This week marked my one year anniversary of entering an Intensive Outpatient Program for eating disorders and meeting a few of the best people I know. And, wow, what a difference a year makes. I had started going to therapy 8ish months earlier, but it wasn’t until taking a 10 hour a week group dive into unique and shared issues with an amazing group of women, that I really started to recognize how toxic and debilitating my lifetime of anger and resentment had become.
I had a lot of questions, doubts and fears about letting go of that anger, that righteous indignation. I had earned that anger. I was entitled to it. And more importantly, I felt that the people at whom my anger was directed did not deserve my forgiveness (click here for my thoughts on that from a year ago). I recognized, logically, that I was hurting myself more than I was hurting them, but my heart and my feelings were NOT interested in reasonable. To be totally honest, my whole identity was wrapped up in hurt/angry victim mode, so I’m not even sure I would have recognized myself without it.
It has only been 12 months, probably the fastest 12 months EVER, but the Recovering Girl from a year ago could just as well be from a lifetime ago. I feel like such a cliche writing this, especially considering how vehemently I insisted that all of this stuff
wouldn’t couldn’t possibly work for me. I still have plenty of healing ahead of me and I’m certain there will be times when I will feel like that victim again, but at this point it is as hard for me to imagine being in the state I was a year ago, as it was to imagine a year ago that I would be where I am now. I can’t pinpoint exactly when it actually shifted for me, but I believe the following 3 concepts were most instrumental to my growth:
Feelings follow thoughts!
When I was first introduced to this concept, I thought it was one of the most ridiculous and far fetched things I’d ever heard. I love brain science and all, but this one was almost as hard to believe/accept as “diets don’t work.” I thought trying to get myself to believe things I didn’t feel were true was like lying to myself. It was fake. Just like I thought claiming diets don’t work was just a cop-out, because I (and the other 95% of dieters) personally didn’t have the willpower. Eleanor Roosevelt once said:
Do what you feel in your heart to be right – for you’ll be criticized anyway.
My moral compass is based on the things I feel in my heart to be right. How would I be able to trust my direction, my beliefs, my feelings, if they could be changed by merely thinking something different? I hated the idea that I could be so impressionable, gullible even, as to believe anything I think frequently enough. Surely this is also how extremists beliefs come to be extreme. But the radical revelation wasn’t that I could make myself believe beautiful (and scary) new things in the future, it was that all of my current beliefs about myself and my body had come from years of pushing this false line of thought. Thoughts like:
- I’m not good enough
- I am not loved
- I am stupid/lazy/ugly
- I will never be able to live down, or be forgiven for my mistakes
- Everything is always my fault
- Anything less than perfection is not good enough
- If I can’t to EVERYTHING I can’t do ANYTHING
My list of examples like this is a mile long. I allowed those seeds to be planted in my mind and then I watered and fostered them and allowed them to grow strong, thick roots that would override any positive thought I might have had about myself. It took a while, but I eventually accepted that I had nothing to lose in stopping these thoughts about myself, so when they crept into my mind, I would replace them with different, positive thoughts. I still evaluate the negative thoughts sometimes, but I don’t unilaterally assume that they are true. I don’t automatically believe them. This takes time. The thoughts don’t stop right away and you don’t start believing the new, positive thoughts overnight, but I sit here today, believing positive, kind, beautiful things about myself, that I never would have dared to even think before. That can’t be a coincidence.
OPR (Other People’s Ridiculousness)
Some time ago, I wrote down this quote about codependency (unfortunately I didn’t think to write down the source):
“We cannot control how others behave or feel about us. Others are not responsible for our feelings, nor are we responsible for theirs.”
I posted the quote at my desk, to try to remind myself to be authentic, instead of accommodating everyone around me, whether they liked it or not. It wasn’t until just recently that I finally understood the implications of this. Not being responsible for how others behave or feel means YOU CAN’T OWN THEIR SHIT. It is their burden, not yours. I used to do this a lot. I would interpret comments, assume I knew the source or intent and of course know that it had to be my fault, or my responsibility to fix it. Then, in my own mind, I would create a massive issue that WAS about me, but that didn’t actually exist. The truth is that people act badly sometimes. Sometimes they direct their bad attitudes towards you, misdirect their own feelings and insecurities, or maybe actually try to blame/accuse you, but the truth is that none of the effort or corrective action from you will be able to fix an issue that has nothing to do with you. You have to understand that sometimes it is simply “other people’s ridiculousness.” Changing yourself in response to an issue that is not about you will not provide resolution, certainly not in the long term.
Once you have identified OPR, you have an opportunity to be kind, patient and compassionate with them, you might even be able to support and guide them towards the actual source of the issue (as long as you make sure not to carry it for them), which brings me to my last item for today…
LOVE/COMPASSION/EMPATHY > EVERYTHING ELSE
I think the #1 thing that finally enabled me to forgive is EMPATHY (noun, the ability to understand and share the feelings of another). There are obviously always exceptions, but *most* people don’t purposefully set out to hurt you. There are lots of different reasons for this. Sometimes they don’t know any better. Maybe we think they SHOULD know better, but we don’t know what their experience has been. We don’t know why they behave the way they do. We don’t know their journey and their struggles. We don’t know what sandpaper they did or didn’t have to shape them. This reminds me of one of my favorite jokes, which came from a late 90s chain email bastardizing (read: making them funny) popular Zen quotes:
Before you criticize someone you should walk a mile in their shoes. That way, when you criticize them, you are a mile away and you have their shoes.
As many times as I’ve repeated that joke, I never actually used to consider the journey and experiences that led to the way a person behaves. When I look back at my own life, there are LOTS of times when I wasn’t the best person I could have been. I probably don’t even have to look much further than the last week or so. Maybe I was reacting to something current, or maybe the origin of my behavior was based somewhere 20 years ago. Maybe I knew what I was doing, or maybe I was on auto pilot and perpetuating old habits. I’m not perfect, but I know what’s in my heart and I know how devastated I am when I feel like I have caused someone pain. When I feel guilty about things I’ve said or done, I always wish I could explain myself. All I really want is to be understood, to be cared for, to be loved for who I am, not for the accumulation of things I have done in good or bad faith.
I finally recognize that everybody has a story. Everybody has reasons for the way they are. It could be OPR (see above), or a cry for help, or emotional scars, or any other number of things we can’t know about. The only way for me, and all of us, to live in an environment where I/we can be understood and accepted, is to give each other that benefit as well. It might not always be my first reaction, yet, but when I am able to step back from a situation, I find that instead of taking it personally and/or getting angry, I am wishing them closure and healing. I hope for them that they will someday have the ability to step back, identify the true issue and deal with it. It has been, and continues to be, such a gift to me to replace the burden of resentment with the gift of love.