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Dr. Binks Blog

Conflict, Trauma, Guilt and Recovery – Forgiveness for Personal Growth

Posted on June 7, 2012 by admin

Coping with life’s many challenges and tragedies is such an integral part of human development yet it seems we are often left to figure out how to move past these types of events all by ourselves. It is difficult to admit we harbor anger and resentment to those we love or care about or even towards strangers. In some cases we even need to let go of anger for acts that are unforgivable if we are to move on and live comfortably.

Often, shame and guilt over these feelings leads people to keep it to themselves and not seek help. Even in cases where we are able to share some of these feelings with a close friend or family member; and they try so hard to understand what we have been through – they really cannot.

When trying to overcome the various conflicts we face, it is not uncommon to see a theme of guilt. Guilt over things said or not said during stressful times, regret over things done or not done at the time of a tragedy, and at the extreme a sense of responsibility in the tragic harm that was done to us – even though this is not the case. Guilt affects many who have been involved in tragedy. It often involves a nagging sense that if the person had just acted differently, they might have saved themselves or others. We are seeing this in the case of soldiers returning from combat where selflessness and self-sacrifice is the code our soldiers live by. They translate their own natural instincts for self-preservation at a point of intense danger  into ‘cowardice’ and blame themselves for things that were frequently out of their control. Survivor guilt is recognized as a common psychological consequence of tragedies of all sorts including combat, accidents, or physical and sexual abuse.

Unfortunately, what seems to be less frequently recognized is the guilt that can become associated with less tragic yet equally meaningful circumstances like major arguments, the loss of a job or house, letting down a loved one or being accused of not caring enough despite our best efforts just to name a few. While these circumstances appear quite different than the more tragic ones outlined above; they share some similar pathways to recovery and personal growth and adjustment regardless of the nature or origin of the situation.

Forgiveness of self and others is the key to healthy adjustment. The first rule of forgiveness is the release (or in the case of intentional acts of violence – the proper assignment) of blame / responsibility. Naturally when bad things happen, as human beings we attempt to assign blame. Unfortunately we often blame the wrong thing. Assigning blame is a natural and sometimes adaptive process that attempts to take seemingly unpredictable and confusing circumstances and create a sense of structure. By determining the cause we feel more in control. Understanding the cause of events is useful because it allows us to better determine if we can avoid a similar circumstance in the future. However, in the case of blame, there tends to be an overly harsh or at times incorrectly assigned responsibility that leads to poor emotional adjustment. Furthermore, whether we can or cannot accurately determine what we believe to the cause – it will not change what happened. This is where forgiveness comes in.

Sometimes human beings, with the noblest intent are fallible- they make mistakes – we all make mistakes. Carrying around blame, whether of self or others ultimately will serve no useful purpose. Sometimes, people do us harm intentionally, perhaps the most difficult to deal with of all. When someone harms us THEY not we are responsible. Assign that responsibility accurately but try to depersonalize it. They did it because they are sick or flawed; not because of anything about us. This is a subtle distinction but an important one as it allows us to find a way to move on – even when the person who caused the harm does not appear to deserve our forgiveness or even admit they were wrong.

Studies have shown that forgiveness is associated with health benefits including lowered blood pressure, heart health, recovery from stress, improved sleep quality, less fatigue, fewer health complaints, use of fewer medications and lower alcohol use. Forgiveness appears to be more than just ‘not being angry.’ It involves an acceptance of even the most difficult circumstances in a way that does not condone the behavior of those who wronged us; but releases our emotional investment in the situation. Improvement in conflict management, reduction in overall negative emotions and good stress management are important aspects of forgiveness. The benefits can impact your relationship to friends, loved ones, and the community in general. In short, forgiveness, regardless of the circumstances allows you to get on with your life, benefits those you care about and allows you to leave the wrong behind.

The science of forgiveness is not yet very well-developed particularly in terms of what steps are required to achieve it. However, wisdom comes in many forms. The concept of forgiveness is as old as spirituality and religion themselves – what we have learned from those years of experience coupled with our understanding of human psychology has given us some effective strategies that you may already recognize:

 1)    Practice effective emotion and stress management – get back into a normal routine, talk about your feelings with a friend or loved one, fight the irrational thoughts and the urge to blame. Be sure to set aside time to relax and ‘play’.

2)    Develop effective communication and conflict management strategies – conflict will inevitably arise, be sure to use non-judgmental and non-confrontational (non-blaming) language. If you stick to “I” statements or statements about your own feelings as opposed to “you” statements (You did this, you made me feel that) situations often stay manageable.

3)    Better understand ourselves and what leads us to feel hurt and angry in various situations. Sometimes our “old baggage” comes to the surface during stressful times.  Try to recognize when the emotions you are feeling may be out of proportion to the immediate situation. Understand that the stressful and painful times in our past influence current reactions more than we might realize in the moment.

4)    In the case of conflict with others, try to develop empathy. Put yourself in their shoes. Everyone comes to situations from their own perspective. If we are not careful we may not recognize other, equally valid perspectives or points of view or that other people may be lacking the ability to act differently. Pause and ask yourself why might that person be reacting the way they are… you might be surprised by what you learn about both you and them.

5)    As always, be sure to practice good self-care – eat well, exercise and get enough sleep and ‘fun time’

Remember, the skills we are discussing apply both to your forgiveness of yourself and of others. To reduce anger and blame turn off the internal critic – that voice is the enemy of good health.

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