“It takes being radically misunderstood to really learn how to understand other people.” ~ Amanda Knox, Netflix Documentary
The email arriving in my Inbox at 4AM caught me by surprise. It was from someone I used to be good friends with, but who’d cut off all contact with me more than five years ago. She’d gotten upset with me about a blog post I’d written explaining how the brain often uses transference and projection to stir up and surface traumatic memories. The brain does this I reasoned, for such memories to be neuro-somatically worked with and emotionally discharged and integrated – in an ideal world. It’s sort of like how the body will bring a sliver buried deep in the skin to the surface eventually, where both the sliver and the infection can be removed. While I understand that things I write (and often the way I write them; or illustrate them!) can sometimes upset a reader, I was surprised and saddened by my friend’s non-negotiable need to completely break off all contact. From my perspective (ironically), some negative transference and projection was going on.
Initially, upon seeing her name pop up in my inbox, as I said, I was surprised. While five years may seem like a long time needed to heal and integrate overwhelming experiences, I believe many of us go whole lifetimes without being able to do much real healing work at all.
The Nerve of Some People
Her note was brief. She wanted to let me know that she forgave me and suggested that I might want to forgive myself.
At first I thought it was kind and considerate of her to take the time to send that note – that it represented growth and healing for her. But as the day wore on I found myself growing increasingly irritated.
I’ve been paying attention for years now to how messages that show up on my computer screen affect me, and so, after taking a good long walk with Olliebear to help clear my head and soften my heart, I began to explore what it was about my estranged friend’s message that was so triggering.
Inherent in her message was a belief (one I’m sure is true in her experience, otherwise there’s no reason for us not to still be friends) that I’d done something dangerously wrong, something irredeemably bad. And I had (from her perspective). I’d said something (in writing) that had set her brain’s threat circuitry ablaze. What made me upset about her assumption though, was her belief – implied in her email – that I had done it deliberately, intentionally, thus I needed to be forgiven. I felt like I was implicitly being wrongfully accused all over again.
My Personal Innocence Project
Being wrongfully accused and afforded little or no opportunity to honestly explain our motivations, works in the brain and body very similar to how the freeze response works in the aftermath of many a trauma. It impairs and impedes movement, growth and learning – a prime, brain-body directive. It often sends us into an obsessive, downward, disorganized spiraling state of mental agitation. The brain-mind begins to generate all kinds of bedeviled thinking: “What if?” “How come?” “If only…” “Why can’t?” If it goes on long enough, we can begin to question our own motivations to the point where we start to feel like we’re going crazy. Without realizing it, we are often mirroring the interior, threat-generated mind state of the person(s) wrongfully accusing us (Watch the Amanda Knox documentary to see stunning examples of this … on the part of the accused and the accusers!). This is the reverse corollary of The Golden Rule of Social Neuroscience. In this instance, disorganized brains can work powerfully to disorganize even the most well-organized brains. Other people really can drive us crazy!
Fortunately, I have a sane wife and a wide network of brain- savvy friends who know me well and who know that what gets me up and out of bed at 3AM every morning is a desire to help put at least a small dent in the suffering in the world. They are well-trained listeners :-), and because I rarely bring them my troubles and concerns, when I do they pay rapt attention. They help me restore mental peace and sane heart.
Reconnection Makes Things Flow-er
They also know that one of the values I hold is that, when possible, it’s important to repair ruptured relationships. Parents need to model it and do it with children; children need to do it with parents; friends need to do it with each other. Nations need to do it with other nations. In an ideal world.
So here’s the bottom line: I truly am sorry that what I wrote those many years ago turned out to be so upsetting to my friend. If I knew my words were going to be so provoking, I would have written them differently or not at all. I don’t believe in triggering trauma for the fun of it. So, for that I offer my sincere apology. But no forgiveness is necessary. From her, for her, or for me. One reason I suspect Deities suggest leaving the forgiving to them is that we’re all doing the best we can down here on earth with the brain and heart we have operating in any moment.