We hear a lot about forgiveness and how good it is for you spiritually and emotionally and that’s all true but forgiveness is a thing that can’t be rushed. Selling people on the merits of forgiveness when they’re right in the middle of their struggle is a little like telling someone who has just had surgery on her knees that she needs to run a marathon. First she has to heal, then she has to begin stretching and moving and who’s to say that being a marathoner is the only way or the best way to be alive anyway?
In my twenties I worked at a women’s shelter where many of our clients were escaping domestic violence. I realized then that it’s possible to forgive too early and I’m not just talking about the women who forgave and returned to their abusers. I’m also talking about the women who looked like they were taking positive steps in their personal growth. I’m talking about the ones who wanted to understand their abusers so they could forgive them. I’m talking about the ones who took personal responsibility for entering into an abusive relationship in the first place.
That sounds really great and empowering in some ways, right? Taking responsibility, working towards understanding — those sound like terrific things but sometimes it’s a detour away from real healing and wholeness. Because here’s the thing — before we can take responsibility and before we can forgive, we have to confront the depth and breadth of the harm done to us.
Imagine that Snow White comes to therapy. She says, “My stepmom had problems with jealousy. I get it now, I get that it must have been hard to marry into a new family and to be confronting your mortality just as your stepdaughter is kinda coming into her own. I mean, I get that she had her own struggles.”
The therapist nods, wondering where this is going.
“Probably,” Snow White continues thoughtfully. “Probably she was reacting to her own troubled upbringing. It can’t have been easy, being raised to catch a man because your only value as a woman is the guy that you marry. It must have been threatening to her to have me growing up there.”
This is where her therapist might respond by saying, “Wait a second, she tried to poison you. She paid a hit man to take you out.”
“I know, I know,” says Snow White. “I’m not excusing her behavior or anything, I’m just saying I can kind of understand, you know, how it was hard for her, too.”
“Poison,” says the therapist. “Murder for hire.”
“Right,” says Snow White. “But she did the best she could…”
“POISON!” says the therapist. “MURDER!”
“Yeah, I know but I want to acknowledge that I never said directly to her, ‘Do not poison me.’ And I did take an apple from a stranger.”
Ok, you get what I’m saying here.
Snow White isn’t going to get to the core of her struggles if she keeps making excuses for The Evil Queen. She thinks she’s being loving and forgiving but really what she’s doing is joining with The Evil Queen against herself. She is unintentionally helping to perpetuate the abuse by excusing it.
I’m not arguing that Snow White needs to spend the rest of her life bitterly denouncing her stepmom but she might need to spend part of her life doing exactly that. She needs to acknowledge that however The Evil Queen was raised, whatever societal expectations she was up against, The Evil Queen did harm to Snow White. It doesn’t really matter what The Evil Queen meant to do — if she meant to just poison her a little bit, say, just long enough to win The Fairest of Them All contest or whatever — or why she did it. What matters is that Snow White was harmed by her actions and Snow White needs to give space to her grief, pain and anger. She needs lots and lots of space and understanding and then and only then will she be ready to think about forgiveness and taking responsibility (if there’s any to be taken).
The women at the shelter, yes, eventually they would need to look at their participation in the abusive relationship in order to recognize the beliefs, values and behaviors that created that perfect storm but they couldn’t really do that until they could acknowledge that whatever they did or did not do, they didn’t deserve the abuse and that abuse is always, always wrong.
Only when we give attention and validation to the very real harm that other people may have caused us, only then can we forgive. Snow White needs to be able to say, “You did me wrong, Evil Queen, through no fault of my own” without people telling her to “stop being so bitter, just let it go, life is too short to hold grudges” because it’s not petty to grieve your losses or to be angry when you have been harmed.
I’ve been thinking about this because I’ve been thinking about how often we beat ourselves up — colluding with the people who harm us — for holding on to things. Sometimes we need to hold on to things for awhile or our healing will be incomplete. And without healing there can be no true forgiveness.
Two VERY DIFFERENT bosses
When you look at the ethical guidelines for therapists a whole lot of them are in place to address the power imbalance between therapist and client. In the minds of our clients, the things we therapists do or say hold greater weight than the same thoughts that, say, your hairdresser or mechanic might offer. (Except when it comes to how to do your hair or fix your car.) When we share our reflections about your life choices and relationships then we need to be aware that our clients will likely take those thoughts very seriously, which is why it can be painful and even dangerous to have a therapist get things really wrong with you.
I remember the second therapist I ever saw when I was a freshman or sophomore in college and was in love with a boy who didn’t love me back. (That’s what brought me to therapy although it turns out — no surprise — I had a lot more going on than just that.) Anyway, the therapist just loved all my stories about my super interesting boyfriend and would agree with me, “He does sound amazing! And in a band, too, wow!” which was not what I needed to hear. Now I understand that likely he was just trying to join with me (this thing where therapists go along with you to help build rapport) but at the time I thought, “Well, it’s hopeless. My boyfriend is too amazing for me to ever get over him and even my therapist loves him” and I quit going to therapy. What would have been better is if I’d come back and said, “Hey, I’m sick of hearing about how great you think my stupid boyfriend is” and then we could have had a discussion about it.
Because therapists get stuff wrong. It happens. We’re not perfect and even the best therapist is not necessarily the best fit for any given client. We will get things wrong and it’s up to you, dear clients and potential clients, to help us get it right.
Sometimes we get things wrong because we don’t ask for enough information and sometimes this is because we don’t even know we need it. You say, “Hey, my boss!” and the therapist is sitting there merrily picturing Leslie Knope and really you’re talking about your boss who is more like Glenn Close in Damages only the therapist has already decided she knows what’s going on and so things just get confused.
That happens. Although eventually situations like that work themselves out if the therapist is a good listener and asks good questions.
What’s trickier is when the therapist is wrong only you don’t know she’s wrong because it’s nothing as clear cut as facts. Instead she’s operating with a set of biases that you don’t know about. Like say she is against beach vacations and thinks everyone should go hiking in Hocking Hills and you don’t know this so when she’s discouraging you from planning your vacation to Bethany Beach you think there really is something wrong with your ideas. You wonder, “Is this what’s wrong with me? That I always go to the beach?” and it’s confusing. Because sometimes it’s true — your ingrained thoughts or beliefs are part of the problem — but sometimes it’s not. Sometimes it’s just a matter of different priorities and opinions.
So what do you do?
First of all, if you feel like your therapist is being biased, tell her. Have a discussion about it. Heck, have a debate. Good therapists know their biases (we all have them) and will be willing to engage with you. She will be able to say, “Here is my bias” but she’ll also be willing to say, “My issue with the beach is not because I’m against beaches, it’s because you’ve told me that you are allergic to sand in previous discussions and I want to challenge your assumption that you should go to the beach anyway.”
Or the discussion might help you discover that your boss thinks Glenn Close in Damages makes a GREAT boss and that you should suck it up and let her murder people and violate legal ethics and blackmail everyone because your therapist places a high value on career achievement and that’s just her philosophical starting point. In which case you can decide for yourself if that’s the kind of therapist that you want to have.
Very often you and your therapist won’t agree about things and a lot of the times, that won’t matter because our ethical guidelines state:
Counselors are aware of—and avoid imposing—their own values, attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors. Counselors respect the diversity of clients, trainees, and research participants and seek training in areas in which they are at risk of imposing their values onto clients, especially when the counselor’s values are inconsistent with the client’s goals or are discriminatory in nature.
(this is from the 2014 American Counseling Association Code of Ethics)
In other words, even if your counselor would personally love to work for Glenn Close, she ought to be able to appreciate that you would rather work for Leslie Knope. But if you’re not sure, ask her. Have that discussion. Find out what’s going on there if you feel like she’s misunderstanding your point of view or steering you away from your goals. Because even though we are therapists and sit in the big comfy chair (or at least the chair with good lumbar support because this job is hard on your back) that does not mean we know everything or that we’re the boss of you. Sometimes we’re wrong. Call us out when we are; good therapists will appreciate the discussion.
(For the record, I prefer a Hocking Hills vacation as long as there’s air conditioning and obviously I would prefer to work for Leslie Knope because I like waffles a lot more than I like murder and blackmail.)
W.I. Thomas: “If people believe something to be true, it is true in its consequences.”
In other words, we act on our beliefs as if they were facts, right?
All of us do this. We “know” that college is a necessity. We “know” that everyone should eat more broccoli. We “know” that standardized tests are bad (or good) and that co-sleeping is bad (or good) and that organized religion is bad (or good) and so on and so on and so on.
The problem is that some of these things are opinions and some are facts only in a certain context. I mean, broccoli is super good for you — unless you’re allergic.
But if you believe something is truly truly true, then of course you’re going to act as if it’s true with the same commitment and certainty that you will bring to the multiplication tables.
I talk about this with clients when we’re talking about relationships. Often our struggles with other people come from misunderstandings built on beliefs that are standing in for facts.
If your mother/best friend/brother thinks that your soul is in mortal danger or your health will be truly compromised or your children will grow up irreparably damaged if you eat green gelatin then they’re going to act accordingly. Likewise if you think an occasional bowl of gelatin harms no one, you’re going to act accordingly.
All is well and good until you serve gelatin when they come to dinner or they confront you the next time they see you or they post a passive-aggressive link on your Facebook wall to a HuffPo article condemning gelatin consumption. Then all hell breaks loose.
We aren’t responsible for other people’s beliefs or for changing them. We are only responsible for our own choices and behavior. It’s one thing to set boundaries about topics of conversation or dinner menus or Facebook shares. It’s another thing to expect other people to change their beliefs for us.
Once we understand that it’s easier to find common ground because we’re no longer arguing; we are explaining.
When we stop arguing we stop threatening the very foundation of someone’s existence (because that’s what beliefs are).
“Ok,” we can say. “I get it. Of course you would be offended by my Lime Jell-O Salad at the potluck. Me, I find a little gelatin really makes my day brighter and my teeth shinier and I can run further and faster. But it’s all right that you don’t like it and I respect your opinion. Let’s agree to disagree about it.”
If you don’t respect their opinion? You can leave that out. You can just leave it with the last line, “Let’s agree to disagree about it.”
At least you can quit banging your head against the wall wondering why in the heck they’re so delusional. And if their beliefs are totally incompatible with yours — if their beliefs really do threaten the foundation of your existence — you can move on. Once you know that opinions can operate in our lives like facts, you might find it easier to quit trying to illuminate them.