Into the New Year – Breaking Your Chains

Posted on January 4, 2013

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I will not be shackled to what once was. Drew Davis

The above quote is from a sermon I heard this past weekend.  The pastor’s point was that we all have past hurts in our lives, that we should not allow momentary hurts to become life hindering issues, and that these past hurts have no strength over us but the strength that we give them.  As he spoke of being able to recall in detail a painful incident from 6th grade, I could flash back to those moments in my own life in which some incident was seared into my memory.  I suspect everyone else in the congregation could as well.  In therapy, I have often pointed out that we all have some amount of trauma in our lives.  A few of us have what I call the “Big ‘T’ traumas.”  These are the life threatening situations or the severe childhood abuse that create post-traumatic stress disorder.  However, we all have the “little ‘T’ traumas.”  These are the smaller emotional wounds that we can recall with vivid clarity years later.  No one gets through life without them.

The idea of making New Year’s resolutions that one cannot possibly keep has become a cliché and fodder for cartoonists.  What if our New Year’s resolutions this year were about letting go of those things that bind us?  What if we refused to let past hurts have any power over us?  What if we got out of negative patterns of interaction that undermine the intimacy of our relationships?  I would invite you to dare to dream for a moment of your life without those old pains and patterns.  Can you imagine it?  Good.  If this New Year’s resolution is going to work, I need to point out a few things.

First, this transformation may require some forgiveness.  There may be some ways in which you were legitimately harmed that you need to get past.  Forgiveness could be the subject of many posts.  It is a deep well and there are many things we might mean when we talk about forgiveness.  The forgiveness I am addressing here is the pain and resentment from past offenses.  As Anne LaMott (1999) observed “Not forgiving is like drinking rat poison and then waiting for the rat to die.”  Forgiveness is for our own mental well-being, not necessarily to offer a pardon for the offense.

  • Forgiveness is not a one-time event.  Previously released resentments can come back when circumstances bring the offending incident to mind again.  This can be particularly true for early childhood experiences and for circumstances in which one is still in relationship with the offender.
  • Forgiveness does not mean that one needs to restore the relationship with the other person.  There may be circumstances in which the other person will never be either physically or emotionally safe.
  • Forgiveness does not mean eliminating the consequences for the perpetrator of abuse.  For example, someone who abuses a minor will still face criminal charges for their crimes.  Forgiveness does not mean not pressing charges or reporting the crime, but not allowing the pain and resentment to poison one’s own life.
  • Forgiveness does not require remorse or repentance on the part of the perpetrator.  With old emotional injuries, one may not be in relationship any longer with the offender.  With wounds suffered during childhood, the offender may no longer be living.

Second, sometimes the past pains stem from our own bad choices or offenses against others.  Letting go of the past pains may require that we forgive ourselves.  In 12 step traditions, step 5 requires that we admit to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.  Step 9 instructs to make direct amends to such people (those we have harmed) wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.  In working with clients, I find that sometimes individuals will continue to experience shame and condemnation even after working to make amends.  Further, it is possible to blame oneself for things for which one is not culpable.  In working with grieving family members, survivors may second guess decisions about treatment for the person who died or be self-condemning over relationship issues with the deceased.  Additionally, some bear feelings of guilt and shame for situations in which they were actually the victims.  In an earlier post (see Three Things – Part 1 on December 9, 2012), I asserted that 1) The bad thing that happened to you was not your fault; 2) The worst thing you did does not define you; 3) The best you could do was the best you could do.

Third, negative patterns in our lives and relationships can stem from our past emotional wounds without our being aware of it.  In my work with married couples, I generally find that distressed couples get into negative cycles of interaction that are really failed attempts by each partner to get their needs met for closeness, comfort, and support.  The negative cycle is fueled by the legitimate needs of each partner.  Distressed couples are not in hopeless relationships, they are just stuck.  Generally, distressed partners know they are in pain, but aren’t aware that it is the negative cycle and not their partner that is the enemy of the relationship.  Some couples understand the cycle, but still have difficulty getting out of the cycle.

This is all well and good, but stopping past hurts from becoming life hindering issues is often easier said than done.  Perhaps you have tried to let go of past resentments and allow old wounds to heal, but the pain keeps coming back.  Reading that you should be able to move past these things feels like one more confirmation of how you are failing and adds to the problem.  We started this post with the metaphor of being shackled.  For most people (excepting Samson pre-haircut), breaking out of shackles would require some tools.  You need a key, a saw, a file, or at least a rock that is harder than the iron in the shackles.  If you don’t already have a key, it might be a helpful if you had some help from someone who has helped others out of their shackles.  Finding your way forward free of the past pain or overcoming negative patterns in your life may require the assistance of a therapist on that healing journey.  The decision to not be shackled to what once was may involve seeking treatment for those emotional injuries and distressed relationships.  It is a new year.  It is a good time to move in positive directions toward healing and healthy relationships.

Reference

Davis, D. (2012). Peace on Earth. Unpublished sermon.  Hope United Methodist Church, San Diego.

LaMott, A. (1999). Traveling mercies: Some thoughts on faith.  Pantheon: New York.

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