I met Dr. Tian Dayton about a decade ago in Nashville, Tennessee. I was a bit starstruck. She is not only an incredible author and clinician but also just a totally cool human being. She is humble, giving, and don’t even get me started on her wisdom. It is such an honor to work alongside her on the Senior Fellow team at The Meadows. Below, she shares a beautiful excerpt with us from her upcoming book, The Soulful Journey of Recovery. Forgiveness is such an important topic and one not discussed enough. Please see the note at the bottom of the post to enter to win a signed copy of Dr. Dayton’s book! Thanks, Tian, for sharing your words, passion, and heart with us.
Watch Senior Fellows Dr. Tian Dayton and Jenni Schaefer on Facebook Live as they discuss healing from trauma and adverse childhood experiences using themes from Dr. Dayton’s newest book The Soulful Journey of Recovery.
For a chance to win a signed book, see information at the bottom of this post.
Finding Forgiveness: Your Get-Out-of-Jail-Free Card
In the 1980s, I wrote Forgiving and Moving On. The publisher said, “We need to change the title; research shows that people don’t buy books on forgiveness.” At this point in time, forgiveness wasn’t being talked about in the mental health field; it was seen as the province of religion. As hard as we tried, we couldn’t find another title that reflected the contents of the book, which was essentially daily readings that dealt with the feelings and thoughts that come up around letting go, forgiving, and moving on. We decided to go ahead with the title we had, and, it became a recovery best seller.
Forgiveness is a process, not an event. It takes time and work to plow through the anger, resentment, and hurt that are often in the way.
Because it’s a process, it doesn’t need to happen all at once. Forgiveness can free us from the soul-eating pain of living with rancor and resentment whether or not we wish to continue a relationship with the person we’re forgiving. Far from being a way to whitewash a circumstance, forgiveness implies that there is fully something that happened that is difficult enough to overlook or live with, that it actually requires forgiveness. The same is true with forgiving ourselves, it benefits no one for us to carry hatred and recrimination towards ourselves, it just makes us less present for healthy relating in the present and it blocks our recovery. Self-forgiveness takes humility because we are taking an honest self-inventory. We’re willing to live with the truth of our own actions while simultaneously making a commitment to change our behavior. It takes character.
I learned to forgive because I saw it as my only way out of the kind of chronic emotional and psychological pain that inevitably surrounds addiction. It felt like self-love. My goal was to move on as unscathed as possible. It is not up to me to mete out punishment, nor do I enjoy doing that. If I spend all of my time figuring out what another person “deserves,” I drain my energy and use it up on them and stay stuck, right alongside them. It’s living in a negative frame and unintelligent in my eyes. This for me means that forgiveness is always the right solution, that the point is to forgive until I am free, until my spirit is released, to live freely in this beautiful and abundant world and allow my energy to be deployed in the directions of my choosing, not determined by someone else’s bad actions. So forgiveness in this sense, feels intelligently selfish.
Once you get into recovery, you start to realize that maybe you’re not the problem after all. You begin to identify the forces that victimized you within the family dynamic. You get angry, sad, disappointed, and you feel your years of hurt. And the therapeutic community cheers you on for “getting in touch with your feelings,” and that can feel vindicating. While this is a crucial part of healing, it can morph into being stuck in blame and not taking responsibility for moving beyond it. Forgiveness helps us to get over that hump.
Forgiveness Myths: What Blocks My Ability to Forgive?
If we forgive it doesn’t mean we have to eradicate any residual feelings of hurt and anger or we haven’t really forgiven. That’s too high a bar. I see forgiveness as heading in the right direction, so that if vengeful thoughts start to overtake us, we can check in with ourselves and renew our decision to move past them.
Forgiveness is a recognition within the self of a wish or a need to place a particular issue into a different internal context; moving something from the foreground to the background. When we consider forgiveness as part of our healing process, we’re recognizing that we want inner peace more than a grudge to nurse. We’re forgiving to free ourselves and to restore our own equilibrium and sense of joy. It is a statement about where we are in our own healing process.
There are a few stumbling blocks when people I work with consider forgiveness. One is the feeling that if they forgive, they are in some way condoning wrong actions. Another is the finality of it and releasing the hope of ever righting the wrong or getting retribution. Another is letting go of the wish of finally getting what they always wanted. Still another is the implication that forgiveness means that they wish to continue having a relationship with the person they’re forgiving. But forgiving someone who has hurt us, doesn’t necessarily mean we want to continue a relationship with him or her. Forgiveness is not a one-time event and it doesn’t mean we relinquish our right to continued feelings about an issue.
When I began working with clients, addressing forgiveness issues experientially, the things that people struggled with became evident. And they really struggled. I found that it was hard for people to talk about forgiveness, but they could relate to what I called “myths” or blocks. And they found it liberating to talk about those. Eventually once I developed “Floor Checks,” I just put them all around the floor and I’d ask a series of questions, like “Which myth do you feel drawn to now? Walk over to it, stand next to it, and share about why you chose it.” What came out of people was magical, as it always is. Case studies on what kinds of feelings came up around considering forgiveness started appearing all around the room, for everyone to share and identify with. And the rest just happened, the interaction of the group took over and an experience materialized.
Here are the myths surrounding forgiveness as I see them:
- If I forgive, my relationship with the person I’m forgiving will definitely improve.
- If I forgive, I’ll no longer feel angry at that person for what happened.
- Forgiving myself is selfish.
- If I forgive, I forego my right to hurt feelings.
- If I forgive, it means I want to continue to have a relationship with the person I’m forgiving.
- If I forgive, it means I’m condoning the behavior of the person I’m forgiving.
- If I haven’t forgotten, I haven’t really forgiven.
- I only need to forgive once.
- I forgive for the sake of the other person.
Dr. Tian Dayton is a senior fellow with The Meadows. View her bio on The Meadows website.
Win a Signed Book! To enter to win a copy of The Soulful Journey of Recovery, please post a comment below, answering: What is one gift you have received via forgiveness (either forgiving or being forgiven)? Two winners will be randomly selected from all who comment. (Winners must be US residents.)