Monday, September 28, 2009

Forgiveness: Deconstructed and Re-Fashioned

By Amy Phillips-Gary

Being brought up a Methodist, I listened to many Christian teachings in church about how vital it is to forgive.

Each Sunday we asked to be “forgiven for our trespasses” and were also taught that God forgives each one of us for our sins; that Jesus died for our sins was certainly made clear over and over again.

We were all supposed to follow Jesus' and God's examples and forgive.

The beliefs I formed about forgiveness were rooted in the notion that one person (or group) is to blame for whatever “bad” thing has happened and that the forgiver is undertaking a very selfless act.

To me, forgiveness came off as quite a lofty action. It is a gesture of grace extended to the person who was “wrong” or hurtful.

Unfortunately, beliefs like this about forgiveness did not encourage me to actually do it.

What I retained from my years as a Methodist are not necessarily the way all Christians believe-- and they aren't necessarily good, bad, right or wrong. This article is not meant to be a critique of Christianity or any particular religious teaching.

The point here is to take a closer look at how my previous beliefs about forgiveness-- which might be similar to yours-- kept me stuck in the pain of the past.

From that place of awareness, we all can then open up to releasing and clearing the past and moving ahead toward the lives we want for ourselves and our world.

The Forgiveness Tradition Deconstructed

There are certainly elements of wrongfulness and shame linked to forgiveness in its predominant understanding.

A clear "bad" person and “good” person are involved in whatever happened-- a perpetrator and a victim. There can be something secretly gratifying about pointing a finger of blame at another person who cowers in his or her “wickedness” in a corner somewhere.

Especially if you are hurting and the actions or words of this other person were directly linked to your pain, blaming and then granting forgiveness can seem very powerful-- in a (dare I admit this?) self-righteous way.

The only problem is, the facade of power can become alluring. The focus can become limited to the “bad” actions and the damage that seemed to result instead of on truly letting go.

Unfortunately, this focus leaves us caught up in the past.

Another block to forgiveness also plays out as resistance to letting go.

To forgive might be a Godly act, but it can appear that someone “gets away” with whatever the harmful behavior was as a result. Anyone who has ever experienced hurt or betrayal knows how important it can feel for your difficult experience to be validated and acknowledged.

There is nothing wrong with standing up and declaring “I was hurt” or “This is not okay with me.”

The trouble lies in the intense attachment to the painful event. This not only stands in the way of forgiveness, it cements all involved-- including the person who feels hurt-- in the past.

A Re-Fashioning of Forgiveness

For the time being, set aside everything you might believe about forgiveness. I know, this can seem difficult but give it a try anyway.

Ask yourself which is more important to you: Continuing to re-experience and solidify the pain and the past or clearing yourself so that you can live more fully in the present as you create a freer and happier future for yourself?

It can be as simple as asking questions like this.

Keep this priority at the forefront of your consciousness as you decide your next step toward forgiveness.

You can practice forgiveness on a moment-by-moment basis. Tune in to what you need right now. Acknowledge what's true for you and make the completions you are drawn towards.

Above all, love yourself enough to forgive and release.

You might find it helpful to create some affirmations. For example: “I love myself enough to release the past and open up to my desired future. I easily forgive others and myself.”

Find words that positively resonate for you and keep you lined up with what you want. Write them down and speak them aloud as often as you need to.

When it comes down to it, forgiveness has very little to do with any other person but you yourself. It is an assertion that you are ready to release the pain and torment and begin to live the life you want to live.

Forgiveness is truly a gift you give to you. It is a deeply empowering and self-centered-- in a wonderful way-- kind of act.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Are Your Emotions Making You Sick?

By Amy Phillips-Gary

...It's just emotions taking me over...” sang the popular 1970s pop group the Bee Gees.

I bet that just about every one of us has experienced a wave of emotions that seemed to literally take over.

It might have been fear or panic so intense that nothing else going on could be perceived. Or it could have been a surge of pleasure or happiness.

Our feelings can be pervasive. They can also make us sick or, conversely, support and promote health and well-being.

There is a connection between emotions and physical health that is being documented in scientific studies.

Medical scientists at UCLA found that the stress hormone, cortisol, suppresses the body's ability to produce an enzyme that is essential for cell health and the effective functioning of the immune system.

As you probably already know, it is the immune system that can fight off nasty things like flu, colds, diseases and even cancer.

And, studies aside, we've all probably experienced this mind-body connection up close and personal in our own lives.

Late last week I came down with some nasty symptoms-- throbbing head, achy all over, low energy, chills and even vomiting.

At first glance, it was obvious that I had a flu. But when I take a careful look back at the days leading up to this illness, there's another way of understanding it.

It is quite probable that I literally made myself sick.

Days before these symptoms temporarily knocked me out, I had been feeling bad about myself. I was feeling sad, ugly, inadequate and generally very low. And the next day, BOOM, I get sick.

Could there be a connection?

I think so.

Letting emotions off the hook for a moment...

Let me back up for a minute. I am not proposing that emotions are to blame for physical health problems.

Instituting a good/bad dichotomy whereby certain emotions will keep you healthy and others will make you sick is not going to benefit any of us. This presumption could lead to an attempt to ignore or push down those feelings that are not deemed positive.

It is nearly impossible to truly ignore away those unpleasant emotions. Efforts to suppress them are not going to promote health either.

Emotions are just energy. Defined as “affective states of consciousness,” our emotions are tied in with our thoughts, beliefs and perceptions.

If you can start to see emotions are merely powerful energy and leave behind the good/bad labels, you can begin to make peace with them-- and I mean all of them.

Making peace with where you are is a great way to allow your emotions to process and then release. It is the tendency to hold onto or become stuck in difficult emotions that can add to stress which then can manifest as illness and disease.

Practice emotional self-checks...

When you stay tuned in to how you are feeling and what you are thinking and believing, you can know when a potential tidal wave of angst is building within you.

Too many of us simply aren't present with our own selves much of the time. It's in this state of auto-pilot that we often get caught unaware by challenging feelings that we then feel helpless to do anything about.

Try this emotional self-check instead:
Before you get out of bed in the morning, simply listen to your thoughts and notice how are feeling. Repeat this during a mid-day break in your daily routine and then again before dropping off to sleep at night.

When you discover feelings, thoughts or sensations that disturb or trouble you, pause and look more deeply at what's going on. Be inquisitive and resist the urge to judge yourself or become fearful.

It can be quite a powerful act to interrupt your usual habit of pushing ahead with your life and, instead, acknowledge that you feel sad, irritable, angry or afraid.

Your next step could be to ask yourself what you need to soothe yourself about this. The answer might be a very specific action, or it could be more questions.

You may discover that particular beliefs about yourself, others or your situation are fueling your intense emotions. If so, it can be helpful to ask yourself if you absolutely know that these beliefs are true.

Often, the reminder that a belief or thought might not be accurate is enough to create space for new perceptions of a situation.

As you listen to yourself and follow through by meeting your emotional needs as best you can, you will probably feel improvement and some sense of relief.

You might not jump from depressed to joyful, but be sure to recognize those positive movements and continue to build on them.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Thriving Because and In Spite of Past Traumas

By Amy Phillips-Gary

Way too many of us have experienced trauma in our pasts.

It looks different for us all, but the effects can be quite similar.

When trauma happens, it almost always leaves a mark. This can be a deep and multi-layered wound that never seems to fully heal.

The challenge for those of us who are survivors of trauma is to recognize where we are and what has happened, but not get so caught up in the past that we remain stuck there.

The language we choose to talk and think about our past traumas reflects and sustains the beliefs we have about ourselves and our ability-- or inability-- to move toward the future we want.

The emotional and even physical sensations of trauma tend to stick with you and re-surface when triggered on anniversaries or when similar conditions arise.

Past trauma can affect our relationships, our capacity to succeed in the workplace, our health and our overall ability to live the lives we desire.

I am a childhood sexual abuse survivor and a date rape survivor. For years, these labels were at the forefront of my conscious mind. I needed them to be.

For a long time it was my priority to prove to others how insidious sexual abuse and rape are and also that a person can survive these atrocities and be a “normal” person in a loving relationship able to parent children with safety and healthy nurturing.

I worked with different therapists over the years and completed exercises in The Courage to Heal Workbook. I found support and felt empowered at “Take Back the Night” marches. And I talked and cried a lot with my partner, close friends and family.

It has been a long, winding path of healing for me-- and I know it's not done. I have no doubt that there are more layers to acknowledge and that there is further processing and releasing ahead.

What do you call yourself?

It used to be a point of contention for me to assert to others that I am NOT a victim of anything; I am a survivor.

Behind this assertion was an insistent sense of taking back my power.

I defied those who violated my boundaries and body as I claimed that I survived. As much as this contention helped me, I can also see why others feel an amount of soothing when they call themselves “victim.”

Yes, there are just words.

They do not alter the fact that particular acts were carried out in particular ways. But depending on the meanings we attach to them, these specific words can make all the difference in our ability to move ahead and release what happened.

If there has been a traumatic event in your past, think about the labels you apply to yourself. There can be value in just about any label-- as long as it is one that does not cause you further pain and as long as you don't become so attached to the label you are limited by it.

What do you want for your future?

I no longer find it so crucial to call myself a survivor. Instead, I prefer to see myself as a thriver.

To me, thriving is the next step. I am no longer satisfied by merely surviving the trauma of my past. I intend to thrive despite and because of what happened in my experience.

As I expand my view, I can see that there is a lot that has happened in my life-- including and not limited to the sexual abuse and date rape.

I do not want to, and probably could not, erase the past and return to pretending that these traumas did not occur. But I am less focused in on them these days.

Today I can acknowledge the richness and vastness of my life up to this point. I can also create a vision for the future I want for myself-- partly because I am consciously orienting myself toward that vision.

Yes, there are times when I feel fear, sadness or grief that connects to my past. When this happens, I allow the emotions to surface and I am especially gentle and loving with myself.

As a thriver, I don't spend more time than I need to there.

Changing the language you use about your past may seem to be pointless to you. And if it is merely a linguistic exercise without an accompanying shift in belief, you will probably not benefit from the improvements you seek.

I believe that words-- when backed up by belief, expectation and action-- are powerful. Take an honest look at your life and the labels you use to describe yourself.

In which direction do they point you?

Monday, September 7, 2009


By Amy Phillips-Gary

Change is inevitable.

Change happens all of the time, every single day for each of us. No matter how boring and predictable we think our lives are, we-- along with everyone else-- are in constant flux.

Time passes. We get older. Seasons change and the Earth evolves.

In our day-to-day lives, changes are happening too-- on mundane levels as well as those more radical.

We finish one project at work and move on to another one. We make career changes; we end marriages or relationships and we eventually fall in love again.

If change is all around us-- and happening constantly within us-- you'd think we be quite comfortable with it.

Why do so many of us fall apart in the face of change?

I tend to get bored easily, so one might assume that I thrive on change. Not so. I have a habit of becoming nervous, fearful and even controlling when changes are afoot in my life.

There is something about change that feels utterly out of my control-- and, frankly, it is to some degree.

Changes taunt us with an allusion of powerlessness.

I think that this is one reason why change has been so difficult for me in the past. I am reminded of not only my mortality, but also how small and insignificant I am.

I don't mean this as a put-down. Every single one of us is truly very small and insignificant.

At the same time, I believe we are all inter-linked and extensions of an over-arching whole-- Source Energy or God. We are all-powerful, amazing beings even as we are tiny little specks in an immense Universe.

Whether or not we stand tall and confidently move forward toward what we want in life or crumple to the ground and stay stuck in a defensive posture is totally up to each of us.

We can be both directed and allowing. We can be in charge of our lives while, at the same time, we also let go and move with the flow.

Sometimes the false comfort of what we've always known and done causes us suffering and makes us resist change.

As much as a habit or tendency hurts you or the ones you love, you might stubbornly cling to that way of being simply because it's what you know.

Too often, we stay in jobs, relationships or situations in which we are not thriving (or worse) only because we are terrified that we can't come up with anything better.

And who can blame any of us?

We look around and admit that, yes, we are unhappy and dissatisfied. But there is a dark, blank unknowable quality to the alternatives we dare to consider.

There is a certain comfort in being miserable where we are-- and so we tend to stay there.

Stay Present & Focused

Being in the present moment is one way to stop resisting change and begin flowing with it toward what you want.

When you notice you are anxious or worried about changes going on, ask yourself if you are present.

Too often, I project myself into some future place of my fears when I am faced with the unknown.

Instead, I could notice what I am doing and consciously bring myself back to the present.

I can choose not to plan or cast ahead too far into the future when I feel overwhelmed or powerless.

I can remind myself of the decisions I can make right here and right now. And I can release my anxiety about all of the rest.

At the same time, I can also keep myself focused on the vision for what I ultimately want.

When faced with a change, create room in your attention for a clear vision of the outcome or experience you'd like to have.

You can be where you are, making decisions in the here and now. And you can also maintain a vision for what you'd like to encounter next.

After all, if you are charged up and excited about your future and you keep making choices that line you up with that future, it's less likely that you will drag your heels or short-circuit your own efforts.

Stand Behind Your Choices

So many of us speed along toward a goal and then encounter some obstacle (often an unexpected change) which seems to throw us totally off-course.

We then may feel insecure about the grand vision we had. The excitement is shattered and we often feel lost and, yet again, powerless and ineffectual.

When this happens, it's time to check in with yourself and decide what you want to do next. As you do so, stand behind your choices.

No matter how much of a mistake you think you've made, stand tall and confident with dignity and have the courage to get back on the path you were on or turn toward a new one.

Yes, change happens.

And isn't it wonderful that no matter what a moment or situation is like, it can always get better?

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Everybody Needs a Teenager...

By Amy Phillips-Gary

We've all heard about (or lived with) the stereotypical teenager.

As young people navigate that threshold between being a child and an adult, there are those angst-filled, confidence-testing and sometimes downright harrowing years that fall roughly between the ages of 13 and 18-- give or take a few years.

I live with a wonderful teen. He is loving, caring and sensitive-- at times. He can also seem, to me, to be difficult, stubborn, disrespectful and even arrogant-- at times.

The thing about teenagers is there are occasions that they seem to know each and every button to push to make you crazy.

It might not be a dear teen in your life that appears to cause you unending irritation and exasperation. Your partner, neighbor, boss, parent or even an acquaintance may seem to have a knack for ruining even your best days.

I believe that everybody needs a teenager (or irritating partner, boss, neighbor, etc.) because this is the person who has the potential to help us expand, grow and move closer to being the person we each want to be.

Without that beautiful irritating person in our lives, we might not make the changes we've been wanting to make.

It's not about you.

As much as any of us DON'T want to hear this... nobody can make you or me feel bad, irritated, angry or upset. We do all of this to ourselves.

There is always an element of choice in how to take in what's going on and how to respond.

When my teen is having a grumpy day and his growling spills over onto his brother, his dad and me, I get to choose how I will greet his grumpiness and behavior.

I could take it personally and interpret his words as an insulting or degrading comment about me. I could also set aside any judgments or knee-jerk reactions I might have and simply address what's going on.

Without labeling my teen in any way, I can make requests for a change in his behavior or tone of voice. I can ask him what's going on, how he's feeling, what he needs to feel supported right now.

I can listen more than I lecture. And I can be honest and upfront about what I expect from him.

When you come upon someone who seems to be directing his or her anger or criticisms your way, stop and pause before responding. Ask yourself if you absolutely know it's true that this person is singling out you in his or her annoying.

Then decide what you need from this situation and this person. From as calm a place as you can reach, make it clear what you need and stay open to listen to what the other person might need.

When you really listen, you might be surprised. And you probably will gain a deeper, clearer understanding of the person and what's going on.

Well, ok, it is really about you.

...But not in the way you might be thinking.

On another level, when you get triggered by something another person says or does, that's a sure sign that it is about you. This doesn't mean that every time my teenager gets angst-filled or snarky I am to blame.

What it means is the fact that I quickly and easily go to a place of irritation and annoyance with him indicates that there's learning and growth for me in this situation.

Sometimes the person pushing your buttons exemplifies a point of contrast for you. He or she is making a choice that is absolutely NOT what you want for yourself.

This can be a wonderful moment for you-- or not.

Spiritual teacher Abraham points out that those blessed people who seem to cause us such consternation are actually those who help us to expand in ways we've only dreamed of.

Once you see what it is you don't want in the choices of your button-pusher, you can take notice and then turn toward what you do want.

Many of us, unfortunately, get caught up in the trap of continuing to fixate on what we don't want as demonstrated right before our eyes and thus we intensify our irritation and usually the conflict escalates.

As great as it is to be with people who agree with us and make the same lifestyle choices we do, such an environment does not always encourage expansion and growth.

It is by recognizing the contrast in situations with others, that you can more easily decide what you want for yourself and then orient yourself toward what you desire.

And you can also decide to love yourself and even those irritating people for who we each are... beings trying to discover our own personal paths to greater awareness, wholeness and fulfillment.