Invincible: The 10 Lies You Learn Growing Up with Domestic Violence
RESENTFUL TO COMPASSIONATE
Resentment is like drinking poison and hoping it will kill your enemies.
The lies we learn as we grow up living with domestic violence are all connected. When guilt and shame get buried deep within ourselves they create a self-hatred—we don’t like who we have become. Our childhood belief that “it was my fault,” “there was something with me” so therefore “I don’t deserve any better” translates into a lack of compassion for ourselves, which in turn becomes resentment. If we can’t feel compassion for ourselves, how can we feel it for others? We think, “Bad things happened to me, so why would I want good things to happen to someone else.” And when deep down you want bad things to happen to others, how can you be a good person?
Resentment is part of this toxic cycle; we get stuck. It’s self-blame turned outward, which gets unleashed onto the rest of the world. With that mind-set, we go through life expecting the worst from others and seeking out the signs. In fact, we’ve become so good at it, we’d make great detectives. It’s as if we had a sixth sense, or intuition, about when something bad is about to go down.
It’s a kind of street smarts we developed as children growing up in these homes in order to survive. Psychological and physical street smarts. As child psychologist Bruce Perry points out in The Boy Who Was Raised As a Dog, the traumatized child has already experienced more selective development of “nonverbal cognitive capacities.”1 He or she has learned that “non-verbal communication is more important than verbal.” We learned how to read every gesture, facial expression, each nonverbal cue to prepare ourselves for the next wave of violence. We had to.
But here’s the good news. That intuition is a gift. It’s the tool that can lead to a heightened awareness about others that becomes compassion. Instead of finding reasons to resent those who may have had it easier, our ability to read the bad signs can just as easily be used to find the good in others. When resentment triggers, we can step back, ask a question, and use our street smarts to better understand a situation. As Marina discovered, perceptiveness was the secret weapon that, when used correctly, allowed her to get out of her own head and arrive at a completely different emotional state, where her heart could swell with empathy and compassion. Instead of living under a cloud of bitterness, she was finally able to experience joy.
WHY WOULD A PARENT RESENT THEIR CHILD FOR HAVING IT BETTER THEN THEM?
The first few years of Marina’s life in rural Argentina were in many ways ideal. Her early childhood was full of laughter, family feasts, warmth, and security. Her mother, grandparents, uncles, aunts, and cousins played together, ate together, protected each other, and cherished the presence of this bright-eyed, inquisitive little girl. They taught her everything she needed to know about familial love. They were so close, she even shared a bed with her grandmother, who, along with a beloved uncle, helped raise her while her mother was away at work.
Marina’s dad, Raoul, had left just months after she was born to seek his fortune in America. When her parents met they hadn’t known each other for long, and Marina wasn’t planned. They got married because “in a small town in Latin America that’s what you did when you got pregnant,” but her dad decided it was best to try his luck in the land of dreams. His own family was poor and uneducated, so he was determined to prove his worth and show everyone that he was somebody to be reckoned with.
By the time Marina turned six, her mother wrote to her father and asked for a divorce. It seemed obvious he was never going to be a part of the family picture back in Argentina, so it was time to make that official. But Marina’s dad pleaded with her mother to come to the United States and bring Marina. He told her he was ready to provide a comfortable life for his wife and daughter, and wanted to try to be a family. Marina’s mom figured it would be unfair to her daughter if she didn’t give her a chance to get to know her birth father, so she agreed.
“She didn’t want to have me grow up without a father and have me ask about him later in life,” Marina explains. “She didn’t want me to live without that experience and regret it later.”
By then Marina’s mom didn’t feel much for the man, but at least, she thought, he was trying to do the right thing by his family. An education in America for their daughter would be an added bonus. Marina’s father had fulfilled his ambition and become a success, establishing a thriving catering business in the Northeast. It should have been a fresh start filled with promise. Instead, it was the beginning of a joyless upbringing full of emotional abuse that bred sadness, bitterness, and resentment.
Marina’s dad was a child of domestic violence. But as an adult, he wasn’t physically violent toward his family. He prided himself on never laying a hand on them, and reminded them of this fact often, as if Marina and her mother should consider themselves lucky they weren’t being hit. But his words and other actions were purposely chosen to cause pain in another way. Although he considered himself superior to his own father because he wasn’t physically abusive, the put-downs and reprimands were as constant as they were harsh. It was as if he resented his wife and daughter for having a “better life” than he had experienced.
As Rick Warren explains, many people are driven by resentment. They hold on to their hurt and never get over it. Instead of releasing their pain through forgiveness, they rehearse it over and over again in their minds. But releasing your resentment and revealing your feeling is the first step to healing.2
At mealtimes, Raoul refused to sit down with his wife and daughter and barely interacted with them at home unless it was to find fault with something. They never took vacations together. He never joined in on family gatherings. He was territorial, isolating them from friends in order to “protect” them—at least that was his rationale if ever he bothered to explain his actions. And he was stingy, refusing to give Marina lunch money for school if her mother was away at work. Marina, who was young and not yet able to speak the language fluently, felt isolated in unfamiliar surroundings and was forced to find her own way.
“I would walk home from school in the pouring rain countless times,” she remembers, “because he refused to pick me up.”
ONLY THOSE WHO HAVE SUFFERED CAN TRULY UNDERSTAND SUFFERING
The emotional deep freeze was beyond hurtful to Marina. But her father’s neglect was nowhere near as difficult as the sting of watching him put down her mother. In front of Marina and other people, he would call her a “stupid bitch” and every other foul name he could think of. Marina doesn’t recall any physical violence toward her or her mother. It was nonphysical violence, which is equally damaging.
By the time Marina turned fourteen, the family had moved back to Argentina. Marina’s mother thought the change of environment would do her husband good. It would also give Marina back some of the support system from her grandmother, aunts, and uncles. But nothing got better among father, mother, and daughter. In fact, it grew worse.
“The problem was within him,” recalls Marina. “In his mind, no one had compassion for him; no one wanted to alleviate his suffering, so he had no compassion for himself or others, no empathy himself. He was not aware.”
As anthropologist Sarah Blaffer Hrdy explains, one of the things we know about empathy is that the potential is expressed only under certain rearing conditions.3
Over the next three years, the anger and resentment escalated. Marina started standing up for herself and defending her mother. Her dad’s hostility became unrelenting. Communication took the form of yelling and slamming doors. Although he never hit them, he punched walls and doors, as if to say, “I’m not hitting you, but I could if I wanted to.”
The worst of it would happen when her mother wasn’t at home. Typically, he would push Marina’s buttons in the hope of starting an argument, which usually ended up in a screaming match. The emotional and verbal violence reached a boiling point when she was eighteen. Father and daughter had gotten into yet another argument, during which he called her mother a slut—and Marina completely lost it.
A scuffle ensued, which ended up with her father’s hands around her neck, almost choking her to death. Marina is tiny, about five foot one, and her father was a big man, over six feet tall, yet she somehow managed to free herself from his grip. Then she grabbed the car keys from the kitchen table and ran out, seeking safety with some relatives. The rest was a blur. Her entire body was in pain from the struggle so she took too much pain medication and somehow ended up in the ER, with her father’s handprints still on her neck.
That was it. That fight was, she said, “the culminating moment of all those years of anger and resentment I felt toward him.” She immediately moved in with her aunt, and her mother, who now had a pathway to get out of the marriage, followed her daughter a few weeks after. Marina has not spoken to her father since.
HER BITTERNESS LINGERS INTO ADULTHOOD
Back with the family she knew as a little girl, life got better. Once again, she was in an environment of peace, love, and acceptance. But inside, she felt anything but calm and secure. In fact, she was seething. For the next few years, all she felt was a slow-burning anger toward her father.
“Anytime that scene [of the last violent encounter] replayed in my mind I felt a complete and total lack of control. I was sad and resentful, and I felt those lies even more after I distanced myself from him. All I could think about was the fact that the person who was supposed to care for me and love me the most was doing these things.”
As a result, Marina closed herself off from loving relationships, never quite able to live fully in the moment and quick to react when she sensed someone was about to do her wrong—particularly boyfriends. She consistently picked men who were like her father and became furious with them each time they behaved remotely like him.
Resentment is a buried rage. It’s a bitterness that never seems to go away. Marina’s father suffered from this, and succumbed. His behavior demonstrated that when you are trapped in that lie, you may feel little to no compassion for others. You don’t want to help them because no one helped you. It’s why you have no compassion for yourself. Maybe you don’t want something good to happen to someone else. Perhaps you plot the deaths of those who harmed you. Maybe it’s hardened you into thinking, “I want what I want, and I don’t care about the needs of others.”
As Sonja Lyubomirsky explains, feeling “personally deflated as a result of other people’s successes, accomplishments, and triumphs and feeling relieved rather that sympathetic in the face of other people’s failures and undoings is a poor prescription for happiness.”4
However this resentment manifests, it can linger and fester like a cancer, draining all the color and joy out of life. It’s a toxic emotion that keeps you from moving forward. You can’t release the past, so you’re stuck in it. And that’s why resentment is bottled up old anger, an effort to relive a past hurt.
Unlike anger, there is no outward expression of emotion with resentment. When you are in a state of resentment you typically hold it in, fuming and embittered, consumed by grievances. It’s all about hostility, blame, and all-consuming envy. While anger often results in aggressive behavior in reaction to a perceived threat, resentment is felt after the injury has already occurred. It is not expressed as aggressively or as openly. Anger is an emotion you feel in the moment—whereas resentment is the accumulation of anger that has gone unexpressed. But, as Warren puts it, “Those who have hurt you in your past cannot continue to hurt you now, unless you hold on to the pain through resentment.”5
Resentment is a persistent part of the lie that many children of domestic violence internalize from their difficult experiences. Marina and her father are not exceptions. They hang on to their pain like an unpaid debt, and they try to tear others down—whether openly or in their minds—in the futile hope that it will satisfy them somehow. Marina couldn’t feel joy in others and was constantly finding fault, a reason to push people away. The lie is that they believe they will feel better by making others feel worse; it’s payback for the past. Instead, every harsh word said, cold shoulder given, and praise withheld turns on you, and you end up resenting yourself more each day. You tell yourself no one had compassion for you, so how can you have it for yourself, let alone for another?
The truth is that only through awareness can those who grew up living with domestic violence find the resolution they seek. Compassion is the only payback that will heal and lift them up, because they need to first have self-compassion before they can have it for another. And this comes through awareness. When they start to comprehend what happened, not only through their own eyes but from the perspective of others, this understanding is the first step in taking them from resentment to compassion.
THE ONE FOR MARINA HELPS HER FORGIVE HERSELF
Marina had a boyfriend who, in her words, “had hints of my father,” and she took much of her resentment out on him. She was often skittish and hotheaded, snapping easily. She lived in her head, putting walls up even to those to whom she was closest. She came to realize that she didn’t trust men, believing that if she was attracted to them there must be something wrong. She didn’t want to open up to anyone or make herself vulnerable because she saw where that landed her mother.
Marina’s aunt, a nurse with some experience in family counseling, recognized that her niece’s behavior would lead only to lifelong unhappiness as long as she was unaware of why she acted the way she did. And, for Marina, her aunt became the One.
“This is not your fault,” she told her niece. “What happened is no reflection on you.”
When Marina asked what she meant, she says that her aunt told that, although part of her still believed she had done something wrong, Marina was the child. She should have been taken care of and protected. The rest was not her responsibility. But if she held on to that anger, fear, and sadness toward her father, it would eat away at her.
Marina’s aunt was helping her see the truth that, in Rick Warren’s words, “those who have hurt you in your past cannot continue to hurt you now, unless you hold on to the pain through resentment.”6
This conversation opened the door for Marina to think about forgiveness in a different way: not to forgive for another, but to forgive for herself. It may have been too difficult at the moment for her to forgive her father fully. But as Marina discovered, not forgiving was simply causing her more pain in the form of resentment. She decided that resentment would not be the defining factor in her life. Marina does not condone her father’s actions—or her own. Forgiveness does not excuse. It simply allows you to say (or simply picture yourself saying), “I forgive you for not being the parent I wish you could have been because I understand you were doing the best you could with what you knew.” This process of forgiveness could begin with asking your parents, What was your childhood like? It is among the most powerful questions you can ever ask because it will lead you to an awareness and understanding beyond anything you could imagine. It is the first step toward empathy that will lead to true forgiveness.
Marina often tells herself, “I am not Marina who resents that her childhood was taken away; I am Marina who is smart, funny, friendly, and whom people like being around.” She remembers her true characteristics. She thinks back to that bright-eyed, loving and beloved little girl who cuddled with her grandmother at night. She feels compassion for that child—and this is the key element. If you don’t have compassion for yourself—a desire to take away the pain from one who has suffered—how can you have it for another?
Only those who have suffered can truly understand suffering. Marina realized her suffering was a gift, although not one she would have wished for, but a gift nevertheless. With this realization, she started to live the life she was supposed to lead. She graduated from college and moved to Boston to start a career with an exciting young start-up working with some of the biggest advertisers in the world. Today, when she meets people, she’s open, and not so quick to judge. Fortunately, she’d had enough of a foundation from her early years to remember what it was like to feel happy and loved. When she thinks about it, she knows she is capable of having that feeling again. But first, she had to let go of her resentment.
“Suddenly I realized I had been hurting myself more by being so resentful and directing my anger at this person,” she admits. “It was not my fault. There was nothing I could do about it but to try to grow and heal and make a life that was different.”
Marina now understands that resentment “festers in you and then you direct it at other people who had nothing to do with what happened.” When she thinks about her father, it is no longer with anger. Instead, she feels compassion for him. The domestic violence her father lived with was a constant theme in his life and something he never got over. She forgave him for doing the very best with what he knew.
Perhaps if he had been able to share or had the fortune of having someone who was compassionate toward him, it would have been different. Marina could still be that person missing from her father’s life. It is never too late to tell someone who wronged you, “I forgive you for not being everything I hoped you would be, and I am sorry that you were hurt when you were a child.”
Marina was able to get out of her own head and feel compassion for her father, who was trapped in his own endless state of resentment. In doing so, she developed compassion for herself. As I discussed at the beginning of this chapter, growing up with domestic violence gives you this secret skill: an uncanny ability to perceive what is going on with others—you have a remarkable intuition.
This is not just some blanket statement; it is scientific fact. Developmental neurobiologist R. Douglas Fields, author of The Other Brain, says that, according to recent neuroimaging research, abuse and neglect produce long-lasting changes in the connections between the left and right brain, the amygdala, and the prefrontal cortex.7 One aspect of this change means that the brain is “trained” to constantly monitor the environment for danger. Of course, that’s not entirely a positive. This instinct takes over the conscious mind, resulting in lower thresholds for rage. The altered brain circuitry can also predispose women to more mood and anxiety disorders.8 But that heightened ability to detect a threat is real. The brain is a highly adaptive and plastic organ. Your amygdala detects threats in the environment, so that you can respond quickly. Your hippocampus maps out the environment, forms memories of events, and learns the context of when experiences, like threats and stresses, are likely to be experienced, says Fields.
In other words, you developed this skill from a very early age because you had to read body language and understand nonverbal communication to figure out what the night would bring. You developed this over years, and it’s caused you pain. But, leveraged the right way, intuition can become a pathway toward compassion.
COMPASSION CAN SAVE YOUR LIFE
When you discover the power of compassion, kindness, and empathy, it really is like a physical weight has lifted. Turning resentment into compassion isn’t just a balm for your emotional health; it’s something that could save your life. Psychologist Carsten Wrosch cites a growing body of research indicating that “persistent bitterness may result in global feelings of anger and hostility that, when strong enough, could affect a person’s physical health.”9
A 2001 study revealed the correlation between replaying hurtful memories and the human stress response. Subjects who were encouraged to just think compassionate thoughts, experienced lower heart rates and decreased blood pressure. Compassion fostered better anger management skills, lower risk of alcohol or substance abuse, fewer depression and anxiety symptoms, reduction of chronic physical pain, healthier friendships, and greater spiritual well-being.
Beyond the obvious fact that resentment interferes with the experience of pleasure, the body’s automatic stress response to resentment contributes directly to high blood pressure and heart disease, and weakens the immune system. We can experience muscle tension, body pain, ulcers, rapid breathing, accelerated heart, headaches, stomach problems, exhaustion, and most notably, heart disease. Studies show chronically hostile or resentful adults with no history of heart trouble are 19 percent more likely than their peers to develop heart disease. And they run triple the risk of having a heart attack or dying over the next five to ten years. Why? Because inside, you are seething, distracted by your grudges, plotting revenge. You want to even the score and punish those who hurt you. So instead of letting go of the past, you stay attached to it, obsessed with the offense.
And that’s the burden of resentment: It’s an emotion that holds you in its grip and paralyzes you. In the words of the late Nelson Mandela, a man who lived much of his life in unjust captivity, “Resentment is like drinking poison and hoping it will kill your enemies.”10
Janine knows the bitter taste of resentment all too well. She grew up in an affluent neighborhood just outside Houston and, by all appearances to her neighbors; Janine had a wonderful childhood, raised in a warm, loving, tight-knit family. Her father was a successful cardiac surgeon and took the family skiing most winter weekends. In the summer, she played with her younger sisters and friends in their backyard pool. She learned how to ride horses and took private tennis lessons at the local racquet club. Her bedroom was filled with toys and posters.
WHY MUST TRAGEDY STRIKE IN ORDER FOR OUR COMPASSIONATE NATURE TO REVEAL ITSELF?
But Janine, the oldest daughter, remembers things a little differently. Her parents often fought after putting the children to bed. From her bedroom she could hear them yelling loudly downstairs. One time she heard her own name and began to worry that she was the cause of their arguments. Some mornings, she would find her father sleeping alone on the couch.
One evening, as her eighth birthday approached, she remembers lying in bed thinking excitedly about the upcoming party her mother had planned. Three of her closest friends were going to spend the night and go riding horses at a nearby ranch the next morning. She heard the door open and saw her father’s silhouette quietly enter the room, locking the door behind him. He began kissing and touching her.
Then it happened every night for the next five years. Janine held on to her secret for years; just like the fights between her parents, she had convinced herself that it was her fault. Only when she turned fourteen did she dare to reveal to her mother what happened. By that time, her parents had separated and were in the midst of a divorce.
Relocating to New Mexico and leaving her father behind, the family suffered a steep drop in their living standard as their father contested any kind of financial settlement. While her mother tried to find work, Janine struggled with her feelings. She deeply resented all the pain her father had caused her, as well as her mother for breaking up the family.
“I did everything I could to escape my reality. I was hanging out with the wrong crowd and started using a lot of drugs—and drinking too. I couldn’t get past what had happened with my parents’ divorce. I was very self-centered at that time, and to me it felt like my whole life had fallen apart—the smaller apartment, no more backyard pools, and no more horses. I was so angry but I didn’t know who to blame.” Blame took away all of her power, even numbing her to the compassion that she should have had for herself.
She remembers those years regretfully. She often picked fights with her sisters and her mother. She began deliberately hurting herself, carving small cuts into her wrists with a razor in her bedroom at night. Although she reluctantly entered counseling at her mother’s suggestion, and she stopped the self-mutilation, she remained intensely bitter throughout high school and college, struggling with her feelings of resentment. She developed an aggressive, highly competitive attitude in her studies, which allowed her to get excellent grades, but alienated her from friends.
“I was basically a spiteful person, always holding on to something—that hurt feeling from my past. I remember feeling like people were always trying to take advantage of me. I had a couple close friends, a few boyfriends, but I never really trusted anyone.”
Janine would never get physically aggressive. Studies have found that though men and women report they feel anger for an equal number of minutes per day, men get physically aggressive twenty times more often than women do.11 But inside, she seethed: “People didn’t like me that much. I was too prickly. I’d always find a reason to be angry about something, and every time something bad happened to me, it would be further proof that I was right. I was basically allowing my bitterness to define the path of my life.”
When Janine’s mother was diagnosed with ovarian cancer, everything changed.
Seeing her mother suffer forced Janine to tap into her true nature. Taking care of her mother taught her how to empathize and, eventually, to forgive.
Again, those powers of perception fostered by resentment equipped her to become more aware of her mother’s needs. Learning what medicines her mother had to take, reading the signs of the aftereffects of radiation and chemo, gave her a deep understanding of what her mother was going through. Janine put her perceptive nature to work to help another person; she was there every step of the way to relieve her mother’s suffering, and that helped her to achieve resentment’s opposite: compassion.
The surgery and treatment were successful, and Janine’s mother remains in remission, but as is often the case when faced with the possibility of the death of someone we believe has wronged us, we are able to fully embrace the truth. But we don’t have to wait for moments like these. Fortunately, Janine was able to feel compassion for her mother, and for herself, before it was too late.
“It gave me the wisdom to start seeing beyond my own problems, and my own worries,” she says. “I realized that my time with the people I care about is really short, and I can’t keep holding on to something that happened so long ago. You can’t really live in two places at once, the past and the present, and I just decided that I wanted to focus on what’s happening right now.”
BILL CLINTON’S SECRET WEAPON
When we believe that someone is trying to hurt us—and we want to hurt them back—the only action that will lead to happiness is to develop compassion for them. By choosing this path not only do we defuse a potentially destructive situation but we enhance our self-esteem. We can’t control whether someone is going to try to hurt us, but we can choose to control how we interpret his or her actions and therefore become impervious to the emotional pain.
In his memoir, President Bill Clinton told of his experience growing up with domestic violence. As a young man he was bitter about the position he was put in. He resented others who had peace in their homes. He did not want good things to happen for them. Or at least that was the case until his grandmother told him, “Always want good things for other people. Because if you don’t, it won’t be possible for you to have anything good happen to you. The more you want bad for others, the more bad happens to you. The more you want and let them know that you want the best for them, the more good happens to you.”12
As we’ve learned, the brain finds evidence for what it believes. Clinton believed what his grandmother told him and, with the help of his grandmother’s wisdom, was able to move beyond resentment. But he had the experience of being on the receiving end of the emotional pain of domestic violence and that enabled him to develop empathy. Again, he was putting that hidden gift of resentment—the power of perception—to good use. “I feel your pain,” he would often say on the campaign trail, and people believed him because it was heartfelt. Like his politics or not, he is viewed as one of the most empathetic presidents because he understood people’s pain and wanted to do what he could to take it away, comforting people who were hurt and praising when they succeeded. He was fortunate enough to have his grandmother’s guidance to help him understand the lie and move from resentment to compassion.
YOU ARE ON A HIGHER PLANE
We’ve seen the many ways in which resentment imprisons us in the past, fueling anger, revenge, and envy. It destroys peace of mind. It holds back love. It kills trust. And it fuels self-righteousness, blinding us to our own imperfections.
Of course, nobody could blame us for being resentful. We weren’t given the advantages of a peaceful, loving home, and over the years the resentments we justifiably felt carried into the present—resentments that for many accumulate until they explode into retaliatory strikes against others or self-destructive behavior that swallows up the possibility of happiness. So many children of domestic violence become territorial and vengeful, without really understanding why.
So what can we do to erase the constant replay of old grudges? How can we release feelings of regret and blame, and heal the injustice of what we endured?
As people who’ve endured domestic violence as children, we have the perceptive abilities to see what’s going on with others. So when resentment triggers, if we remember to step back from the situation, we can use those skills to see the bigger picture and cultivate a sense of curiosity about others. The more we do this, the less likely we are to feel resentment and the pathway to empathy and compassion is more clear.
This process can then lead us to forgive ourselves and allow us to dissolve resentment for good. Remember what Cloé Madanes told me: “People who experience an injustice in childhood, one brought on by their parents, feel a spiritual pain that shapes the unconscious. Because of what they experienced, they are able to reach a plane that few humans can, a level of understanding, resilience, and compassion that resides deep inside them.”
Consider this story from Mother Teresa:
I once picked up a woman from a garbage dump and she was burning with fever; she was in her last days and her only lament was: “My son did this to me.” I begged her: “You must forgive your son. In a moment of madness, when he was not himself, he did a thing he regrets. Be a mother to him, forgive him.” It took me a long time to make her say: “I forgive my son.” Just before she died in my arms, she was able to say that with a real forgiveness. She was not concerned that she was dying. The breaking of the heart was that her son did not want her. This is something you and I can understand.13
The stories of Janine, Marina, even this dying woman from the slums of India, highlight the choice that lies at the heart of compassion. In the end, it’s a decision that we must make for ourselves—to cut the ties with the past that allow others to continue hurting us long after the true harm is done. It takes strength to recognize our pain as something that belongs to us alone and to take ownership of it. It takes courage to recognize that hanging on to pain is just a way of punishing ourselves further. And most of all, it takes compassion to rise above our own pain and discover that the people who have hurt us are often deeply wounded themselves. That’s precisely why Mahatma Gandhi believed that “the weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is an attribute of the strong.”14
Janine has taken that lesson to heart, and allowed it to help her grow emotionally and spiritually. She has become a fabulously successful consultant and turned around the bitterness of her past: “I never thought I could forgive anyone for what happened to me—I didn’t want to forgive. But once I took the first step, I felt so much better.
“It’s taken me a long time to realize that most people are carrying around their own pain. When someone tries to hurt me these days, I have a completely different attitude. Before I might have tried to hurt them right back—that was my killer instinct. But now I realize that they have probably been hurt in some way too. That insight—learning that truth—makes me realize that I really wouldn’t want to go back and try to change my life. My childhood happened for a reason and it has made me stronger than ever.”
YOUR FIRST STEP: KNOW FOR CERTAIN AT YOUR CORE YOU ARE GOOD
We all have this compassion deep within us. Anyone who grew up living with domestic violence understands pain better than most and they have the capacity to respond with empathy and compassion toward another who is hurting. It is natural to us. It’s a tool we can use for good. Even though throughout our lives, yours and mine, we have done things that we are not proud of. Things that make us question ourselves and ask, “Deep down am I a good person?” Yes, you are. I say that because I believe that I know how you would answer this question: Would you help a child who was lost in a park?
I took my son to the park to go fishing for the first time. Afterward, we went to get ice cream, and I saw just one table by the lake that was free. It would create the perfect moment. I noticed a person heading over to the table, so I sped over with my son to get the table. But now I had to go get the ice cream. My son was only four, so it was not a good idea to leave him there, but since I didn’t want anyone else to have our table I told him to stay there, and that I would be right back. As I made the decision, I knew deep down that it was not right.
I went around the corner to get the ice cream, and when I came back, my son was gone. As any parent knows, it’s terrifying. All kinds of possibilities run through your mind as you search frantically for your child. I finally spotted him. He had roamed rather far from the table. He was standing next to a man, holding his hand. After my initial relief, my mind flashed with all the negative emotions as I walked toward them: fear, anger, guilt, worthlessness, and resentment. I felt like a bad father, guilty and angry with myself, and had to offset that emotion by casting blame. Why? Because it was my fault for so long as a child, it could never be my fault as an adult. First, I blamed my son.
“Where were you? I told you to stay put. If you hadn’t wandered off this never would have happened!”
As my son stood closer to the man, hugging his leg, my resentment turned toward the stranger. Who was this guy, stepping into my role as father and protector? Shooting him a menacing look, I said, “This is my son. It’s fine. I can take it from here.” I didn’t even thank the man.
But then he smiled at me kindly, completely unfazed by my hostile body language. “These things happen,” he said nervously. “Please excuse me, but that is my bus,” and then he sprinted off toward the bus stop that was about a football field away in the distance.
In that instant, I wondered who this man was who would risk missing his bus to help a lost little boy in the park. And by contrast, who was I to not even thank him? To blame him? Who was I? My curiosity about another person helped me step outside of myself and led me to a state of heightened awareness. Suddenly, all those negative emotions that culminated in resentment just melted away. I realized that immediate reaction came from a past of hurt, making me harsh with others because I was harshest on myself. I was resentful because I lacked compassion for myself.
But now I could see that this man was a good person. He did something selfless, out of kindness and concern for a little boy in distress. So, I had to ask myself, Would I have done the same?
I believed I would stop too. Most people would. I would help a child in a way that I was never helped and so would you.
Take a moment and feel what that man must have felt as his hand held the hand of a child in need, looking into those tear-stained eyes and feeling a wave of protective tenderness. That feeling is your goodness. That is who you are. Deep down we are worthwhile. No matter what happens, that essence of you as a human being that you would stop and do that, no matter what happens in life, no matter how worthless you believe yourself to be. It is hard to deny that you would help that child, especially after what you have been through in your own childhood. That is who you are. It is essential to remember this. You cannot have compassion for others unless you have it for yourself. You are worthwhile and someone should have taken away your pain. The next best thing is for you to take it away, which is exactly what you are doing as you read these words. You now have compassion for what you experienced. That means you can have compassion for others.
From the Lie to the Truth
You are not a good person deep down because you resent others and their happiness. You must live in resentment and bitterness toward those who hurt you, with buried rage eating at you. Your resentment will make them hurt, and you will feel better. You can’t move forward; you can’t release the past and are stuck in a pattern of reliving old anger, triggered by the envy of others.
Because of what you experienced as a child living with domestic violence, you are prone to resentment—the accumulation of anger that has gone unexpressed. In many cases, that anger couldn’t be released in the moment, so you relive it. It then gets channeled toward others. Anyone who had a childhood has something you never had, which can lead to thoughts like, “It wasn’t fair, they don’t deserve it, I hope they fail.” Resentment is a simmering fury that comes from the endless replay of that old anger over and over again.
I am compassionate.
I now know that someone should have taken away my pain, but I also know that only those who have truly suffered can understand what suffering feels like. Because of this I have reached a plane that few humans can reach.
I do not cause pain in others. I naturally want to help take the pain away. This is the essence of compassion.
And since I know that the feeling of resentment causes unneeded pain inside of me, since I know that I am a good person inside, I do not create this pain inside myself by indulging in a feeling of resentment.
I am compassionate, and today if a feeling of resentment comes over me, I immediatly remind myself of these truths.
1. If you identify a feeling of resentment coming over you do two things:
· Remind yourself that you are at your core a good person and recall the feeling that you felt when you imagined yourself helping a child in need. (Or think of the story about my son in the park.)
· Remind yourself that you have reached a plane that most humans can’t; those who have suffered understand suffering.
1. You have an ability to understand what people are feeling and you can activate that gift by cultivating your curiosity and asking a question like, Why do you ask? This allows you to get to someone’s true intent. Use this curiosity to find something to praise or openly admire about the other person.
2. Choose to forgive for your own sake. You can start the process of forgiving others—and yourself—by simply imagining yourself saying the words. You can begin by asking your parents, What was your childhood like? Remember this question is not as much for them as it is for you.