Mastering the Art of Forgiveness
THE WOUNDS TO OUR SELF-CONCEPT
By Dr. Robert Leichtman
What we believe about ourselves can profoundly impact our performance and mood. Talent and effort are still necessary for our success, but factors such as fear, distrust, or discouragement can control how well we connect to opportunities and use our abilities. We must learn to recognize and remove these barriers to our well-being and progress.
Our concept of who we are is a powerful gateway for our humanity. It can strangle the expression of our strengths and good qualities until we are confined to permanent low expectations and discouragement. A favorable sense of ourself will, however, enable us to mobilize our abilities and courage to overcome setbacks and losses.
Many who struggle with chronic recurring anger, fear, or guilt fail to recognize that their real problem is not a dark mood. The issue is larger and deeper as a distortion in their general perception of their strengths and qualities of character. Once we feel that we are weak, incompetent, and unworthy, no number of rewards, reassurance, or achievements can relieve our depression or anxiety. Our conviction that we are inadequate and unworthy will trump any positive experience of success or reward.
Unless we act quickly to reverse these trends, we will begin to move from feeling bad about specific situations to believing we are simply inadequate and unworthy. These limiting beliefs will set the stage for seeing our world as full of obstacles and lead us into a defensive lifestyle where we focus more on avoiding problems than embracing opportunities.
The decisive role our self-concept plays
What we honestly think of ourselves becomes our self-concept. This opinion may bear little relationship to the truth, and yet our belief can set genuine limits on how we act and feel. Whether we believe we are talented or ignorant, charming or clumsy, our self-concept will become the gatekeeper for all aspects of our self-expression. It will limit us to the level of ability and energy we believe we possess. A poor self-concept will put a straitjacket on our strengths and skills, often restricting our ability to think clearly, feel confident, and act assertively.
A poor self-concept will handicap our efforts to master forgiveness. The conviction that we are a failure who will always be unsuccessful and unhappy can easily lead to chronic resentment and discouragement. Until this damage to our self-concept is repaired, no amount of praise, rewards, opportunities, or success will make us proud of who we are or give us the confidence to forgive others or ourself.
Understanding how our self-concept works
Our self-image operates like the transmission in our car that can shift from one speed to another. A healthy self-concept allows us to work in all our psychological gears: creative, persistent, focused, patient, gentle, assertive, and analytical. A dark mood and gloomy outlook will limit us to our low gears of resentment, disappointment, and apathy.
Most people gradually build a stronger self-concept by learning to cope with various challenges and receiving the respect and friendship of others. As we improve our social and work skills and become more successful, we will build a vigorous definition of who we are.
Other, less fortunate, people evolve in the opposite direction. They begin to develop limiting beliefs about themselves instead of becoming liberated from feelings of inferiority and vulnerability. These small self-judgments accumulate so slowly that we may not recognize our decline into a sense of inadequacy. These attitudes can seem so natural that we assume they are the new normal for us. In this way, we quietly redefine our self-concept and accept further limitations on our strengths, achievements, and aspirations.
Turning minor failings and losses into personal doom
The critical action that inflates or diminishes our sense of worth is the quality of our identity and concerns. Sometimes we do this innocently as we begin to identify with our losses, rejections, and failures. No one is immune to these events, but some will mistakenly assume these negative experiences are an accurate measure of our strengths, competence, and worth. We can mistakenly conclude that these bad results define who we are!
Nothing is more effective in creating the feeling we are a failure than accepting excessive criticism for our mistakes and defeats. Most of the time, this criticism comes from us in the form of our obsessive demands for perfection and our overactive inner critic. Of course, others can also rush to dump their dark opinions on us.
This harsh criticism from ourself and others is the glue that provides the fatal connection between a personal failure and our decline into anxiety and discouragement. The process of self-criticism can easily lead to self-rejection and continue to self-destruction.
The healthy person views most difficulties as a challenge instead of being an accurate assessment of our abilities and worth. Mature people understand they need to regard their defeats and rejections merely as a sign they have two choices. They can try again with more creativity and determination, or they can seek an alternative goal. Self-criticism is not a problem when we manage it in this constructive manner.
Once we allow defeat to lower our expectations and mood, we have also damaged our self-concept. This reaction poisons our capacity for courage and assertiveness, leading us to retreat into being more cautious, distrusting, and isolated. As a result, we will risk less, do less, and achieve less. This withdrawal will reinforce our low opinion of our abilities and achievements.
Enter the troublemakers who exploit our insecurities
Accumulating discouragement from our failures is not the only path to developing a poor self-concept. Some people are eager to exploit and control us. They have discovered the secret of turning ordinary people into emotional cripples with low self-confidence.
The key to this manipulation lies in convincing people that their identity is largely determined by factors they do not control. Ordinary people might reasonably believe their life is what they make of their circumstances and creative efforts. However, the manipulators will try to convince you that personal abilities, intelligence, ambition, and faith in ourselves are all trivial compared to what society will impose on us. Matters of our race, religion, gender, and class are more important than any personal virtues and strengths we might have. It is the stereotypes and prejudices of our culture that will determine who we are, not our abilities or accomplishments.
Unfortunately, many eagerly accept this false notion that their discomfort and frustration are due to societal prejudices and oppression. Despite the frequent observation that ambition, talent, and confidence can radically improve the quality of our life, many choose to respond to challenges with resentment and protest. After that, they comfort themselves by blaming society for their limitations instead of doing everything possible to promote their success.
There is a bizarre paradox in this manipulation. Those who are the true oppressors will automatically accuse the current authorities in society as the major manipulators. Thus, if you are poor, they insist that these people force you to stay poor. If good jobs are not available, they are preventing you from having those positions. It is never your fault. It is them! And if you are one of those causing these problems, you should confess your evil status and go away.
These destructive methods are just the latest version of how troublemakers love to create divisions to prepare the way to conquer their victims. They merely give unhappy people someone to blame for their distress, and then these disgruntled people do the rest of the work of destroying society. The true troublemakers will, of course, present themselves as the ones who will liberate the oppressed from their oppressors and restore justice. This dishonest narrative is the core of this dishonest manipulation.
Putting our best self in charge of our life
There is nothing like the support of our best self to provide the guidance and courage to cope with our fears and regrets. When we place greater importance on our dignity and worth than personal comfort, we open the door to meaningful sacrifices and a working relationship with our higher self and its strengths.
The winning combination is a collaboration between the best qualities of our struggling personality and our spiritual potential. This partnership can help us rise above obstacles born of anger, fear, ignorance, and laziness.
The secret to developing this collaboration is to mobilize the strength of the faith we already have. Just as we can walk uphill or downhill, we can have faith in our future successes as readily as possible doom. Faith is a “gear” we have in our psychological makeup that we can use to strengthen our belief in victory for us.
Fortunately, we can apply our faith, expectations, and determination to create constructive change. Building a solid connection with our higher life and its many resources can help us defeat our fears, discouragement, and helplessness. We only need develop the conviction that we have the power to influence much of what happens to us.
This increase of faith in ourself begins with cultivating an opinion of ourselves that is greater than those who think poorly of us. Our ability to think for ourselves must be able to resist those who would force their dark opinions on us. We are not zombies and do not need to act like one. It is quite possible for us to recognize what is right and make our own decisions. We just need to remember to use our capacity to work with the guidance and support of our higher human and spiritual resources.
The rest of the story
Most people seem to assume that what happens to us is the big story of our life. These events reveal the saga of what we become and achieve. But is this what happens?
The other half of the odyssey of our developing self-concept has to do with how well we learn to take charge of our situation instead of passively waiting for something to happen. While old experiences may have injured us, we do not automatically have to yield to anger, despair, or helplessness. We can respond skillfully to our losses, disasters, and traumas as well as our opportunities and successes. We have better options to consider and the strength and wit to act on them if we choose.
Sometimes surviving the day may be all we can accomplish immediately after a major setback. After this, however, we need to be sure that any significant loss, defeat, or disaster does not define our dignity and worth. While some losses may be permanent, we always have other resources to explore and different assets to develop. We can use them to rebuild and repair our lives or find a new path that can be fulfilling and productive.
A successful response to significant losses and traumas is uncommon because imagination, optimism, and courage are necessary to overcome these difficulties. In addition, there must be a fierce effort to reject the great poisons of self-pity, resentment, and despair. This protective effort includes attention to avoiding friends who want to “comfort” us with loads of sympathy and reassurances that feeling helpless and hopeless is inescapable. Taking more time to rest and doing less are their regular advice for progress. Unfortunately, this usually causes us to hibernate in our gloom and avoid any constructive work.
Authentic help will likely come from the opposite direction from those who encourage us to be more optimistic and adventurous. Engaging in proactive plans and possibilities can put us on the road to recovery.
What we think about ourselves can profoundly impact how we engage in our life situations. Our sadness or cheerfulness can act like a brake or accelerator to our assertiveness and quality of life.
As we become more aware of the power of our opinion about who we are, we need to be attentive to how we can sabotage our well-being. Our low estimate of our worth and competence can dramatically undercut our performance. This problem is magnified when we allow our automatic emotional reactions to determine our response to events. Unless we take charge of our life, we can lose control to external events, the opinions of others, and the dominant beliefs in mass consciousness.
We must embrace the higher life within us and its abundant resources. Ultimately, we must concentrate on thinking for ourselves, defining who we are, and being self-determined. These choices will help us access our inner life and its wisdom, courage, and goodwill. These strengths are the antidotes we need to resist despair, anxiety, apathy, and multiple grievances.
- Our self-image is what we honestly think of ourselves after we set aside our hopes and fantasies. Our general concept of who we are determines whether we can express ourselves confidently or hesitantly. If we believe we are inadequate or unworthy, we will likely ignore many of our abilities and inhibit the use of the rest of them.
- Our sense of inadequacy will interfere with our ability to pursue success and happiness. A poor self-image can cause various additional problems as we fail to meet our challenges with all our intelligence, skill, and strength. We are canceling many of our authentic strengths when we hold ourselves back because we believe we are weak.
- We make a significant mistake when we conclude that our worst experiences of failure are also the accurate measure of our strengths and worth. Our losses in life may expose our weaknesses and point out where we need to sharpen our skills and knowledge, but our successes and triumphs reveal our strengths. Those who identify excessively with their flaws and failures diminish the quality of their self-image and reduce their capacity to express themselves suitably.
- Those who seek to improve their self-image must learn to think for themselves to define who they are accurately. Our capacity for self-determination depends on avoiding the common error of thinking we are primarily defined and limited by the beliefs and prejudices of society. Those who surrender to these beliefs also surrender their ability to determine their destiny.
- Consider how we have allowed discouragement, fear, or self-criticism to limit our view of what we can do and become. Do we have some secret fear that we will never be successful, loved, or fulfilled?
- Are we sometimes reluctant to give up some old judgment where we have blamed some person or situation for almost ruining our life? Do we find it unbearable to admit we might be wrong?
- Do we accept the common belief that we are permanently limited and identified by our class, gender, race, or reputation in mass consciousness? Do these factors eclipse your strengths, ambition, and zest for life?
Think on these things
Chapter Seventeen Mastering the Art of Forgiveness WHAT TO DO WHEN FORGIVENESS SEEMS TOO DIFFICULT By Dr. Robert Leichtman Listen to this course The work