Are you a human being or a human doing?

When I make a mistake, forget something, mess up something or miss an appointment… is it just what I do sometimes, or does it say something about who I am? This is a crucial question whose answer can make a difference between a healthy or a not so healthy opinion of one’s self. Answering the question requires an understanding of the difference between “being” and “doing.” It is the being that determines a person character, true personality and, ultimately, his or her true self. It is the doing that often is out of character and does not accurately reflect the personality or the true self. The problem is, the doing is often confused with the being. Said another way, what a person does is often confused with who that person really is. Think of it this way: mistaking the doing for the being can lead to a misunderstanding of the person in almost every case. Take for example the immoral, cheating, antisocial individual who writes a large check to a charity and then receives a public recognition of generosity. Or, the church-going, honest, and caring individual who drives by a person in need and does not stop to render aid. Both individuals simply do or don’t do something in a specific situation. Their doing, however, can be interpreted by an observer as representative of the individual’s character, personality or true being, without it being the case. When the doing is not sincere or reflective of the true being of a person, it does not stand the test of time, the test of consistency, or both. In the first example, the evil nature of the individual may never become known to the charity that received the donation, but it is certainly going to be known to anyone who interacts with this person on a regular basis because the true being can never stay hidden for very long. In the second example, the good nature of the individual may not be reflected in the failure to stop and help but it would be known to others who see this person being good in many other situations. So, as far as a person’s social image is concerned, the difference between what people occasionally may do and who they truly are is straightforward: time and consistency will always tell the tale.

There is, however, another more significant problem that affects all individuals who do not understand the difference between what they do and who they are. They tend to misinterpret their own occasional or inconsistent actions as being reflective of their true being. In one scenario, they may form an opinion of themselves which is narcissistically positive by focusing on their occasional good deeds and conveniently ignoring their more frequent missteps. In another scenario, they may have an overwhelmingly negative view of themselves by focusing on their occasional (but perceived as too frequent) missteps and ignoring their good nature, sound character or engaging personality. Either positive or negative misinterpretation of a person’s true being is produced by focusing attention on infrequent, occasional, or inconsistent behaviors. Evaluating a person, or one’s self, based on too few observations (or data points) can lead to the wrong conclusion. A good example of this type of evaluation is that of a new couple who has just fallen in love with each other. Both parties, temporarily blinded by love, need, want, passion, lust or a combination thereof, may gather very little “hard data” on the other person and pay an inordinate amount of attention to what the other person does, misunderstanding his or her actions as being consistent, stable over time, and reflecting of the person’s true nature, character and personality. In many cases, thank goodness, this turns out to be true: he or she IS truly wonderful, and not just temporarily doing wonderful things. In some other cases, however, after the honeymoon is over and things settle down, the behaviors that are inconsistent with the person’s true being become rarer, while the behaviors that are reflective of the person’s true being become more frequent and consistent. At this stage, either the couple accept each other’s finally discovered true being, or they break up.

The hard truth in all of this: the opinion that I have of myself and others must be based, to be valid and usable, on time and consistency of behavior. The good news: this opinion can be changed (and indeed should be changed) on the basis of acquiring additional information on the true nature of the self or on that of others. In individuals who suffer from low self-esteem the opinion they have of themselves is often distorted by a negative observational bias: what they “do wrong” matters far more than who they truly are. The perverse reality in this is that, often, what they “do wrong” is based on their own poor observational skills, on a misinterpretation of motive, or a harshness toward the self that is frequently unjustified. They will say negative things to themselves such as, “I am such a failure, I always mess things up, I can’t get anything done, I am so stupid,” at every turn, many times, every day, no matter the circumstances. What they do becomes a definition of who they are which is far from being objective, measured or consistent with their true being. How many otherwise fairly successful, decent, good human being are walking around believing themselves to be otherwise and are therefore fighting depression, anxiety, and pessimism?

To break this cycle of despair, to change one’s opinion to a more balanced view, to truly find out that what we sometimes do is not the same as who we consistently are requires introspection. It is only by taking a look at our actions in context that we can see the many variables that have caused us to behave a certain way: the lady did not stop her car to help the person by the side of the road because she was traveling through a neighborhood that she deemed unsafe, or because she was running late to pick up her son, or a variety of other legitimate reasons. The man who gave to the charity did so to gain the advantage that an image of generosity could provide to him in certain business deals, or to impress a would-be girlfriend, or to soothe guilty feelings caused by a previous misdeed. Ascertaining our true self also requires honesty of intent, whereby we seek objectivity in knowing who we really are so that we can change what we can, accept what we cannot, and have the wisdom to know the difference.

What is true forgiveness?

We evaluate violations of psychological or physical boundaries in terms of the the amount of injustice perceived. Usually, there is a difference between the way we would like to see the violation resolved (e.g., “I’d like to see him admit to his wrongdoing and ask for my forgiveness”) and what we expect to actually happen (e.g., “He’s uncaring and has no remorse. I expect him to hurt me again”).

More serious violations are the hardest to accept and generally produce an inability to forgive in the wounded party. Unforgiveness is a feeling that encompasses a constellation of negative emotions, such as resentment, bitterness, hostility, hatred, anger, and fear. Over time, and as long as the violation remains unresolved or unforgiven, this feeling attacks a person’s well-being and may end up being more harmful to the wounded party than to the offender. Only true forgiveness can make these emotions go away.

The simplest definition of forgiveness is a mindset that recognizes the violation but chooses to no longer hold it against the offender. This mindset may inspire certain behaviors: in the offender, who may be moved to ask for forgiveness; in the wounded party, who may be communicate forgiveness to the offender; in either party, who may be able to talk to each other about the violation and its forgiveness.

Forgiveness is not reconciliation. Whereas forgiveness is a mindset that changes the wounded party’s feelings, reconciliation is the restoration of trust between the two parties. Forgiveness can occur without reconciliation ever taking place.

Researchers distinguish between two types of forgiveness: decisional and emotional. Decisional forgiveness consists of making the decision to change one’s feelings from negative to positive. This decision is made even if the person desires revenge but intentionally chooses to handle the matter in a positive way. Accordingly, decisional forgiveness is not a process: it is a deliberate, conscious, intentional decision to adopt a different mindset. The wounded party may hesitate and even resist making the decision to forgive, for minutes or even for years. When the decision to forgive is made, however, it is final and complete.

Emotional forgiveness may occur at the same time as decisional forgiveness, but generally it does not. The wounded party may forgive decisionally but fail to experience emotional forgiveness. Conversely, the wounded party may try and forgive emotionally without ever making the conscious decision to forgive. Emotional forgiveness is a process that unfolds over time and which generally begins by identifying feelings of unforgiveness and gradually reducing them by replacing them with positive feelings. Emotional forgiveness is not a behavior, inasmuch as it is an intentional replacing of negative unforgiving emotions with positive emotions toward the offender. The most common positive emotions that are involved in this process are understanding, acceptance, empathy, sympathy, compassion, and love.

True forgiveness includes arriving to a point when decisional forgiveness has taken place and the process of emotional forgiveness has been completed.

Forgiveness is at the core of the Christian faith. Jesus’ sacrifice paid the full cost of the injustices against God. God compassionately and lovingly forgives any person who accepts His forgiveness. Jesus tied God’s forgiveness of individual sins to a person’s forgiveness of others (“Forgive our trespasses, as we forgive those who have trespassed against us.”) In others words, God commands us decisional forgiveness, but also highly desires our ability to achieve emotional forgiveness.

The stress of negative self-talk

There is a constant traveling companion who goes with us everywhere we go. Never leaves our side. Never seems to take a break. Anytime we do something, don’t do something, say something, fail to say something, our traveling companion utters a comment, blurts out a remark, passes judgment on what just happened to us. These comments are whispered directly into our brains, are not heard by anyone else, and come through sometimes subtly, sometimes very loud and clear.

To those of us who are lucky to have had a positive development of our self-esteem, this inseparable traveling companion utters encouraging, fair, balanced, and generally positive comments to our words and actions. Able to discern between a genuine mistake, a shortcoming, and a learning opportunity, our traveling companion offers helpful and positive feedback, helps us recover quickly from upsets and disappointments, and helps us deal effectively with traumatic events. Our traveling companion helps us become and remain better, happier people.

To those of us who had a difficult, traumatic childhood, or have had a series of stressful events in our adolescence or adult life, the traveling companion is a constant source of disparaging, unfair, biased, and generally negative comments about our words and actions. Unable to distinguish between our situational and systemic shortcomings, innocent mistakes, and skill deficits, our traveling companion unleashes a barrage of put-downs, decreasing our ability to face life’s challenges, forcing us to take extreme measures to shut it up (alcohol, marijuana, prescription drugs), and does nothing but add to our misery. Our traveling companion can literally undermine, sabotage and bring more ruin to our life.

Interestingly, few of us are aware that the traveling companions exists. The voice we hear in our brains becomes so familiar, so constant, so automatic, that we fail to consciously register its message, fail to really “hear it” except within our subconscious. Even when we become aware of this voice, we often accept it (or endure it) as a given, something we cannot control, something that goes with us naturally, unavoidably, and permanently.

The traveling companion I am talking about is more commonly known by the name of self-talk. Lucky are those whose self-talk is generally positive. For the rest of us, whose self-talk is generally negative, life is a struggle fought with one or both hands tied behind our backs. Stress is our constant companion. Anxiety ambushes us at every opportunity. The world becomes an inherently dangerous place, people are not to be trusted, catastrophe is just around the corner. Often, alcohol (pot or a Xanax or an oxy) helps shut down the negative self-talk, at least for a few hours. Once the effects of the chemical wear out, it’s back, often stronger and louder than before.

What can be done by those unlucky souls who are stuck with negative self-talk as a traveling companion? The three-step approach of cognitive behavioral therapy has been shown to be very effective in treating this condition and eliminating its deleterious effects. The 3-step approach requires the help of a counselor, especially when the intensity, frequency, and impact of the negative self-talk is affecting our ability to function and increasing our distress to the point of self-medication. The 3 steps are:

1. AWARENESS, which begins with the acknowledgment and acceptance of the negative self-talk existence, facilitates our ability to actually and consciously “listen” to it, and permits us to identify the times and situations when we are most likely to hear it. This is the most important step. This is not yet a fix, it is an essential identification of the problem.

2. SKILL, in developing alternative options through which to see the events and situations that are happening to us, whereby the explanation offered by our negative self-talk is only one of the possibilities, and not the only one. When our negative self-talk suggests a catastrophic outcome, we have the skill necessary to work up alternative, more positive outcomes.

2. COGNITIVE RESTRUCTURING, which leads to a transformation of the negative self-talk in either a positive self-talk or, at least, a more neutral and balanced self-talk. This last step requires time and sustained effort, to counter what is perhaps a lifetime of negative self-talk and turn it into a new, habitual, and permanent way of thinking.