As we drew the curtains on 2015, I wrote a piece called Beating the Self-Compassion Drum into 2016 and referenced Dr. Kristin Neff’s work on treating ourselves as well as we wish to treat others. I skimmed her work then and a few times since; but until recently, I had yet to dive into the deep end of self-compassion. Not because I’ve been splashing in the kiddie pool with water wings, mind you. (Not that anything’s wrong with that). Over the past 8 months, my pen (or should I say keyboard) has been a great source of comfort for me as I’ve ventured into topics such as happiness, gratitude, empathy, creativity, and courage. Now, almost two-thirds through the year, two topics I find equally compelling – and two areas I see as vital pillars to continue strengthening internally – are beautifully and honestly illustrated by Dr. Neff in her book Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself.
While I do find great value in Oprah’s definition “Forgiveness is giving up the hope that the past could have been any different” Neff takes it to another level. (Imagine soaring to a higher level than Oprah! I didn’t think that was possible!) Neff graciously and courageously opens her personal wounds and shares her often-painful journey (as well as her dad’s and grandfather’s too) with such raw emotion, for the benefit of us all. (Obvious spoiler alert: her journey has a peaceful ending with self-compassion playing a starring role). Needless to say, we/humans kind of owe her big time…and I’m not sure a Swell bottle and some David’s Tea will suffice.
Quite simply, I feel compelled to share her words. And in fact, I feel everyone would benefit from hearing her story and absorbing the lessons she shares. But that’s probably too tall of an order for my humble blog.
So, for anyone who wants to understand each other better, forgive, let go, or break a painful cycle…
A powerful excerpt from Dr. Kristin Neff’s Self-Compassion; Chapter 9, Compassion for Others
Having compassion for others doesn’t just involve being responsive to their suffering. It also involves forgiving those who have hurt us. Forgiveness happens when we stop holding a grudge and let go of our right to resentment for being mistreated. It means turning the other cheek – doing unto others as we would have others do unto us, not as they did do unto us. Forgiveness doesn’t mean we stop protecting ourselves, of course, but it does mean that we let go of tit-for-tat retaliation. This includes the emotional retaliation of anger and bitterness, which only hurts ourselves in the long run. Self-compassion makes it easier to forgive partly because it gives us the ability to heal the emotional wounds caused by others.
One of the main ways that self-compassion translates into forgiveness is through the recognition of our common humanity.
When we see people as separate individuals who are in complete control of their thoughts and deeds, it is natural to blame those who hurt us, just as we blame ourselves when we screw up. But when we gain insight into interconnectedness, we see that innumerable factors continually influence who we are and what we do. We begin to see how impossible it is to completely blame any one individual for anything – ourselves included. Each conscious being rests at the nexus of a vast number of inter-woven causes and conditions that influence their behavior. This insight is often the key that allows us to forgive ourselves and others, letting go of anger and resentment and engendering compassion for all.
My Story: To Forgive is Divine
I know that for me, forgiving myself for betraying and leaving my first husband and forgiving my father for leaving and neglecting me were closely interwoven. Before my first marriage fell apart, I had a tremendous amount of judgement and anger toward my father. I would roll my eyes whenever talking about him to close friends, making sarcastic comments about the casual way he abandoned me and my brother. “Free love, baby, no strings attached. That’s the hippie way.” But I had never directly let my father know how angry I was. Our relationship hung on such a tenuous thread that I felt it couldn’t withstand the nearest tug. On our very occasional visits, I typically put on my “sweet daughter” face to preserve what little sliver of father-daughter relationship we had. I would then just criticize him behind his back as soon as he walked out the door. It wasn’t a healthy dynamic, but it was all I could do to cope with my complicated feelings of hurt, anger, and rejection at the time.
And then I ended up leaving John for Peter. Not out of malice, not out of lack of caring, but because part of me was desperately unhappy and wanted – needed – to break free.
I ended up doing what I thought I would never do, hurting and abandoning someone I loved.
After learning about self-compassion at my local meditation centre, I started to gain insight into my behavior and the pain that drove it. I started to forgive myself for leaving John, just as I started to forgive Peter for not leaving his wife for me. My understanding of the heart, of the complications and limitations of being human, began to grow mature. This had a paradoxical effect on my relationship with my father. I started to get even more angry with him.
A few months before I was to marry Rupert, I remember talking on the phone with my dad. Somehow I found the courage to bring up the truth of how hurt I was that he had left me as a child. The equanimity I had started to gain due to my meditation practice had given me the courage. My father didn’t take this newfound honesty well, however. He immediately started to get agitated and defensive. “It’s just our Karma, everything happens for a reason.” “Screw Karma!” I shouted as I hung up the phone on him, collapsing into tears.
Rupert tried to comfort me, but to no avail.
I needed to fully experience my rage, anger, and hurt. Devastating feelings of abandonment and rejection welled up, threatening to destroy me (or so I felt at the time). I entered a very dark place, knowing that the time had come to fully acknowledge my feelings of pain and grief.
At the same time, I was also processing the grief and pain I had caused John. This came to a head after bumping into him at a party thrown by mutual friends. His look of withering reproach stopped me dead in my tracks. I quickly left the party, shame permeating my every pore. My first reaction was to meekly accept John’s reaction as just desserts for my abominable behavior, and to become even more depressed. Luckily Rupert, who had been learning about self-compassion with me each week, was able to pull my head above water long enough for me to take a few deep breaths. He reminded me that one of the reasons I had married the wrong man was because of the insecurity created by my father’s abandonment. I had just continued the cycle of bad decisions based on my intricate web of pain. He encouraged me to have compassion for my mistakes and stop judging myself. I had done the best I could at the time.
This led me to think about what had driven my father’s actions, and to be less judgemental and more forgiving toward him as well. My father was raised by incredibly cold and disconnected parents who were also rigid authoritarians. He never really felt loved, but instead always felt like a burden, a mouth to feed and not much more. His parents didn’t even bother to attend his wedding to my mother, for instance, although they lived locally, because they felt too uncomfortable in social situations. His parents also had no idea how to handle conflict. After my grandmother got in a fight with her son over some laundry, for example, they didn’t speak for thirty years. In terms of my grandparents’ relationship with me, there was none. They never once visited me as a child after my father left, even though they lived less than an hour away. They felt too awkward. To put it mildly, my father’s parents were completely shut down.
But then I had to think about my grandfather’s story. He came to the United States as an economic refugee from Greece at the turn of the twentieth century, traveling through Ellis Island with his parents. (My last name, Neff, is actually a shortened version of the Greek name Nefferados.) He was the eldest of eight brothers and sisters and excelled in the American academic system. He won prestigious prizes in both scholastics and sports, and when he graduated from high school, he had scholarship offers from a number of colleges. The American dream was about to come true. On the day of his high school graduation, however, his father left to go back to Greece, telling my grandfather that since he was an adult now, he must take on the responsibility of caring for his mother and seven brothers and sisters. He was forced to abandon his dreams of college, of achieving a better life, and instead got a job at a gas station to support his family. He worked in a gas station his whole life, even though he eventually owned the station himself. My grandfather never got over this disappointment, and it destroyed him emotionally.
And so it goes. Pain and dysfunction gets passed down from generation to generation. A mixture of genetic inheritance and environmental circumstance ensures that our lives unfold according to a complex web of conditions that is infinitely larger than ourselves. The only way to stop the vicious cycle of reacting to pain by causing more pain is to step out of the system. We need to let our hearts fill with compassion and forgive ourselves and others.
This was, in fact, what I was finally able to do with my father. After he got over the shock of my anger, and was able to regroup, we actually started to have an honest relationship with each other for the first time ever. A year or two after the angry phone call, during one of our rare visits, my father gave me a heartfelt apology. His love for me had never wavered, he assured me. But he just wasn’t capable of giving me what I needed. When he realized that my mother wasn’t the right woman for him and that he had just got himself stuck in a life that was making him deeply unhappy, he couldn’t deal with it maturely. He never had a good example of how to talk through a problem, let alone how to make compromises that balanced his own needs with those of others. He saw himself getting trapped into a life he didn’t want, just as his father had gotten trapped into a life he didn’t want, and he bolted. He didn’t present this as an excuse for his behavior, just as an explanation. I could clearly see how grieved he was about the deep pain he had caused me. Luckily by that point I had already done a lot of forgiving of myself and my father (and his father and his father), as I delved more deeply into the practice of compassion. What was important was that the chain had been broken, and we were now ready to start relating to each other in a new way.
It is important to remember that forgiveness doesn’t mean condoning bad behavior, or that we need to interact with people who have hurt us.
Discriminating wisdom clearly sees when an action is harmful or maladaptive, and when we need to protect ourselves from those with bad intentions. However, it also understands that people are imperfect, that we all make mistakes.
It understands that people often act out of ignorance, immaturity, fear, or irrational impulse, and that we shouldn’t judge people for their actions as if they had full conscious control over them. And even in those cases when people are cognizant of the harm they are causing, the question still needs to be asked – what happened to make them lose touch with their hearts? What wound occurred to lead to such cold and callous behavior? What’s their story?
Being human involves doing wrong at times. This means that to judge one person is to judge all the world. But to forgive one person is to forgive all the world – ourselves included.
Dr. Neff, a sincere Thank You for your incredible wisdom and authenticity. Your words will no doubt give me the strength to live a more peaceful life with more self-compassion in my heart. And I will always do my best to at least try to know what it feels like to walk in others’ shoes before writing their stories. As I mentioned not too long ago in an open letter to my children, you just never know.
In the meantime, now that I’ve dipped my toe into the self-compassion pool, I think I’ll stay and float around for a while.