscious, unacceptable feelings conscious and concrete. This allows you to find forgiveness from your conflicting logical and emotional reactions, which helps you to move forward.”
Client: “So what’s the first step?”
Therapist: “You can begin by using some focusing questions, such as:
What is the worst part about it?
How does that worst part make me feel?
When else have I felt this way?
What am I trying achieve?
What scares me about this?
How will this affect my life in the long term?
What would be an ideal outcome?
What advice would I give to someone else in this situation?”
Client: “I see how that can help. It would be nice to let all this stuff out on my terms, instead of jumping down others throats over small petty problems.”
Father and son arguing image available from Shutterstock.