I think we can all agree that relationships are the source of pleasure and pain.
Bring on the pleasure.
What can be more rewarding than the pure unadulterated love from a child, the laughter we share with a close friend or the little mental fist pump that comes when we get to work more with a particular classmate or colleague? But if you’re bogged down with relationship issues, it’s hard to tackle day-to-day education and work challenges.
I don’t consider myself to be a relationship expert. That said, I often emphasize with my clients in career transition the importance of relationships – with yourself and with others – as they are so pivotal to a satisfying working life. Heck to a satisfying life, period.
If you’re in active application mode or at a career crossroad, you need the kind of personal power that fuels positive thinking and creative action.
When relationship conflict crowds our heart and mind, we get caught up in the pain – in rumination, in blaming, in anger and hurt. We want to run for the hills. Or curl up in the fetal position. It becomes difficult, if not impossible sometimes to pull ourselves together. We struggle to get up in the morning, to think positively, to go about our day.
If you feel stuck in a deep, dark relationship hole and need some help climbing out, you might want to take a closer look at mindfulness resources as well as some pretty compelling research into forgiveness that comes with practical strategies.
I came across two especially good websites, loaded with resources, while digging out of my own relationship black hole. I’ll share these with you at the end. In the meantime, let me share my relationship black hole story.
How I climbed out of my relationship black hole
A couple years ago, I tucked myself into bed, troubled by conflict with someone important to me. You don’t need to know the gory details – but know that I had spent the previous day or so on the emotion rainbow from angry bull seeing red to black dog depression and back again.
I thought to myself: If only I were in one of those uncomfortable nightmares. I could magically wake up from it and give thanks it was but a dream.
Instead, I knew it was a reality I would eventually have to face and my magic wand from childhood was unlikely to fix things for me. Walking in the forest the next morning with my dog Monster, near the big log I sometimes use as a step machine, I had a flashback to one of my real dreams that night.
I dreamed I was lieing down on the ground. No matter how hard I tried, I seemed paralyzed. Incapable of getting myself up off the ground. And in my dream, I just couldn’t understand it. I was fit. I had strong legs from regular cycling and hiking. What was keeping me down? I recalled fearing being down forever, never being able to walk, or cycle or be physical. I was filled with a sense of dread.
Smiling to myself as I recalled my thought before nodding off, it struck me: Wait a minute. I may be down a relationship black hole and that sucks. But I have all the power I need to get up and climb out.
To do that, I knew I needed to take a hard look at myself and my circumstances. I consulted the great Google Oracle. And that’s when I discovered these two great resources. I’ve bookmarked them. I hope you will too!
Resource 1: Reach – Principle before Profit
The first site I’d like to recommend is Reach – Principle before Profit. Hosted by a UK group of over 65 practitioners in everything from counselling and psychotherapy to meditation and mind-body medicine, it offers hundreds of free resources to support mental health concerns of anxiety, anger, panic, worry, fear, depression, low self-esteem, relationship difficulties or a loss of direction and meaning in life.
I headed right to the video section. From my dark place, this video title called to me: Asking for nothing. Receiving Everything. Seemed reasonable to me. It was a 30-minute meditation. And It pretty much transformed my black hole thinking.
The music was a tad dramatic, but as I was in a high state of drama, it matched my mood. The voice of the narrator, soft, sweet and soothing, bathed me in acceptance and understanding.
Except for the moments when I was sobbing uncontrollably (good therapists bring that out in me), I found the visuals to be breathtaking in their beauty. The rainstorm of tears, like other storms, washed away my stinky thoughts.
At the end of the meditation, I felt ready – to not just get up off the ground, but also to climb out in search of higher ground. To find a way back into, rather than out of my troubled relationship.
Check it out. The lengthy list of research articles and blog posts are easily searchable by topic, as are the video meditations which you can filter by length of time at your disposal. It’s not for everyone, but if you believe in the power of mind-body healing and want to save some money on therapists, bookmark this one
Resource 2: The REACH approach to forgiveness
The second resource is the one I was looking for in the first place. My colleague who specializes in positive psychology Tayyab Rashid had mentioned to me the REACH approach to forgiveness, by Everett Worthington, a University of Virginia professor of psychology.
Worthington is a research scholar and leading international expert on forgiveness, beginning his investigations in the 1990s. Read his bio and you will be convinced he knows his subject not just from over 25 years’ research, but also from tragic life circumstances, truly deserving of his need to forge a path to forgiveness. His research is part of the growing body of positive psychology research related to character strengths.
Worthington distinguishes between two kinds of forgiveness – decisional and emotional. Decisional forgiveness is what we do when we decide in our mind to forgive: “ok, I forgive you, let’s get on with life”.
When we decide to forgive, we may or may not be letting go of associated negative emotions. But we are letting the other person off the hook, thereby increasing the likelihood of repairing the relationship damage.
Sound familiar, all you married folk out there?
Emotional forgiveness is a more fulsome experience that involves replacing the negative emotions with positive feelings like compassion, sympathy, and empathy.
Worthington’s research shows that emotional forgiveness delivers health benefits. It reduces stress and can lead us out of broader mental health problems such as anxiety and depression.
His site contains free downloadable journal articles that expand on his research and highlights his many books on the topic. He also provides two practical step-by-step exercises to approach both decisional and emotional forgiveness: one for forgiving others and one for forgiving oneself.
The acronym REACH is a 5-step process for forgiving others and is summarized in Table 1. The 6-step process for forgiving oneself is set out in Table 2.
Both of these tables are from the REACH approach to forgiveness, by Everett Worthington. You can do these steps in your head. But I found it helpful to do them on paper, as writing helps me to work things out and wrestle with my inner demons.
Much as I wanted to stay in denial and blame “the other”, I decided my first target of forgiveness was me. Moving through each step, it became pretty clear to me that in our war of words, I had pulled a few nasty punches of my own. With a renewed perspective, I was able to be open and honest with my friend, but in a caring way, in a way that honoured our relationship and restored trust.
What can you do about your own relationship black holes?
It’s 2021, the start of a new year. New year, new you, right? Don’t worry. Be happy. Not an easy task after coming through what was the year from hell for many of us.
As we jump back into our everyday lives, online for many of us, we need to extend forgiveness both inward and outward.
For our own sake, we need to find a way to forgive at least the petty crimes – the words that land on us like an insult, the online check-ins that exclude us, the crazy-making emails that are just not worth the sacrifice of peace of mind.
And we need to gather the courage to confront the greater relationship challenges, like the prof who never returns our email, the family member who keeps letting us down, the romantic partner who is slipping away, or the boss we just can’t seem to please.
Perhaps the hardest part of getting up from relationship pain, the rock that weighs us down, is the blame we place on the other person for what we perceive as their role in causing us pain.
To paraphrase a really corny cliché: we really can’t change others, can we? We can only change ourselves.
By taking responsibility for our part, by replacing negative emotions with positive or constructive ones, we open the way to forging stronger relationships.
And we don’t live our education and work lives under the weight of a big fat rock. We grow and flourish.
Fortunately, many of our everyday conflicts don’t get to the point where forgiveness is necessary, but they sure can fester to the point of dysfunction.
I aim to tackle in future posts more on strategies for day-to-day and crazy-making conflict, a topic on the minds of many educators and employers as they assess your team skills and emotional intelligence.
How do you deal with conflict? Do you forget, forgive or fume? If you have any suggestions for specific topics, don’t hesitate to make a comment or fill in my contact form.
May the power of mindfulness and forgiveness be with you in 2021. And may all your relationships be rewarding.
Table 1: REACH - An Approach to Forgiving Others
REACH is an acronym for five steps in a forgiveness process. Download and print the Forgiveness Workbook to put your thoughts down on paper.
R is for “recall”— remembering the hurt that was done to you as objectively as you can.
E is for “empathize”— trying to understand the viewpoint of the person who wronged you.
A is for “altruism”— thinking about a time you hurt someone and were forgiven, then offering the gift of forgiveness to the person who hurt you.
C is for “committing”— publicly forgiving the person who wronged you.
H is for “holding on”— not forgetting the hurt, but reminding yourself that you made the choice to forgive.
Table 2: An Approach to REACH Self Forgiveness
This process includes REACH, but focuses your energies first on yourself! Download and print the Forgiveness Workbook to put your thoughts down on paper.
Step 1: Receive God’s Forgiveness. First, make things right with what you consider sacred. For many, that will be with God. But others might feel they have offended humanity or offended nature.
Step 2: Repair Relationships. If you’ve hurt people, try to pick up the pieces.
Step 3: Rethink Ruminations. Sometimes regret and remorse dominate us because we are feeling a bit perfectionist. We can rethink those unrealistic assumptions. Then, to create more personal peace, follow these three steps.
Step 4: REACH Emotional Self-Forgiveness. Apply to yourself the steps to REACH Forgiveness.
Step 5: Rebuild Self-Acceptance. Accept yourself as someone flawed but precious. Often talking with someone is the key.
Step 6: Resolve to Live Virtuously. Make up your mind not to make the same mistakes again.