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Excerpt from "The Language of Emotions: What Your Feelings Are Trying To Tell You"

by Karla McLaren

Excerpt from The Language of Emotions: What Your Feelings Are Trying to Tell You (Sounds True, June 2010). © Karla McLaren. To purchase the book visit www.karlamclaren.com

The Complex Relationships Between Anger and Forgiveness

Our troubles with anger have prompted us to shove anger into the shadow while we glorify its supposed opposite: forgiveness. Though forgiveness may seem to be much better than anger (and it can be, if anger is merely being repressed or expressed), forgiveness can actually trap people in the first two stages of trauma. When anger is not brought forward honorably, the movement to stage three cannot occur, because there will be no container or boundary wherein that sacred movement can occur. Forgiveness is a beautiful and necessary movement, but it has to be arrived at honestly, and it has to come about emotively. We can’t throw anger out the window and don forgiveness as if were a costume.

The simplified relationship between anger and forgiveness goes like this: anger is bad and forgiveness is good. That’s the simpleminded essence of it. If you forgive your traumatizer, you’re good. If you’re angry at your traumatizer, you’re bad. Forgive and forget, and you’ll be healed. Stay angry, and you’ll be sick. So forgiveness and anger are set up as opposing forces—good and bad, right and wrong. However, if we look at the relationship between anger and forgiveness in a fully resourced way, we find something infinitely more complex. In practice, anger and forgiveness actually work together (and often at the same time) in any real healing process. Though anger and forgiveness may seem to be opposing forces, they are in truth completely equal partners in the journey to stage three. Each has its place, and each can only proceed with the support of the other.

When you’re integrated and fully resourced, your anger will alert you to boundary violations. If you can channel anger properly, you can restore your boundaries and your sense of self—without hurting anyone. When your psyche is properly protected again, you can then forgive the person or situation that damaged you, because you’ll have moved to stage three. You’ll have identified the wounding, dealt with your emotional responses, and restored your psyche to wholeness. The other person might not have changed, and the original situation might not have either, but you will have changed. Your anger will have completed the cycle and moved you into a new position of strength from which you truly can forgive. However, if you try to move to forgiveness before your boundaries are restored, your forgiveness will be incomplete. You’ll still be walking around with holes in your psyche; therefore, you’ll still be in stages one and two. And the rule in the psyche is firm and clear: stages one and two must repeat themselves until stage three occurs. Forgiving from stages one and two—before your boundaries have been restored—will backfire, because it has to.

Forgiveness is not an emotion, and it can’t take the place of one. It is a decision made by your whole self after your true emotional work has been done. You can’t move to forgiveness until your emotions move you consciously through stages one and two, because your emotions are the only things in your psyche that can move energies, memories, and imbalances into your awareness. Your body can hold your pain, and your mind and spirit can remember your pain, but until you know how you feel about your pain, you won’t be able to unearth it. If your pain is tucked very deeply into your unconscious (as traumas usually are), only strong and urgent emotions will be able to dislodge it. Therefore, the movement to the true forgiveness available in stage three often requires not just anger, but rage and fury; not just fear, but terror and panic; not just sadness, but despair and suicidal urges. Real forgiveness is not a dainty or delicate process—it’s a visceral and deeply emotive awakening from a trancelike state. It is, in essence, a return from the dead. Real, foundational forgiveness is a messy, loud, thrashing process of coming back from death into life. It looks on an empathic level like those animals I helped heal as a child. There’s shaking, kicking, grunting, trembling, and spitting—and then it’s done.

Real forgiveness isn’t a polite and teary gesture, made with a bowed head and demurely folded hands. Real forgiveness would never, ever say, “I see that you were doing the best you knew how, and I forgive you.”

No! Real forgiveness has an entirely different take on the subject. Real forgiveness does not make excuses for other people’s improper behavior. Real forgiveness does not tell itself that everyone always does the best they know how, because that’s preposterous. Do you always do your best? Do I? Of course not! We all make mistakes, and we all do things we’re not proud of. Real forgiveness knows this; it doesn’t set itself up as an advocate for the tormentors in your life. It doesn’t make excuses for the disruptive behavior of others—because that sort of nonsense only increases your cycling between stages one and two.

Real forgiveness says, “I see that you were doing what worked for you at the time, but it never, ever worked for me!” Real forgiveness knows that real wounding took place; therefore, real fingers have to be pointed so that real movement through the underworld of suffering can occur. When that real movement has been made, real forgiveness raises you up off the ground, wipes off the spit, pulls the twigs out of your hair, and testifies, “You can’t hurt me anymore! It’s over and I’m free! You have no power in my life!” Real forgiveness is a process that creates true separations from torment and tormentors, and true separations require the proper application of boundary-restoring anger, or they won’t mean a thing. When your anger-supported boundaries are restored again, forgiveness will be as easy as falling off a log. Forgiveness naturally follows the honorable restoration of your sense of self. Anger and forgiveness are not opposing forces; they are completely equal partners in the true healing of your soul.

When people hear that forgiveness is good and anger is bad, they generally do that first kind of demure, head-bowing forgiveness. It looks very evolved and saintly on the outside, but it has very bad effects in the inner world. Forgiveness performed from the unconscious position of stages one and two does two things: it excuses the behavior of others, and it reduces our ability to be conscious and present with the pain we truly feel. When we rush to forgiveness, we lose our connection to our original wounds.

Forgiving before we’ve fully engaged with our wounding only short-circuits the healing process. We tell ourselves we’re done because we’ve forgiven, but the wound and all of its attendant emotions only moves into the shadow. The pain goes underground—and then it goes haywire. I’ve seen, for example, people forgive their fathers from stages one and two and then distrust all authority figures, or create insanely close relationships with people who behave just as their fathers did. The anger moves off the father and then oozes unchecked through their psyche and the world. I’ve seen people forgive their grandmothers before they’ve moved to stage three and then hate all women or all signs of the mature feminine, or enter into relationships and jobs that mimic exactly the emotional atmosphere of their early lives. Again, the grandmother is protected to a certain extent, but the individual and the world he or she inhabits becomes utterly toxic.

When we forgive before we’re done feeling the effects of our initiatory experiences, we artificially remove our gaze from the actual wounding event or person. We lose our connection to our emotional realities and to the wounds we carry, and then those wounds careen and lurch unchecked throughout our lives and our culture. Forgiving from stages one and two creates nothing but more wounding.

In true forgiveness, we return to the original stage-one initiatory moment (to that sense or feeling) with the help of our boundary-defining anger and our intuition-restoring fear. Both emotions move us through imbalance and into understanding, and then they contribute the energy we need to move to blessed resolution. Working with our strong emotions (by learning their language and channeling them, rather than expressing or repressing them) restores our focus and our equilibrium. With the help of our emotions, our wounds become not never-ending tragedies, but specific portals through which we can discover our true resilience. Channeling our emotions properly allows us to arrive whole at the very center of our psyches—and from that place of restored equilibrium, forgiveness is a natural and simple thing.

Jesus said we should forgive seventy times seven times, and I don’t think he meant that we should find 490 people to transgress against us. I think Jesus was trying to tell us that deep wounds require more than just one pass through forgiveness before they are truly healed. Forgiveness, then, becomes a practice in itself. First, we might forgive after a bout of properly channeled fury, and we’ll get our boundaries back—our authentic and honored anger will help us rediscover our strength and separateness.

Next, we might forgive after a bout of consciously welcomed terror, and we’ll retrieve our instincts—our honest and welcomed fear will help us become safer and saner in each day. Then, we might forgive after a bout of deep despair, and in awakening our crushed and broken hearts, we’ll become able to love again—even through pain and betrayal.

I’ve seen this process unfold many times in survivors of childhood trauma, whose wounds seem to wrap themselves throughout their psyches. I always suggest that these people go to the library and find books about the developmental processes that were occurring at the time of their traumas (such as the Your Two-Year-Old or Your Five-Year-Old books).6 It’s fascinating reading, because early trauma insinuates itself into the learning and socialization processes of survivors. Depending on their age at the time of the trauma, people might have trauma responses swirled into their language skills (as I did), their hand-eye coordination, their eating behaviors, or their ability to attach and belong. Trauma at an early age can also predispose the brain toward learning and behavioral disabilities, and even ongoing depressive or anxiety disorders. For childhood trauma survivors, the process of forgiveness is quite lengthy (just as Jesus said it would be), because the trauma grows up with them. There’s not one decisive forgiveness episode; instead, forgiveness is a gradual process of strengthening and unwinding, strengthening and unwinding further, and so on. This gradual process helps trauma survivors separate their innate selves from their traumatic behaviors. Their authentic emotions lead them into their real troubles, and then help them restore themselves to wholeness. Their bodies can safely recall the trauma, while their minds translate freely, their emotions flow unencumbered, and their visions are welcomed. Sometimes this healing process requires the help of therapeutic tribes, while at other times it is a solitary movement, but the process is always totally original, deeply emotive, and stunningly beautiful.

Real forgiveness is an intense healing journey with no shortcuts, no magical techniques, and no road map—it is a soul-making and culture healing process that requires the fullness of a village inside you. Real forgiveness frees people and shoots them forward in consciousness, and that sort of movement only occurs in a resourced psyche where the body, the multiple intelligences, the visionary spirit, and all of the emotions are allowed to move freely. Real forgiveness can’t exist without true anger, true despair, true fear, and true emotional integrity. Anger and forgiveness are not bitterly warring enemies; they are essential and irreplaceable aspects of the process of fully healing and restoring the entire self, and this process can only be undertaken in a soulful, and therefore emotive, way.

Karla McLaren (www.karlamclaren.com) is an empathic counselor, researcher and award-winning author whose groundbreaking work with emotions grew from an early childhood trauma into a practical healing modality. Integrating her work with the study of sociology, neurology, cognitive psychology, and social psychology, McLaren has taught thousands of people through her four books and five audio-learning sets and at such venues as the Omega Institute, Naropa University, and the Association for Humanistic Psychology.

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