The lost art of joy – Loving yourself again

How many doctors does it take to change a lightbulb?

That depends on whether it has health insurance.

None of the lightbulbs in my house have health insurance, but that’s not why I don’t like changing them. I’m just not the handy-man type, that likes to climb around on ladders, pulling off light covers, changing the bulbs and putting everything back together. It’s not that it’s particularly difficult, but unless all of the lightbulbs in a room are broken, I’m not going to go through all of the bother. I would much rather have lightbulbs that never die.

Of course, lightbulbs inevitably burn out. Some will work for an hour and then stop, others will last for years before finally giving out. An engineer who designed the light bulb would have an idea about how long the light bulb should work, and according to their tests, the light bulb would be expected to work for a certain time. For instance, say that I put a light bulb into my office lamp that is rated to last for 2500 hours, and it lasts for 2600 hours before it finally gives out. It’s lasted 100 hours longer than it’s rated for, and so to the engineer who designed it, the bulb is a success. But it’s still stopped working, and I’m in the dark. To me, it has still failed.

It’s interesting that failure is as much about the standards that people set, either individually or collectively, than anything else. My standards for light bulbs are probably unrealistic – I want them to work forever because I hate replacing them.

Sometimes we judge ourselves by an unrealistic standard, or we allow others to judge us by an unrealistic standard.

It’s easy to look at the people on magazine covers or on TV who look so perfect, and use that as our yardstick for self-comparison. We yearn for their perfect figure, or their talent, or their business acumen.

We compare ourselves to our ‘friends’ on social media and wonder why our lives aren’t as good.

We remember the criticism from our parents or our teachers – who wanted us to be skinnier, or smarter, or stronger – and strive to please them.

There’s nothing wrong with striving with the right motivation, but when our goal is unattainable or unrealistic, the energy we expend for no perceived gain just sucks the life from our soul, resulting in cognitive overload, resentment, anger and despair. None of these things helps us build joy in our lives.

The antidote is to love yourself again. We need to forgive ourselves and set goals that are realistic and attainable.

Setting realistic and attainable goals first comes from understanding our values and living by them, sailing in the direction that our particular breeze is taking us, not fighting against it.

We also need to understand our own capacity based on our own particular skills and talents. If you’re a Ferrari, you’re not going to be driving up rough mountain tracks, through rivers and around sand dunes. If you’re a Land Rover, you’re not going to be carving up a race track. Use the talents that you have to set your own course, not try to drive someone else’s.

It’s also ok to fail. We succeed because we fail. It’s ok to set some seemingly attainable goals and still not attain them. Beating yourself doesn’t help anyone, all it does is leave you bruised and bloodied. Love yourself even when you fail, and forgive yourself. Remember, “To forgive is to set a prisoner free, and discover that the prisoner was you.” (Lewis B. Smedes)

This Christmas, love yourself.  Don’t try to live up to the unrealistic standards of others, but set your own goals based on your values, even if you don’t always attain them.  And, forgive yourself. That will allow joy to flourish.

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Seven Elements of Good Mental Health: 6. Forgiveness – The Prospering Soul

Life shouldn’t just be about avoiding poor health, but also enjoying good health. Our psychological health is no different.

Before we take a look at poor mental health, let’s look at some of the ways that people can enjoy good mental health and wellbeing. This next series of posts will discuss seven elements that are Biblically and scientifically recognised as important to people living richer and more fulfilling lives.

These aren’t the only ways that a person can find fulfilment, nor are they sure-fire ways of preventing all mental health problems either. They’re not seven steps to enlightenment or happiness either.   But applying these principles can improve psychosocial wellbeing, and encourage good mental health.

6. Forgiveness

“You’d think after five months of lying on my back, I would have given up any idea of getting even, just be a nice guy and call it a day. Nice guys are fine: you have to have somebody to take advantage of… but they always finish last.”

Mel Gibson’s character spoke these words as an introduction to the movie “Payback.” It’s plot line sees him maim or kill every person linked in the chain of thugs and organised crime that ripped him off of his seventy thousand dollars. At the end of the movie, after he exacts the final revenge on the last villain, he drives off with a smile on his face, his money and his renewed romance. But if this was real life, would he have been happy, or would he have just been even?

It’s human nature to repay wrong with another wrong. Eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth. If you hurt me, natural justice is fulfilled if I make you feel the same pain in return. So what choices do you have if someone hurts or wrongs you? Well, you could retaliate. You could plan retribution. Ask for recompense. Or simply push for recognition of your pain. Sometimes these strategies lead to resolution, but usually not immediately, and in order to stay motivated to achieve a delayed resolution, you have to keep reminding yourself of the pain caused to you, so that the effort you’re making will be worthwhile.

As the old proverb goes, “Two wrongs don’t make a right.” If you hurt me, hurting you back doesn’t make my pain go away. It just adds more pain to the world, because I’m still in pain and now you’re in pain. Then you’ll want to hurt me back, and the cycle escalates. Francis Bacon said, “A man that studieth revenge keeps his own wounds green, which otherwise would heal and do well.” In other words, you may be able to bring about retribution, but during the process, you’ll end up keeping your own wounds open and festering, instead of letting them close and heal. It’s like someone cut you with a knife, and if order to show them what damage they did to you, you keep reopening the wound every few days. The wound may look open and fresh should they ever care to notice, but you’re the one who had to put up with an open wound for an extended time, and re-live the pain every time you reopened it.

Interestingly, research tend to support this notion. One study showed that when subjects were asked to think of reacting aggressively to a given scenario, parts of the limbic system in their brains increased in activity. This isn’t unsurprising, given that our brain subconsciously prepares us all the time for fight or flight responses when it starts to sense danger, in preparation for possible action. What was more interesting is that it also reduced the activity of the subjects frontal lobes as well. As discussed by Worthington and colleagues, “Thus, one implication might be that negative emotion acts antagonistically toward reasoning. This suggests that reasoning is disrupted by anger and that imaginally rehearsing angry and aggressive mental scenarios (i.e., ruminating angrily) could (a) catapult one into negative emotive responding and (b) shut down rational approach and calm emotions. Imagery as well as verbal rumination might stimulate similar effects.” [1]

The other option is a particular form of acceptance, which we know as forgiveness. Forgiveness, the act of moving on from insult or injustice, a actually a complex psychological process. There have lots of studies looking at different aspects of forgiveness, but without getting bogged down in details, forgiveness helps to rebalance things. People who forgive habitually tend to also have lower systolic, diastolic blood pressure, and individual acts of forgiveness and lower hostility predicted lower stress levels, which in turn predicted lower self-reported illness, a strong mediator being reduced negative affect (a “bad mood”) was the strongest mediator between forgiveness and physical health symptoms, although they also noted other variables such as spirituality, social skills, and lower stress also had a role in the forgiveness-health relationship [2].

I understand that talking about forgiveness can bring up some deep and difficult feelings in some people. Just like physical wounds, some are shallow and heal quickly, but others are inflicted so deep that they’re hard to heal – severe trauma like rape, childhood abuse, domestic violence and other deep psychological insults. It’s important to clarify here that memories of such traumatic events often intrude into your conscious awareness, where it replays in your memory, but not of your own volition. That’s different to unforgiveness and rumination, which are memories which we foster and encourage. Forgiveness is still a part of the healing process of these severe traumas, but the healing process may take longer, and the process of finding that forgiveness may require a professional to help walk through the process. If you’ve been the victim of a severe trauma, you don’t need to go it alone. Find a psychologist or talk to your doctor if you’re not sure.

For the Christian, forgiveness is at the very core of the entire life of faith we lead. God forgave us, and we can enjoy that forgiveness if we choose to move away from a life enslaved to sin. It is through the death of Jesus on the cross that we have this chance, and Jesus himself showed the ultimate in forgiveness when, as he hung dying on the cross, he forgave the soldiers that put him there. Throughout his ministry, he preached the same message – forgiveness is a central text of the Lords prayer, he told Peter that he should forgive someone “seventy times seven”, and he showed grace to those around him such as the woman caught in adultery. There are many more examples of forgiveness in the Bible as well.

I don’t know if there is any one particular best method to forgive. Apologies help [3], but they aren’t necessary to be able to forgive someone. Sometimes people find actually saying the words “I forgive you” to be a powerful release. That can be to a person directly, although that may not always go down well. Saying it internally is valid. Sometimes writing it in a letter, and then tearing it up as an act of finality, can be useful.

I hope that you can find it in your heart to forgive those in your life that have wronged you and continue to move forward. Remember, “To forgive is to set a prisoner free, and discover that the prisoner was you.” (Lewis B. Smedes)

References

[1]        Worthington EL, Jr., Witvliet CV, Pietrini P, Miller AJ. Forgiveness, health, and well-being: a review of evidence for emotional versus decisional forgiveness, dispositional forgivingness, and reduced unforgiveness. Journal of behavioral medicine 2007 Aug;30(4):291-302.
[2]        Lawler KA, Younger JW, Piferi RL, Jobe RL, Edmondson KA, Jones WH. The unique effects of forgiveness on health: an exploration of pathways. Journal of behavioral medicine 2005 Apr;28(2):157-67.
[3]        Strang S, Utikal V, Fischbacher U, Weber B, Falk A. Neural correlates of receiving an apology and active forgiveness: an FMRI study. PloS one 2014;9(2):e87654.