This article will highlight some main points I discussed with Michelle, a woman who has been on the journey of self-development for years. She separated from her husband of 9 years three years ago. She's read books, been through classes, watched seminars, all of it - that's how she found me. However, she's hung up on forgiving her ex for being "such a piece of work."
At the beginning of the session, she thinks the marriage ended because he was an alcoholic narcissist. He did not believe he was an alcoholic, which worked well for him. Michelle was codependent. She says she lacked safety, follow-through, and reliability from him.
She was attracted to him because she was in an area where people partied and were into drugs; Michelle wasn't. She tried a military dating site, as suggested by her friend. She connected with him a couple of months before he was deployed but didn't meet in person. They developed a relationship over the ten months he was away. He called himself "The Man," boasting loyalty, security, divorced father, and family man, which she liked. She was 32 and wanted a family and was happy he already had one. They soon married when he came home.
The marriage started to end for Michelle when she was pregnant with her second child. She describes herself as a "typical military wife": going to school, working, and raising a family. He was partying and coming home late, blowing money while she was holding it down at home. Michelle felt like she was doing everything by herself though she was married. She still has pain from it.
I ask about Michelle's childhood. Her mother was into drugs, and she grew up in a household of addiction and neglect. Her ex-husband was her mother in another life to Michelle. Michelle didn't grow up with her father, and many step-fathers and father figures abused her. She has forgiven her mom and is wondering why she cannot forgive her ex-husband. She thinks she can't because she gave her all for such a strong connection but feels like he didn't choose her. He didn't choose to be the family man. Neither her mom nor her ex-husband chose her.
When it comes to forgiving others, most people focus on the other person, but we need to forgive ourselves. And that is always the hardest.
To do that, we need to focus on the Worst Day Cycle, where we relive our trauma. The two most challenging pieces of the Cycle are shame and denial. Michelle felt powerless as a child as the Cycle shows an adult will do anything not to feel that power vacuum again. That compulsion kicks us into denial. To overcome it, we have to admit we are the problem. Realizing her part was incredibly difficult for Michelle considering she did everything she could. Yet she chose it, and she chose him. Ultimately she is responsible for that choice.
Secondly, she must remember he's just like her mother. So if she forgives him, she also forgives her mom. Michelle says she feels like she's forgiven her mom, yet that's where her hang-up is. Michelle first noticed her mom's alcoholism when she was in junior high, throwing up in the garden. Michelle always felt like the mom of the house, keeping everything together by cleaning and taking care of her siblings. Even as a child, she's making these choices.
Thirdly, we pick the abuser role. The lack of forgiveness for other people is a lack of forgiveness for ourselves. As a child, Michelle is doing everything though it's not her job. Michelle defends it as "the right thing to do," which is a defense mechanism. True, what she did was kind and loving, but it became suppression and repression of herself. The "right thing" for Michelle to do at that age is to play with her friends. She hasn't accepted it wasn't her responsibility, and she never permitted herself to be a child. She needs to admit it wasn't the right thing to do and mourn it.
Michelle says she thinks there are valuable things in those behaviors that made her who she is today. She is correct. In all our trauma, we get gifts, but we must separate what gifts work for us and what gifts work against us. For example, being codependent worked against her in her marriage, as she was codependent as a child. Michelle wants to hold on to her sense of righteousness, but the behaviors she learned are maladaptive coping skills. This holding onto the feeling of righteousness has now a chemical addiction in the body. I call it the "trauma gut," which keeps us repeating the past because we know it. When we stay with abusive people, we unconsciously become manipulators because we pick it and allow it, and yet we deny our responsibility for our choice.
Some of Michelle's benefits for picking her ex-husband were: making her feel like the stable one, the responsible one, she kept it together, and she was a good person. But, unbeknownst to her, she wasn't picking him. She was picking herself. She chose an unreliable person because she wanted to be reliable like she was in her childhood. She's unconsciously trying to teach herself to be that for herself. Choosing him gives her another advantage. She never has to be vulnerable with someone like him - so she was safe. Michelle was not aware that he behaved precisely how she wanted. He's a gift. He was providing her the opportunity to heal her unforgiveness to her mother and reclaim her authentic self.
Michelle is discovering gratitude, self-love. She feels like her heart is opening up and questioning if his behavior is forgivable. But Michelle needs to forgive herself for not being able to get her mother sober and responsible.
Denial is a long process with layers. The key with the layers is that whenever Michelle feels rage towards them, the anger is towards herself.
Michelle still has venom for him because she's in denial and hasn't forgiven herself. And when she forgives herself, her self-esteem will rise, and she will love herself. You can only do what you know. When you know better, you do better. She did the best she could at each point in her life.
Seeing how dark and broken you are is freedom. It's self-esteem, confidence, and self-love. Then you will have no reason to protect your denial and play the victim.
Michelle does not like when people say "I can't" and make excuses for not doing things. She doesn't let her kids say "can't." Yet she came in to see me because she couldn't forgive her ex-husband. She is the one who "can't." She can't forgive.
Michelle is very confident in herself. She will lose weight when she needs to, get a better job when she needs one. Yet Michelle says the one thing she is "having a hard time working through" is this forgiveness. She wouldn't say "can't." She also couldn't be a child. She couldn't love herself. She is controlling the exterior to feel like she has control of the interior. She pursues external success as a mask. The most wealthy are the most broken and in denial. It's very prevalent in our society.
The bottom line is: all of us are perfectly imperfect and fill that imperfection in different ways. None of us are good or bad. We are just doing the best we can.
Michelle feels the lack of forgiveness physically in her body, in her chest. So we tried something called tapping. I had Michelle think about a place where she felt total peace and comfort: it was Fiji. It was late morning, and she's underwater with snorkel gear. The water is blue, 85 Degrees, with beautiful fish and coral. She smells nothing. It tastes salty. She hears swishing and pops. She sees purple coral, white and shiny coral. Brain coral is where she sees the most peace, a purple, wavy, and smooth coral. When she thinks of this place, she feels balanced, free, and light. II encouraged her to use one word to describe this scene. She chose: flow. Switching gears, we go back to the resentment and unforgiveness that she feels in her chest. On a scale of 1-10, she feels a 7. She feels tight, clenching, and fury. I had Michelle close her eyes and focus on those emotions, trying to get her to a 10. I gently tap Michelle's forehead, chin, temple, and collarbone to release the tension, tightness, fury, anger, and clenching. I grab Michelle's wrist, we take a big breath together, and have her release and say "flow." Immediately after, she says she's at a 5. She felt the feeling move down to her stomach. She feels like it's not supposed to be there like it wants to come out. I go through the tapping again, saying mantras for her to release the bad feelings. I retake her wrist, have her take a deep breath, exhale, and say, "flow." Now she's at a 2, still in her stomach. It feels trapped. Michelle says she felt trapped in a toybox when girls trapped her in there when she was little. I go through the tapping again, releasing the sense of being trapped, claiming victory over all of it. I take her wrist, we take a deep breath, and she says, "flow." She's at a 0. She feels like her arms are branches. She feels tall, buoyant, happy, light, and free. Nothing is bothering her. We go through the tapping one more time, exclaiming her freedom and claiming all the emotions she told me she feels—breath in, breath out, flow.
Michelle now feels above everything, like nothing can get to her. Yet, she can imagine something getting to her and being OK with it. Michelle feels she doesn't have to take judgment personally anymore. She can now invite in imperfections and see them in herself. Michelle can be safe, reliable, and accepting of herself now. She can feel them.
I encourage her to write down her emotions every day. I ask her to continue tapping herself, affirming the positive things to herself. There are things she can do on her own to continue her development. We have plenty of time in our day to love ourselves and correct these things.
We finish with an idea for Michelle to choose herself. She's not sure what that means yet since her old patterns are codependence. I talk to Michelle about what she's wearing. We discover she likes to be classy, elegant, and comfortable. Michelle likes to hike because it's calming, connects with God, and likes repetition. It's hard for her to see these things and let herself see herself from her childhood - she's used to being a protector. She had to dissociate from what she likes to be, whatever someone else wanted, so she was not permitted to accept what she enjoyed as a child. So she needs to do that for herself in adulthood. This will help her be available for herself and thus pick available men. Just from us talking, she learned a lot about what she likes that requires no one else.
Michelle truly knows who she is. She has to spend time and allow herself to see it and let it in. Michelle got the powerful feeling of feeling light, free, tall, and above it all from the session. She has experienced the weight of the world on her shoulders her whole life, so she says it's huge for her. She says taking the blame off others is, in a strange way, freeing for her. It's never about forgiving them. It's about forgiving yourself. There's a lot of good in even Michelle's situation, and she's able to see it now.
We love based on where we are in our lives and do the best we can with what we know at the time. And that's OK.
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