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Shame and Forgiveness
By Jay Tropianskaia on April 5, 2017 in Gestalt Perspectives

A client of mine once shared with me that one of the most important things that was said to them in their therapy was that not everything can be forgiven.
 
I recently took part in a discussion about forgiveness. In the room were both spiritual people and psychotherapists. Someone raised the question as to whether or not forgiveness exists. We were from many different countries and looked up the definition in several languages coming up with words like to pardon, to give mercy. Each definition seemed to hold inside of it a dynamic where someone bestows forgiveness on another. We spoke about how important the concept of forgiveness has been for social regulation, to prevent revenge which is so much a part of human history. Was the concept of forgiveness built into our humanity to keep us from releasing our suppressed anger and desire for revenge?
 
One of our group members comes from Russia and shared with us the Russian expression around forgiveness which is: Understand and forgive, suggesting that once we understand what happened we can dissolve the blame. Someone else suggested that this might lead to acceptance which is different from forgiveness. The spiritual people felt strongly that the concept has an essence that went beyond words, having for them a sense of grace and beauty.
 
My clients tell me stories of childhood in which unforgiveable things were done to them. Sometimes they long to be able to forgive just to release themselves from the burden they carry. Why do we carry the burden of another’s actions on us. I believe that what is missing is not the action of forgiving, but the acknowledgment that harm was done. It is the lack of confirmation of the harshest realities we witnessed, survived, and knew to be true that follows us throughout our lives creating doubt that underlies our own self-worth.
 
In the absence of confirmation of what we see and know, the outcome is self-blame and shame. We can carry the shame of our abusers, the shame of our parents, our family shame without realizing that the shame belongs to another. Children uniquely refuse to see the shame in an alcoholic parent’s eyes, or the shame that lives in the atmosphere where children are abused, but they feel the shame as their own. Even as grown ups we become reluctant to return the shame to the shamer and to allow them to feel the consequences of their action so that they might feel the healing power of remorse.
 
Because of this pattern of confusing our shame with the shame of others, I believe that it is self-forgiveness that is essential before any other. Self-forgiveness is the hardest to achieve. It means that I can recognize that how I responded in situations where I was blamed or shamed was the best I was able to do given the lack of support from any other action or behavior. It means I can recognize in children that real vulnerability belongs to them.
 
I often suggest to my clients and students to really look at children, and they report how surprised they are to see that a child of 9 or 10 is very small and easy to hurt. I also give this homework: Whenever you catch yourself telling someone something “bad” that you have done, add to the end of the sentence: And I forgive myself. Do this for a week and simply notice what it feels like. Like any Gestalt experiment, the feeling that comes to you after is the right outcome. When I did this myself, I noticed it first, a certain numbness and disbelief in response to the words. It seemed to take time to begin to feel the feeling of forgiveness inside me.
 
-Jay Tropianskaia, Director of Training
Copyright Jay Tropianskaia 2017