Posts Tagged ‘healing’


While the narratives that we tell of our lives define who we are and our place in the world, a story built up around the good bits only does not establish us as plausible human beings.   Since just over a year, thanks to facebook’s  new timeline feature,  everyone is dutifully filling in the gaps and plumping up their narratives with pictures, maps, apps and events.  The facebook sell on it is that it “helps you to tell your story” starting with “born on…”  and  following with images of ourselves from infancy to parenthood and beyond.

The idea behind facebook’s timeline is to help us create a chronological autobiography of annotated photos and posts,  likes and activities so that those who are our facebook “friends” are able to claim a bird’s eye view of our lives and have a fuller and deeper understanding of who we really are, how we got to where we did and who we met along the way.

What most of us naturally tend not to record are pictures of the times we didn’t make it to the finishing line with a big smile on our faces, of the loves that went badly wrong and cost us a fortune in therapy, of the numerous acts of poor judgement (not only in youth) or of the misdemeanours and everyday failings that go to make up a life lived.  We have no pictures of the conflicts we have kick-started, of those that we unwittingly became involved in, of the difficult conversations that we are still avoiding or the wounds that have cut so deep as to be unforgettable.

And yet, these negative experiences are the catalysts of learning and growth that chisel the contours of our lives and provide us with the depth and meaning essential to our development as human beings.   Without this downside,  our virtual timeline courtesy of facebook will never present the full picture and neither we nor our friends will ever attain the promised bird’s eye view of who we truly are.

As a conflict coach, I help people to understand the role that conflict plays in their lives, the conflict patterns that repeat themselves,  their personal conflict responses and the opportunities and potential for change that their particular set of values and strengths inherently hold for them.  While conflict profile assessments are a good place to start, I find working with timelines that record both the negative and positive milestones in life hugely effective in providing the client with an understanding of who they are in relation to conflict and gaining an accurate picture of their conflict profile as it presents itself over a lifetime.

A timeline therefore that reaches beyond the high-days and holidays to record both the negative and positive events in our lives allows us

  • to identify the opportunities that have come our way and the choices that we have made in response to them
  • to identify influential people or pivotal experiences
  • to recognize the significant thread or theme that runs through seemingly unconnected events in our lives
  • to identify behavioral patterns in relationships, particularly as regards managing conflict
  • to see how negative events have influenced us
  • to understand the challenges and stumbling blocks on the way to change

How to draw your timeline:

Turn an A4 sheet of paper broadside and draw a horizontal line along the length of it, leaving a small margin at both ends.  Mark the line off into five-year periods starting at birth up to the present.  Record positive events above the horizontal line by making a mark on the timeline and drawing a vertical line to the text above that names or records the event.  At times you may need to stagger the length of these lines so as to make space for multiple events during one specific period.   Record negative events below the horizontal line in the same way.  Leave enough space in the five-year period for several events to be recorded or for you to come back to and fill in later.  Make it as complete as possible and then ask yourself the following questions:

  • Is there an obvious theme running through my timeline?
  • Is there a single driving force that  has influenced the decisions I have taken in my life so far?
  • What are the important stages in my life?  Which people or events have marked them?
  • What are the turning points and which events have led to them?
  • Where are the forks in the road and the criteria that I used to evaluate my choices?
  • Which negative experiences have not been dealt with?
  • Are there negative experiences that through any act of mine can be turned into positive experiences?

Once these questions have been answered and digested and you feel that you have taken all you can get out of your timeline, use it as a launching pad for projections and planning for the years ahead.  The following questions will get you going:

  • If I am able to choose, where do I want to be in five or ten-years time?
  • What do I need to undertake to get there?
  • Is this consistent with the overall themes of my life?
  • What is your driving force for the next  period in my life?
  • Is this consistent with my long-term goals?

Now that’s what I call creating a fuller and deeper picture.  That’s what I call a timeline.


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When it comes to saving a marriage, forget the great boudoir secrets of the world or all your mother ever told you about the way to a man’s heart being through his stomach  –  US marriage guru Dr. John Gottmann predicts the success or downfall of relationships with astonishing 90% accuracy by simply observing couples argue.

How well we fight and how we deal with conflict even at the very early stages of a relationship is apparently the best indicator yet of how likely we are to be together five years down the line.

From his vast collection of empirical data, Gottmann has identified what he calls the  Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse – four conflict habits that, if allowed to develop, are a sure-fire indicator that you’re on your way to a sorry end sooner rather than later.

1.  Criticism

This is the personality or character-type criticism (not to be confused with constructive criticism) that usually serves to allocate blame and by which we feel fundamentally set upon by our partners.  The usual text begins with generalisations like “you always…”, “you never…”, or specific assertions like “why are you so…?”

2. Defensiveness

This conflict response serves to block off communication, to score against the other through counter-attack or to launch a pre-emptive strike by slipping into the role of the victim.  Typical texts here are “yes, but…”, “its not my fault…its yours”, “I didn’t…you did”.  Out of the victim’s corner one might hear “you’re always picking on me” or “I can’t do anything right”.

3. Contempt

In Gottmann’s view, this is the relationship’s red card and the surest indicator of impending disaster.  Contempt attacks the partner’s sense of self and includes put-down tactics designed to expose or belittle the other, showing one’s superiority, pulling rank, flaunting  status or being openly insulting.  Expressions of contempt include verbal abuse, sarcasm, scorn, humiliation or “jokes” at the other’s expense.

4.  Stonewalling

This conflict response comes in the form of body language:  the partner withdraws from the conflict encounter by turning away physically, avoiding eye contact and withholding the natural signs of communication such as nodding, repeating phrases or words used or making the little noises that indicate that we’re still on track and following the interaction.  It also includes waiting impatiently for the other to get done, walking out on discussions, blanking or ignoring the other, maintaining an icy distance or living in stony silence.

Despite all this bad news, Gottmann points out that the major feature that distinguishes relationship ‘masters’ from relationship ‘disasters’ is their ability to repair the interaction.  This is where apology and forgiveness come into play and where relationships that are based on strong friendship, shared meaning and purpose are more likely to succeed and recover.

So, if you hear the hooves of one of those apocalyptic stallions charging through your living room, be warned.  It might be time to pull out your conflict toolbox and take a good, hard look at its contents and start on the repairs.  Becoming a relationship ‘master’ is hard work but picking up the pieces after the four horsemen have passed through your life, might cost you years.

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“To forgive is not just to be altruistic, it is the best form of self-interest”  Archbishop Desmond Tutu

Like any journey worth the trouble, the first step towards forgiveness is the most difficult.   Once started, it becomes easier if we take it one step at a time and allow ourselves a margin of error, of occasionally re-tracing our steps and of stopping for breath and replenishment.    This seven-step plan is an outline for a forgiveness process that I have used successfully with clients.

  1. The first step is a commitment to ourselves and to our healing.  Forgiveness is about you and for you and is exclusively your choice to  make. Remind yourself that it is not about condoning what has happened or reconciling with the offender. It is a readiness to commit to a new life, free of the burden of unforgiveness.
  2. The second step in the process is to return to the narrative of the harm done to you, to describe it and how it has affected you and your life.  This can be in a piece of writing to yourself or can be told to someone in your trust.  It might also be beneficial at this stage to tell your confidante or to write down to yourself that this act of telling the grievance story is part of your process of forgiveness.
  3. The third step is to write down as many reasons as you can for NOT forgiving.  Then go on to record in as much detail as possible how holding onto unforgiveness is affecting your life.  Add to this a list of your unmet expectations as a result of the harm done to you and follow this up by recording what it costs you to hold onto these expectations.
  4. Now consciously address the grievance and allocate it a resting place in your past.  This means giving up all dreams of a better or a different past.  It sounds easy enough but unforgivers are firmly committed to the “if only” dialogue.   Bann all such thoughts and expressions from your discourse.  The past is as it stands.  No amount of wishful thinking is going to change it.
  5. Next, think of times in your life in which you have wronged, hurt or disappointed others and remind yourself that we are all human and subject to errors and failures.  It is easier to forgive, when we call to mind our own fallibility and when we acknowledge our own weakness and shadows.
  6. Think of new ways of meeting your needs for recognition, love, respect and whatever else you feel has been lost through disappointed expectations and wounding and turn your creative attention and your power towards filling these gaps in your life as you would want to see them filled.
  7. Create a cleansing ritual for your forgiveness.  This could include:  burying the unforgiveness that you have been holding onto and putting it to rest together with an item however small, which symbolises the painful past; gathering and burning your forgiveness writings and so setting free the negative and dark thoughts that have held you; clearing out any remnants of the past that symbolise the unforgivness and your pain; inviting a confidante to share these rituals acts with you.

Forgiveness is about changing your perspective and in so-doing, gaining enormous personal power.  It is about taking responsibility for your happiness and not leaving it squarely in the hands of someone who has hurt or offended you.  Forgiveness is about living your best life not only in the face of difficulties but because of the unique chance of growth and personal development that overcoming difficulties bring with them.

Forgiveness is about re-writing the grievance narrative to include the life-changing power of your act of forgiveness and the new pathways to joy that forgiveness holds for you.

Need anything more to convince you to forgive?

Next week:  Forgiving oneself.


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I have often puzzled over reports of people who have survived years of inhuman hardship at the hands of others yet  have lived the rest of their lives to the full, have built homes and families and found joy and pleasure in abundance. And then there are those who having experienced the same, have spent their lives in misery, bitterness and hostile regret, blaming and revisiting the injury time and again,  burning up their life-force in  a battle with dark and destructive emotions.

The question to myself has always been – which of the two would I be, if I had walked in their shoes?  Where lies the source of this life-affirming energy in the face of such misfortune? And why do many of us tend instead to build an altar to the suffering and in so doing, to entrench it firmly into our lives?

The key to coming out at the other end of much of what human beings do to each other is forgiveness.  I don’t mean the popular admonishment to “move on” or to “get over it”, nor the good fortune of a cheerful disposition or a thick skin but rather, a deep understanding of the meaning and pathways to forgiveness that allows us to leave even the greatest misfortune behind us and despite our suffering, to live well, fully and joyfully.

Is this a matter of spiritual grace, a survival skill or a technique for stress release and if so, why are we so resistant to exploring its potential for restoring balance in our lives?

The reason for our reluctance to forgive lies in the misconception that forgiveness is a sign of weakness, that it requires us to forget what we have experienced, to acknowledge that our suffering was in some way deserved, to relinquish our right to justice and retribution for the wrongs against us, to condone our tormentor’s actions and to let them off the hook.   We are afraid that through forgiveness, we will forgo the recognition of our status as victims of another’s making in the hope that this will bring us relief and satisfy our longing and need to be heard and acknowledged.   This is why many of us hold onto our injuries so stubbornly, revisiting the story they tell time and again and living in a dark state of unforgivness where there is no peace and no joy and where we continue to suffer often years after the actual event.

The truth is that forgiveness does not mean condoning, excusing, forgetting, denying or reconciling with our offenders.

Forgiveness in fact is a voluntary and conscious choice.   Forgiveness does not necessarily mean reconciliation nor does it require either the presence of or communication with our offenders for it to be effective.  Forgiveness is a personal choice to view one’s life and the events of one’s life differently, it is the decision to acknowledge and then to let go of the injuries caused and to allow compassion to lead us towards a lighter and more joyful form of living.

As is to be expected, a conflict tool as powerful as forgiveness does not come as a “quick-fix”  but generally means a long and challenging process that requires great courage, self-awareness and personal insight as well as the understanding that healing comes from within only through letting go of dark and emotionally debilitating experiences.

Set against the consequences of a lifetime engaged in active unforgiveness, it is a journey well worth the taking – as much for our emotional and physical wellbeing as for the lives of those that we touch along the way.

More next week on how to prepare for forgiveness and the skills we need to see it through.




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I recently spoke to a man whose life has had its fair share of ups and downs:  a difficult marriage, an arsenic divorce and a run of unsuitable partners the last of whom took him to the cleaners rather ungenerously as she left.  When last I saw him perhaps two or three years ago he was reeling from the blow, was bitter, miserable, depressed and very much aged.  To my surprise,  he now walked towards me looking great,  open, full of life and buzzing with energy.  I immediately told him what I observed and he said it was because he was happy since having consciously forgiven his ex and that forgiving her had helped him to turn his life around and to move on even though he was still paying off the debts she left in her wake.  This made me wonder where I could perhaps use a little bit of forgiveness in my life and in return tank up on some visible rejuvenation and energy.

Forgiveness was long viewed as a spiritual matter belonging squarely in the realm of theology and philosophy.   But in the last fifteen or so years, researchers and health professionals have started turning their attention towards the meaning and significance of forgiveness for mental and emotional well-being.  Since then, a veritable science of forgiveness has developed with institutes, research programmes and studies in abundance bearing witness to the realisation that forgiveness is not only important for our spiritual growth  but essential to our mental and physical health and is a major contributory factor  in longevity.

Indeed the results of this secular interest in forgiveness have been astonishing:  The absence of forgiveness is that state which sees us holding onto injuries and hurt, playing and re-playing them over and over in our minds until they have soaked themselves into the very fabric of our being.  In this unforgiving state we harbour and nurture feelings of hostility, mistrust, cynicism, anger, bitterness, resentment and revenge and are in constant red alert at the mere mention,  sighting, or even thought of the individual who has caused us to suffer.

In response, the  amygdala floods the body with stress hormones in preparation for the fight or flight response and keeps these levels high as long as the thoughts and feelings surrounding unforgiveness persist.

In this state, unforgiveness becomes a consuming negative life force, sapping our energy and our joy as we focus more intensely on the pain of the past.  Studies show that the resultant myriad of health problems range from weak immune systems to major heart disease, high-blood pressure, asthma,  migraine, depression, serious mental illness and premature ageing.

The good news is that forgiveness has the power to break this downward spiral and allows us to heal both emotionally and physically,  reversing the dark tide of destruction that these negative emotions ride on.

To me this seems a good enough reason to embrace forgiveness with open arms and yet we are often very reluctant to do so and struggle with the process when we do decide to forgive.  Why this is and how we can move out of this destructive state is the topic of next week’s blog.

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I was recently in South Africa, traveling with a keen eye for examples of conflict resolution in this amazing nation.  It was some 15 years ago that this country held the world in awe as it set up the first Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) to provide a forum for perpetrators and victims of Apartheid to confess their transgressions and to ask for and find forgiveness.  The TRC served to heal not only the wounds of individuals involved in violent crimes and transgressions but to heal the nation as a whole. Since then South Africa’s TRC has served as a model for numerous countries coming out of bloody and often prolonged and intractable conflict.

What is it about this country that makes it so naturally suited to reconciliation?  The answer lies firstly in a philosophical concept known as “ubuntu” which forms part of the philosophical fabric of most of sub-Saharan Africa.  Ubuntu is the power of community.   It means as much as “I am because we are” and is the archetypal concept of connectedness.  Speakers of African languages in southern Africa will commonly use the word “we”  rather than “I” when referring to themselves.  An African speaker responding to a ubiquitous “how are you?” is likely to say that he is not well because his mother is ill, his grandfather has died or a relative has lost a job.  This semantic quirk equating “I” with “we”,  reveals a strongly shared sense of community and connectedness so that if one member of the community is ailing, the whole community feels and carries his or her pain.  It follows then that conflict resolution is a community affair since conflict committed by an individual is felt and owned by the community as a whole.

The second reason for this country’s penchant to conflict resolution lies in the conflict resolution traditions of indigenous people in southern Africa like the San and Khoi, also known as the Bushmen.  This nomadic people still practise an elaborate and ancient procedure for resolving conflict which involves not only the direct participants to a conflict but the elders, relatives, friends and even strangers passing by, all of whom are asked their opinion and their thoughts on how best to resolve the matter at hand.   The process is elaborate and can take days of talking, hearing the parties tell and retell their stories, seeking  understanding and providing a space for apology, forgiveness and reconciliation.   In this way conflict is not simply resolved but the individuals and the community in which they live are healed and reinstated with dignity and respect.  This form of deeply layered conflict resolution is considered absolutely essential for survival of the community.

The TRC therefore was built on structures as familiar to its people and as old as this cradle of humanity itself – the concept of “ubuntu” and the skilled traditional practise of conflict resolution amongst people like the Khoisan.

How different would our approach to conflict be if we realised that we were dependent on not only our immediate family and friends but on a far wider community around us?  And how much stronger would our sense of connectedness and self-esteem be if we had an entire community of connected individuals committed to our as well as to their well-being?

Who said there was nothing new to be learned from Africa?

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