When my daughter was around two years old, her mother and I simultaneously surfaced the fear-based thought that it was time to wean her from her “pavrer,” her pacifier. We decided on a ritual to both mark and honor what we felt was a necessary transition (necessary for whom? for what?). So one summer Sunday we packed up the car and headed out to the beach. With us we brought a special dissoluble bottle and some paper and crayons. At the beach we explained that we were going to have a “Farewell Party” and that we would be saying goodbye to her pavrer. Amanda was really excited. She loved the beach. Her mother and I wrote notes; Amanda made colored markings on her paper; then we took the notes and together with the pacifier, put them in the bottle and plugged the top. Still excited, Amanda walked with us to the water’s edge. “Let’s say ‘goodbye,’” I said. Amanda smiled and waved as I raised up the bottle and tossed it as far as I could out into the Pacific.
I was looking directly into her eyes the very instant her brain changed her excited smile into a look of shock and horror. And then she began to cry inconsolably: the father she loved and trusted had just betrayed that trust by throwing away the very thing she could count on to calm her down during stressful times. Needless to say, I felt absolutely horrified. In my heart I knew that I’d unwittingly perpetrated a “soft trauma.” She cried as we started home, and with no pacifier to console her, she quickly became exhausted and fell unconscious asleep.
I learned a number of important lessons from that seemingly small incident. One is, that no matter how much we might love and care for the people in our lives, at some time or another our own limited capacities will have us do things that trigger pain and suffering for them. That is a simple relationship reality. And some things we do may seem unforgivable, but that’s a limiting, self-centered perspective; it’s what happens after such events that matters most. Here is a list of a few things to consider in attempting to repair betrayals of trust:
1. A genuine desire to understand exactly what one did to cause or trigger the pain must emerge. Without such a desire, the repair process is difficult to begin. How do I uncover such a desire if I find it lacking in myself? If I can’t or don’t know how, it’s probably going to require me to get in touch with my hurt and anger, my own buried fears and needs, and find constructive ways to surface and express them first. Repair takes courage because the brain is naturally biased towards pleasure and away from pain. Aversion or avoidance strategies abound. Nobody willingly or joyfully turns towards “growth opportunities,” since they almost always involve pain. As grief specialist Alan Wolfelt reminds us, “You have to feel it to heal it.” Faced with that reality, many of us frequently decide it’s preferable to go unconscious, don one of the Dirty Dozen Psychological Defenses or self-medicate in one form or another. Defense is the first act of war, and on either side of the borders of betrayal it’s easy to lose strength of heart.
2. Some betrayals are so complex and painful and deeply rooted that repair may be unimaginable. I’m thinking here about what happens to women in times of war; women and children are always the “civilian casualties” of war. They are left with the traumatic ravages to somehow find a way to live with (soft trauma expert, David Bercelli is someone such women and children have found an ally in). But wars don’t only happen in foreign countries. And as Hillary Adams’s video from several weeks ago shows, they are happening inside thousands and thousands of homes here in America right now. Often with nary a word ever spoken before or after. The Shadow lives mostly in silence in America.
3. Cultivate the power of true contrition. In order for us to take the first steps toward repair, we want to know that a person has learned and changed as a result of their unskillful actions. Contrition is not something someone can simply declare and then have everything be all right. It’s something that has to authentically emerge from the heart and the bones. And neurological change needs to take place in the brain as well.
4. Apply truly restorative justice. Betrayals cast all parties out of heaven. Recall Amanda’s shock and stress and my pained and contracted heart. When possible restorative justice is often best discerned and served up by the aggrieved for the benefit of all. Restorative justice can often result from constructive counseling that insures the decisions we make do not continue the cycle of harm to others or to ourselves.
5. Work to restore the capacity for self-trust. It’s difficult to think of myself as someone who betrays others. Coming face to face with the reality of that experience can shake one’s confidence. Committing to and getting support for compassionate truth-telling and commitment to change can often help restore self-trust.
6. Recognize that true forgiveness is most often an organic, emergent process; if we could all just “get over it” and forgive our trespassers and betrayers, who among us wouldn’t? The cost in not doing so is simply too great. The evidence suggests that emotionally charged traumatic memories, held in the brain and body as “trauma cysts” deplete our life force. Carolyn Myss recognizes that failing to do the work necessary for forgiveness to emerge, results in a kind of energy denseness that ultimately leads to illness. Trauma cysts, wherever they may take up residence in us, need opening, draining, discharge, and reconnection back up to vital living tissue. Once that happens and the emotional charge is fully removed, often all that remains is simply a factual account of what happened. Without the emotional charge amping the memory, often forgiveness and compassion for self and others is simply what gets freed up to emerge from the depths of our all too human heart.
7. Finally, I’d like to offer up a cautious meta-perspective from Byron Katie who explains what happens when the time is right and we refuse to allow the crazy-suffering stories our brain makes up to run Central Command and then cannily seduce us into believing them: “Forgiveness is discovering that what you thought happened didn’t – that there was never anything to forgive. What seemed terrible changes once you’ve (deeply) questioned it. There is nothing terrible except our unquestioned thoughts about what we see. So whenever you suffer, inquire, look at the thoughts you’re thinking, and set yourself free. Be a child. Know nothing. Take your ignorance all the way to your freedom.”