I've come to understand that the answer for anyone is, Only if you make it that way. Only if you believe it to be. If you interpret things as punishment, if you respond to things with punishment.
Focus on punishment as a thing, and it's a thing. Make it a Big Thing, and it can define your whole reality. (This is true of anything. I like to say that whatever you put under a microscope fills your whole field of vision.)
I think it's profound and powerful for most anyone, raised in most any way, colored by any religious tradition or belief system, to ask yourself if you live in a punitive Universe. I'm serious: Pause. And ask. And watch for what arises.
If you get any whiff of yes, breathe into that. Feel that energy of punishment and castigation in your body, and breathe into that. (This is the pain-body work.) Ask yourself if it's true. (This is the tend-the-mind work.) Ask yourself if you'd like to experiment with the possibility that it's not true. Ask yourself if you'd like to take responsibility for creating a reality that isn't informed by punishment and the whole mess that goes with it (unworthiness, hypervigilance, perfectionism, defensiveness, needing to earn things that are your natural birthright—like love). (Living into that responsibility will be the choose-your-focus work.)
I did a lot of work around this later in life, long after I had consciously declared myself not to be a Christian or to subscribe to the beliefs of the brand of Christianity I was raised with (fundamentalist, or specifically, Southern-Baptist flavored). I started considering the possibility that I still (unconsciously) saw the Universe as punitive when I noticed something important and simple and super-recognizable by a lot of human beings. I realized that I felt myself being punished when things went badly (or not to my liking). I paused, breathed it, asked again (I did this again, and again, and again, each time it arised): Do I live in a punitive Universe?
For me it was the last undoing (with many repetitions) of the long-ago teachings instilled in me (and then presented as Truth, so my attachment to them ran deep even after I no longer consciously intellectually saw them as true). While fundamentalists in the Christian tradition (and probably others) give a lot of lip service to grace, there's a ton of emphasis on concepts that counter grace (and its twin, unconditional love): being inherently sinful, needing to constantly watch for the workings of the ego and somehow eradicate that aspect of ourselves (actually not possible or desirable), etc. There's also the disingenuous (a nice word for BS) "love the sinner, not the sin" thing, which is almost never actually applied with anything that feels or looks like love. If you have no experience with this yourself, ask anyone who's queer who's also been on the receiving end of this so-called spiritual concept.
I took total responsibility to uncover my punitive Universe AS IT LIVED IN ME. I found:
Honestly, as with EVERYTHING else, I've found the undoing is less hard than we think it will be.
The undoing takes wayyyyyy less time than it took to originally instill these wrong concepts in our minds and hearts and sometimes the cells of our being.
The undoing is set up through strong, clear intention (I'm going to notice where I live in a punitive Universe, take responsibility for that, and engage in the undoing), followed by choices now and now and now that align with that intention. (Back to the process described above—catch any whiff of it and pause, so that you can work it on both the body/breath and the thought levels; a few simple questions, just sitting with it till it seems absurd—that's enough to undo one hook right now, in this one moment.)
Nonjudgmental awareness is your best ally in the process: you get to simply notice your own punitive mentality (the punitive Universe you live in) that will always look like typical human stuff—which you therefore don't need to take personally: I'm punishing my partner right now for not connecting with me the way I want connection. I'm wishing horrible things for our so-called president. I'm making my kids feel bad about something instead of having an open conversation in which I invite them to tell me their experience, including what feels off to them. (Thus you could teach them to honor their own guidance system, not follow your beliefs that you keep reinforcing through punitive means.)
Thus, the undoing happens one moment at a time, each moment that the issue presents itself, not by a single unplugging. But people miss the extent to which this is a great process to be in. It's easy precisely because you know exactly when to go in with it (when it presents itself). You basically open the door and look it in the face when it comes knocking. The rest of the time, you're as free of it as you need to be. Ah, the power of NOW. (Thanks, ET.)
I invite you out of any model of a punitive Universe. If you choose a love-based, expansive, forgiving Universe, you get to live there. That too, requires living into your vision, now and now and now.
Please look below where I've given you a clip of writing describing my dear friend & colleague Kelli Younglove's indoctrination into a punitive Universe. I share it because our work together was part of the undoing for both of us. I share it because she may be your right coach. (If you're an Enneagram Two or need support with boundaries, standing strong, or speaking up, she may very well be your gal. She's also gifted with supporting cisgendered men to do their best personal-growth work. And ... she's a powerful, gentle healer.)
love & blessings, Jaya
p.s. An addendum featuring Kelli's writing follows. If you'd like another one from me on releasing guilt to get out of a punitive Universe and back to present time, follow this link.
ADDENDUM FROM KELLI:
Specifically, this is from Kelli Younglove's blog post on a healing she set up using a surrogate listener (when the one she wanted to say things to, in this case a parent, could not hear what she had to say). The part copied below describes her own indoctrination into a punitive Universe:
In 1971, my parents moved to a Bible Institute on the isolated prairies of Alberta, taking me and my sister with them.
Back then, it was the largest Missionary Training Centre in Canada.
Imagine an army barracks with its own school system (everything from pre-kindergarten all the way up to Bible College) and you'll catch a glimpse of my childhood.
The Institute was based on an authoritarian system with a top-down hierarchy that put children on the bottom rung.
And what I experienced and witnessed there (and after) went directly against the church's message of love and forgiveness. Corporal punishment was used to to break children's spirits and force them to submit to the will of the parents.
Signs of independence were commonly met with force.
The loss of self was devastating.
See the entire post here. I love the healing event it describes that could serve any human being who can't get the listening they want from a specific human being—while staying open to getting exactly what they need in another form. You may also want to look around on her blog: there's such good content there.
Why is it that the very people who really show up for their personal-growth work are also the ones who love to lay trips on themselves about how they should be further along than they are? The more they get a handle on the equanimity thing, the more they believe they should be unflappable. The more they clear their judgments and divest themselves of should, the more they believe they should never judge. They're downright horrified when something really throws them off, especially if any reaction on their part makes them feel mean, judgmental, disconnected, unforgiving, sad, hopeless, despairing — go ahead, name your ugly. The shame they then feel (and doesn't shame feel bad enough?) packs a double wallop because they're ashamed of feeling shame. They've been completely bamboozled by this crazy thing they tell themselves, “I should be beyond this.”
If you have any capacity for questioning your negative, critical, judgmental thoughts about others, then please don't believe the thoughts that would dictate a list of shoulds requiring you to move consistently through whatever life brings in the most serene and blameless way. If you've eavesdropped on your thoughts, you know how your version goes. I'd like to make a case that you shouldn't be beyond anything (except, of course, whatever you're actually beyond, and you may forget what that is because it won't be showing up anymore). And if you're capable of ever laying the I should be beyond this trip on yourself, join me now in considering it carefully so that next time you find yourself there, you may see how to show up differently and actually benefit from the experience. (It really helps to look at what we do while we're not doing it.)
It's my belief that life's job is to throw you off and push you to your walls. It will use all manner of creative innovation and maddening redundancy to do this. Listen to yourself go over the evidence (out loud or in your head, again) of all that happened before you lost it. (And then I was going to run back in to get it, even though there wasn't a second to spare, and that's when I learned I'd locked myself out. Of course, this was the moment he had the gall to say. ...) Didn't it take a fascinating sequence of happenings or several things rushing in all at once for you to blow your fuse or let something so important fall through the cracks or go back to feeling depressed or otherwise forget yourself in such a spectacular way? Didn't it involve people or events pushing up against some major button — otherwise stated, something unhealed inside you that's tender and vulnerable and oozing with something ugly that you don't know — haven't yet known — how to clear?
Life's job is to clear your unhealed places. It will do this by creating whatever situation or sequence of events you need in order to have it all brought right up to the surface. When this happens, chances are very good that you'll sometimes React. You'll sometimes behave as the worst version of yourself — the one you may have thought your spiritual practices or personal-growth work or even the simple fact of time made obsolete. This is where you might feel horrible about your response and take it as evidence that you're a bad person after all, that you're not worthy of being a parent (friend, lover, spouse, teacher, mentor, therapist, boss, coach — whatever), that you're a complete failure.
Here's another possibility: welcome the whole experience. This includes catching (but not believing) the thoughts that judge your behaviors and emotions and tell you you should be beyond this. Please don't confuse welcome as meaning bright smiles and joyful feelings. This is not a Tupperware party or a picnic of any kind. But it could be your liberation.
To welcome it, start by simply saying, “I am willing.” If you're not there yet, make it a question: “Are you willing?” Here it is, like it or not. There's not a thing you can undo about this moment or the ones that preceded it and landed you right here. It's good to get to I'm willing in those moments when there's nowhere else to go. And I'm willing can certainly coexist with I hate this and This is not what I wanted. Still, it acknowledges, Here I am.
(Here's a quick illustration in case you need one: If you're walking in the snowy cold and you're not home yet and there's no one stopping to offer a ride, what good does it do to tell yourself the lie that you're not willing? Of course you're willing: here you are, walking in the snow. I am willing puts you back in alignment with reality, it's honest, and it reconnects you to choice — because it certainly is an option to choose that moment to lie down and die.)
Why should you be willing? Because when life pushes you to your walls, those are the moments you get to move closer to the very thing you most want for yourself, speaking on the soul level. It's interesting and maybe ironic that those are also the moments when you feel farthest away from that, and the times you potentially like and believe in yourself the least and see a bunch of evidence accruing all at once for the likelihood you'll never get there. But will you take in this radical thought? This very scenario, all of your reactions and self-judgments included, is precisely the thing to get you where you want to be.
What is it that you most want? Maybe you want to be and live love. How can you do that unless you're willing to show up and love yourself when you feel hideously ugly after you've screamed and yelled at your kids or your lover? Maybe you want to stand consistently in your power. How can you do that if you don't encounter the person or circumstance that makes you wilt and clam up and fail to draw an important boundary? Maybe you want to be and live peace and practice tolerance and forgiveness. How can you do that if you can't pardon your murderous self on death row? Do you want to be self-sufficient? Then don't you need to face the thing that makes you abandon yourself? Then there are those who actually want to reach enlightenment. Wow. Well, if that's you, if there's even one thing left that could make you drop that intention in favor of attacking someone else or yourself, don't you need to bump up against that thing? Wouldn't you welcome it? Are you willing?
Whatever you're trying to get to in this life, all of life will help you get there. It's a blessed fact that this sometimes looks like loving faces beaming at you, things falling into your lap, helpers showing up right when you need them — that's the good stuff. And it's just as true (and truly, just as good) that it sometimes looks like you weeping on the hard stairs or putting a hole through the wall or speaking hate to the one you most love. Sometimes it looks like you all wrapped up in the cloak of shame with no idea how to peel the thing off, and suspecting you deserve it as a permanent outfit. Maybe you could find some nice scarlet letter to embroider on for a nice splash of color. ...
So when you lose it or behave badly or get hopelessly confused; when you go back to whatever version of angry, jealous, mean, vindictive, clueless, or spineless that you thought was way behind you; when you react in any way that feels mean, judgmental, disconnected, unforgiving, sad, hopeless, despairing—go ahead, name your ugly—can you make space for that, too, instead of then turning all of that on yourself? What if this too is admissible as part of the growth process you know you're showing up for? What if your essential beauty is still intact? And what if exactly what's happening, including the worst of what you feel about yourself in the moment, is your one-way ticket home?
love & blessings, Jaya
Out of Guilt, Back to Present Time
When you hold to guilt, some part of you that stays connected to truth will not agree that you’re bad or wrong or suddenly undeserving. And a less evolved, more pleading part of you—needing to object to the injustice—will defend: it’ll defend mentally to self; it’ll defend out loud to third parties or to anyone involved. It’s gotta do something!
Would you like to defend less? Accuse yourself less. Quit believing you’re guilty.
This includes refusing to carry around vague feelings of guilt/self-accusation that never get properly looked at or dismissed. (How I wrote about this in Scooch!: Don’t just swat the fruit flies! They swarm back in and keep hovering.)
So how do you get out of this familiar accusation-and-guilt cycle when you’re in it? How do you just drop a well-practiced default?
I happened upon a brilliant question recently, which does something all by itself to support you to quit swatting the fruit flies. Taking you beyond guilt and defense, it also happens to bring you back to now, and I don’t believe there can be too much of that.
I was innocently riding my bike one morning and noticed I was carrying around something that felt bad, something a bit cringing and small, something clearly not aligned with the present moment! That now-moment was all about a vast blue sky, big, full trees at a positively gloating level of summer foliage, a soundtrack of joyful, singing birds, and just enough freshness in the air to feel skin-delicious on a bike. Why, riding through this scene, would I allow any bizarre, niggling feeling to kind of whine inside me?
So I felt into the sensation. I breathed into it. I realized it was guilt about something I’d consumed that my body wasn’t happy with. In truth, it wasn’t a big deal on the physical level. It just made me feel not my best—okay, it made me weirdly bloated, which I hate—and, if past experience served, it was likely to affect my sense of wellness or ease in my own body for the whole day. It was also true that I know what to put in my body to feel good, and still, I’d made a choice that doesn’t work for my total well-being.
I’m using an innocuous example because it’s ridiculous what we walk around feeling guilty about—and have you noticed that the guilt can exist nonverbally, as a vague sense of being wrong and bad, without having many (or any) thoughts attached to it? Just enough quiet, hissing presence to ruin your peace?
So I rolled my eyes at the guilt (because I also believe that guilt is a liar) and this question came in as I leaned into the left turn onto Utica: How long do I have to do penance for this?
The question was gorgeous. Seriously. Wow. Ask yourself this for the stain on the new shirt, the affair, the forgotten email, the failed job that changed your career trajectory—ask yourself this for guilt of any magnitude, anywhere in your life.
Let me quickly decipher perceived guilt from actual guilt.
Guilt is often not real! That is, when you check in with yourself about what you’re guilty of, you may find that you’re guilty of nothing. Your parent might think you’re guilty for not calling more often, but you’re actually in self-care and choice. Your friend might think you’re guilty for not listening to her ongoing complaints, but you’re actually minding your feeling states, which you rightfully don’t want to turn over to someone else. Your partner might think you’re guilty of not giving something you should know they want, but it’s actually their job to ask and ask again, and yours to give an honest yes or no. I could go on. Let me simply remind you that feeling guilty doesn’t equal being guilty, and that someone else declaring your guilt doesn’t make it a fact.
But if you’re actually guilty—you’ve done something you’re not happy with, as human beings are sometimes known to do—then ask yourself, How long do I have to do penance for this? If you go by the rules of your religious upbringing, or give yourself the treatment doled out by the worst manipulator you’ve come close to, or use any external authority or judge—well, maybe for quite a while. But if you pause and tune in to how long you actually need to do penance to be a valid human being here and now—you’re just done with the whole thing. Make amends if you need to; course-correct however you see to do that; and carry on in present time.
In that moment on my bike, here’s what felt truer than needing to do penance: there was a natural consequence for ignoring my dietary restrictions, which was simply that I felt how I felt, for as long as I felt it. That’s it. I wasn’t suddenly unworthy or bad. I didn’t have to have a bad day because of either what I’d done or how I felt. My well-being isn’t predicated on perfect adherence to an experimental diet imposed on me by me.
No kind of perfect is required for anyone to be worthy of well-being.
Hey, I didn’t end up feeling bad all day. Untethered to a past action, I was set free to act within and respond to things happening in the present moment. At some point, it dawned on me that I felt normal and was having a great day.
Please join me in greater clarity about what guilt does to you, and commit to responding to it more quickly and more consciously:
1) it requires some part of you to defend (so you can stop defending by actually processing your guilt more consciously);
2) it seems to ask for penance—and there's no need! (note: holding on to guilt itself is a form of penance);
3) it takes you out of present time. Now you’re stuck (by yourself, by your guilt), in something that’s past, while the rest of the Universe has moved on. Sure, it could be that some other people haven’t moved on: only because they share your human tendency to hold on to what’s gone by. The rest of the Universe, though, is done with that past moment.
I invite you to play with this question when you face your own guilt: How long do I have to do penance for this? Then you don’t have to accuse yourself or defend, and you’re free to live in present time (where you have the most power, clarity, agency, connection to your guidance system, and on and on).
Love and blessings, Jaya
For a look at whether you live in a punitive Universe, see this later post from July 2020.
Who Are You to Ask Yourself Crushing Questions?
No such thing as a stupid question? Maybe not, but in the realm of self-talk, questions can certainly be most unkind. Sometimes I tell my clients not to ask themselves disempowering questions. Notice the question is disempowering (self-demeaning, deflating, discouraging, unkind) and DROP IT. Approach what you're wondering about from another angle. But another interesting tactic is to answer the questions you ask yourself—especially when they're mean-spirited or sarcastic. Unanswered, they may leave you feeling stuck with the defeating messages they imply.
Who does that?
Someone told me recently about staying too long in an emotionally abusive relationship, making one excuse after another for her partner. She didn't want to give up on him or to declare him unworthy by leaving, so she hung in there for the ongoing manipulations and verbal attacks that eroded her own self-worth. “Who does that?” she bemoaned.
Uh, short answer? Lots of people. Pause for a quick brainstorm, and you'll find more plausible answers in no time:
Better, right? Leaving Who does that? unanswered only leaves in place the clueless loser who obviously fills in the blank. Answer it, and self-compassion comes in—and even points you to growth and healing.
What was I thinking?
You've asked yourself this one, right—in the realm of work or love or parenting? It's another self-scolding question that can invite kindness and bring insights—but only once it's genuinely answered. This question is interesting in that it's actually more helpful to answer it in the negative. That is, consider what you weren't thinking, or what you didn't have in view.
Just a few answers shed a kinder light already. Now you can better see how to course-correct—make amends, invite deeper communication, forgive yourself.
Do I get to have my cake and eat it too?
My client Marie asked me this recently when she feared she was being entitled by quitting a sought-after job (in which she felt her dignity was at stake—quitting was actually a great call). And now, here she was wanting an even better job! The question itself clearly reveals it's not okay at all, in her current mental framework, to want so very much.
For questions like this, drop the metaphor and consider what's really being asked. Try answering these instead:
Marie's loaded version is a great example of how questions to the self can reveal the deep, unresolved stuff people carry around unconsciously. She'd gotten repeating messages in childhood and beyond that life requires working hard, making sacrifices, accepting that you can't have it all, and so on—until she couldn't want more than two things without calling herself unrealistic and entitled! It's so useful to dig this stuff up, give it a good look, and consider what else is possible.
You won't get to the good stuff by leaving a question hanging, though. Are you kidding me? How's that working for you? Take a breath, please, and take a moment to answer the question. You just may land in kindness and clarity.
Love & blessings, Jaya
P.S. My last example leads me to this: I highly recommend The Big Leap, by Gay Hendricks. This book brilliantly addresses the Upper Limits Problem--those unconscious places where we think we've got as much as it's okay to have in any realm of life; where we get uncomfortable and start to sabotage the expansion and integration seeking to support our ongoing journey of healing and evolution and of becoming all that we're here to be!
"Sorry if …” and Other Sorry Apologies
I’m not an advocate of perfection in human relationships, so the purpose of this writing is not to generate more perfect apologies. As a life coach, I often encounter people’s guilt, real or imagined, and I’ve come to have a deeper respect for the importance of forgiving ourselves: we hold ourselves back by holding onto guilt and, thus, holding onto stained, sorry perceptions of ourselves.
Forgiveness is ultimately something to work out with ourselves. When we want someone else’s forgiveness, we really ultimately need our own, and must forgive ourselves whether others do or not. They may or may not forgive us; their forgiveness may or may not come quickly. We’re free when we forgive ourselves; we're free when we don't require their forgiveness to access our own.
That said, in the name of keeping things clear with other human beings, it's a good thing to ask for their forgiveness on the way to self-forgiveness. It does help to know what constitutes a good apology in order to apply it as needed. Quite simply, a good apology is specific, direct, and brief, followed by a margin (perhaps a generous margin) of silence. This allows the recipient to take it in, release the sting of whatever went down, and grapple with their own inner tugging between forgiveness and unforgiveness. A sampling of unappealing, ineffective apologies follows.
Ay. Really? What for? Do you even know why the other feels so stung if that’s all you’ve got? Do you just want the tension to be over? This level of apology often garners a flimsy or false forgiveness. A good apology states clearly what you’re sorry for.
Mea culpa, mea culpa, I’m sorry, I'm sorry, I'm so sorry, I'm still sorry.
A good apology doesn’t grovel. This means it doesn’t need to keep repeating itself, as if you were more worthy of forgiveness if you’re sorry several times over or for a very long time. It also means you don’t need to call yourself names, overstate or inflate your crime, or make yourself small in any way. A good apology is clean and clear, and then it’s over. (That doesn't mean further listening to someone is out of the question! They may want to tell you more about your impact on them, and letting that in as you keep yourself grounded and stabilized by conscious breath can be a huge gift to another.)
Sorry if …
Sorry if I hurt your feelings, for example. Did you or didn’t you? Perhaps their feelings were hurt and you don’t feel responsible for that. Fair enough. In that case, express what you're truly sorry for. You might truthfully say something like, I’m sorry your feelings were hurt by what I said. I didn’t mean to say that in a hurtful way. If you find you want to tell more, ask permission: I’d like to clarify what I meant—May I?
Sorry but …
As soon as but comes in, you’re justifying or defending, and also diluting the force of the apology. Are you sorry? Just be sorry, with that brief, clear statement of what for. If you have more to say about why you did what you did, express that you’d like to explain something. Perhaps something feels fuzzy or unclear or messy or complicated that makes a simple apology feel false to you. It may well be worth a conversation but … the moment of apologizing may not be the time for that.
Another thought is that the defending and explaining could happen with someone else—like a friend who won’t treat you like a victim, or a therapist. I’ve certainly helped clients work out their defensiveness so they don’t feel compelled to share it elsewhere, or can distill it down to a clear message to take to the other party involved. I pay close attention to my own defensiveness and seek neutral help if I need it. As soon as I hear a defense mounting in my mind, I'm motivated to clear it out, because I find defensiveness to be painful and demeaning. It’s nothing to judge: we’re all capable of defensiveness. It’s also not a good idea to let it dictate what you need to tell someone. Work it out between you and you and see if there’s anything left to tell.
Sorry and …
Just because you’re sorry doesn’t mean the other party needs to process with you all this brings up for you about your family of origin and that time you were falsely accused by the fourth-grade teacher who smelled like pepper spray. Gauge how much is said beyond a simple apology by the intention you have for this relationship and its level of intimacy. When you feel the need to apologize to someone not so close, like the customer-service worker you just chewed out because of the maddening robotic loops you got trapped in before she showed up to help, there’s not a lot more needed: she doesn’t need to get you or somehow come to an agreement with you about how understandable the whole episode was. You don’t need to land on the proverbial same page with everyone you apologize to. If the apology is directed to someone you’re close to and intend further closeness with, much more could be appropriate.
Again, look for the right timing—this could involve simply asking--so that you don’t dilute your apology with an onslaught of related issues that the other may not be ready for until they’ve assimilated the apology and landed in forgiveness. You may need to get comfortable with your discomfort about how they perceive you, even as time passes while they’ve got gaps in the story of you.
I'm sorry for my part.
Whether you mean to convey such a thing or not, this reads like shorthand for, Yeah, I had a part, but so did you, and I'm saying sorry for mine, so now you’d better say sorry for yours. (Which I secretly believe to be worse than mine.) When 12-step programs and other excellent sources suggest that you apologize or make amends for your part, this means, step into what's yours and deal with just that. The idea is that you want to take full personal responsibility for what you do that feels off to you or violates your own ethics; and leave others alone to do that for themselves if they will. Apologizing for your part does not mean to do a global reckoning that breaks down all the parts and doles them out on balance scales so that you don’t land alone in the wrong. Apologizing for your part is meant to constitute a whole event, not a part. It’s not the Marco to their Polo.
I once sat with a client who was at odds with herself in seeking to understand her part in a family feud. It was like looking through a blurry lens to get clarity. As she elaborated on her preoccupation with her part, it became clear to me that she was unconsciously operating out of some unexamined, almost cliche idea that it takes two to tango, so everyone has a part, and somehow the parts must be inherently equal. This all amounted to her seeking to beat herself into submission to own up to her part—and as long as that part didn’t look as big and ugly as theirs, she must not be done with the reckoning (or the self-flagellation). Sometimes it’s good to notice the model you’re in, notice it’s just a model, and step outside of it to look again from another angle. Instead of ferreting out her part, it turned out to be far more useful for her to determine what she was and wasn't okay with in what had gone down, and whether she wanted to change her boundaries with her family. Whatever she did or failed to do, what was ultimately needed had nothing to do with locating the right measures of blame or even delivering an apology.
What if you’re tripped up on their part? Things in life just won’t neatly fall into black-and-white, sometimes, will they? You may on occasion find yourself knowing you need to apologize but feeling stuck with your own sting about what the other did in the same scenario. Perhaps as a non-realized human being, however conscious and well-meaning (I’m sure we’re in good company belonging to this club), you can simply be honest and say that you’re aware of where you need to apologize but can’t get past where you need their apology as badly as (or worse than) you need to give yours. This could mean one of those way-past-bedtime conversations, but sometimes it’s really true that (sing it with Elton) sorry seems to be the hardest word. Better to grope toward what needs to be said, murky as it may be, rather than speak a half-meant sorry while swallowing resentment down the wrong pipe.
A slightly different scenario is when it’s hard to apologize to someone because they’ve done this exact thing to you or other not-so-similar things that weigh on you as you helplessly seek to form the apology that won’t take: this is a sure sign that you’re not current. Maybe you’ve been letting things slide that aren’t really okay with you, you’ve been avoiding hard conversations, you’ve been devaluing yourself or holding low expectations of how you get to be treated by others. See if you can locate what allowed this build-up for you and deal with it separately. Could be a long-term project, and well worth your time beyond this moment.
Sorry because they made me.
Did you have in your childhood the kind of caregivers or teachers who stood over you and demanded in their clueless-giant way, “Say you’re sorry!”? If you were trained to mumble an apology on demand that has nothing to do with your inner reality, it’s high time to retrain yourself into something else. There’s nothing gained from the apology that means nothing.
I once heard Byron Katie talk about moving into each new moment with no trace left of what went before. This was during a program on making amends, so she was directly addressing the tendency to get stuck in guilt about past wrongs. What if we really lived that way? What if we gave our apologies appropriately when appropriate, made amends where possible (Katie uses the simple question, How can I make it right?), then truly let go of what we’d done so we could do the next thing, and perhaps do it better?
When we’re small and marred by guilt, we really can’t step into our best selves or interface with others from that perspective. Outdated and unnecessary guilt puts a ceiling on how big we get to be. It limits the possibilities we see for ourselves. It causes weight and density in our minds, in random interactions, in entire relationships. It keeps us from realizing our potential or just plain being as light, free, and happy as it's possible to be.
So how much do you believe in forgiveness? Do you live in a punitive Universe, or one that’s forgiving? Do you need to keep atoning if you don’t like something you’ve done? For how long? Could you be done with it before they are? Are you done yet?
I love the model of moving from one moment into the next without a trace. I invite you to play with it. It could make things feel lighter and more current, which means you get to be present in the moment, showing up as your best self. What’s done is done. Now what’s possible?
I want to close with the Forgiveness prayer (which I created based on some ideas from Marianne Williamson, elucidator of A Course in Miracles). This is recorded in the Notes on my Facebook page if you ever want to find it again. The obvious beauty of this prayer is that it doesn't require you to be ready to forgive—only ready to let the Universe bring in its endless supply of forgiveness, freely given to anyone under any circumstances. There's no issue of merit in the Universe's capacity to forgive. You deserve it, as anyone else does, just because you're here. This prayer can help you get to forgiveness when you're not there yet, and helps make it more tangible and complete when you are. (I offer it below toward the self, but you can equally use it for others.)
I forgive myself. And where I can’t or don’t know how, Universe, you forgive me for me, and hold that while I catch up to it. I acknowledge that it is done. Somewhere beyond time and space, the forgiveness is complete.
Love and blessings, Jaya