Archive for Self-forgiveness

Mirrors: Thoughts on Self-Acceptance and Forgiveness

Posted in Non-fiction with tags , , , on July 27, 2013 by becciseaborne

Distorted image mirrorThe lost soul

When Amy Winehouse died almost exactly 2 years ago, the inevitability of how she died raised issues around addiction and self-destruction. These matters periodically make their way into the public consciousness, mostly in relation to celebrities and talented artists, such as Pete Doherty and others. We have a perpetual and morbid interest in a subject which is at the same time both unsettling, yet confirms our own position of relative stability and normality, whatever that means.

For my own part, although I had no personal connection, I felt a real sadness that a young, fragile person had just kind of slipped off the planet before she had even got a grasp of it. She had a truly fantastic voice, and was evidently talented, yet “troubled” – that cliché that means everything and nothing. Her drug and alcohol problems and her stints in rehab had received much media attention. One obituary noted that her pre-existing insecurities, rather than diminishing once she achieved such acclaim, only grew and fed the self destruction (“Razor sharp, Winehouse changed the music scene for ever”, The Independent on Sunday, 24 July 2011). It was this that caught my attention.

 

Broken mirror reflectionSelf-perception

In the face of world-wide praise and celebrity a talented, intelligent and engaging young woman seemed to become less of herself. She retreated and seemed to struggle with the identity which her talent surely entitled her to claim. Something about the praise and attention didn’t fit with her. I believe that far from being abnormal, her struggle was a universal human response where there is a gap between self-perception and what others hold up for us to see. Of course the full extent of her behaviour and its consequences are less inevitable, but it does seem to me that she had quite a common sense of being unworthy of the attention she was receiving.

About five or six years ago I met someone who had a similar and very evident dislike of praise or positive attention. It’s a completely different story, but at the same time the underlying issues are similar. I met this man when he was released from prison having served a long sentence for child sex abuse. My role was as one of five volunteers who would meet with him on a weekly basis to work on relapse prevention and offer practical and moral support. The aim was to prevent further victims by guiding him to keep to his relapse prevention plan and to stop him from feeling isolated – a major trigger for dangerous thought patterns and behaviour. This reduces re-offending.

He had been abused as a young boy himself and was used by circle of abusers to recruit other boys his own age. This, put together with his own offending as an adult, and the significant amount of time he had spent in the criminal justice system as a sex offender meant he had built a self-image and identity as a bad person who needed to be punished. There’s no doubt that his crimes were awful and needed to be atoned for. The premise of the voluntary work, though, is that it’s the behaviour which is bad and not the person. In other words, one person is not merely the sum of all the bad things they have ever done. Most of us are able to realise this, mainly through the forgiveness of others for those transgressions that would otherwise cause guilt and maybe eat away at us. Forgiveness allows self-acceptance and we are consequently able to maintain a healthy self-image.

Socially constructed distortionBut for sex offenders there is no forgiveness. They are demonised and stigmatised by every corner of society. And that mirror we hold up to them becomes how they view themselves. So the man I met a few years ago was someone who believed himself to be utterly without good and totally unworthy of anyone’s time, respect or kindness. He didn’t believe that he was entitled to have anything good happen to him.

Some may argue that he didn’t, but the point here is that this fuels distorted thinking patterns which justify the offending behaviour. In other words it makes re-offending more likely, and no-one wants that.

 

Dissonant image mirror

A new mirror

As time went by we all built up quite a rapport with him and we agreed we wanted to hold up a different mirror for him, a positive one that he could aspire to. So praising achievement and positive attitudes was just as important as challenging negative behaviour and unhealthy thought patterns. He certainly proved himself worthy of both at times. More often than not there was something positive to say, though and we noticed that he seemed to really struggle with this. We talked about it to find out what was going on for him, and it turned out to be pretty simple really; he just didn’t feel worthy of the praise he was being offered; he didn’t see himself in the mirror.

On one occasion this almost led to serious problems. He was struggling to keep to his relapse prevention plan, and although he was doing everything “right” on the face of it, he was having some unhealthy – and risky – thoughts and feelings. He wasn’t talking about these and so they were going unchecked. This meant that while we were saying well done for all the things he was achieving, he was churning over this huge dissonance between appearances and reality. He knew he was getting into murky water, and that things weren’t right. The gap was widening and the guilt he felt about it was probably making it a lot worse too, building the pressure.

 

Butterfly mirrorMaking the image fit: self-acceptance

It could have gone one of two ways, but fortunately for everyone, he chose the safe option and confessed what was going on. Of course we then had a lot of discussions about how we could make it easier for him to talk about these issues in future so that he didn’t get backed into a corner again. We were also more cautious and more specific about the praise we gave to him. He said it was awful being told how great everything was when he knew that really there was a big problem. Over many months we were able to support him in growing into this new identity, and eventually he came to accept the idea of himself as a person worthy of a normal life. To date he has not re-offended.

The point is, really, that all that positive attention and praise being received by someone who perceives themselves as being unworthy of it can have completely the opposite effect to that which is intended. Maybe Amy Winehouse – on a different level and for completely different reasons – felt the same. Maybe she couldn’t see herself in the mirror that the world was holding up to her. One of Amy’s friend and collaborator, Mark Ronson, talked about how she hated people “gushing” over her or enthusing about her success, how it would make her “shrivel up”, or run away.

Acceptance

What are we meant to do when we find ourselves in a situation like that? Some people like what they see in that mirror and they make it work for them; there are those successful A-list celebrities that exemplify this. But if you don’t recognise or relate to the image the world is showing you of yourself, how do you make sense of it? For Amy, she just wasn’t the person everyone else thought she was. She was just Amy Winehouse, with a sharp wit to fill in the gaps where her self esteem should have been, and when that didn’t work any more because the gaps got bigger, she found drugs and alcohol. There are many, many of those talented and imperfect people who exemplify this, too. Most of them are dead. And nearly all of those died way too young. If they had been able to find a route to self-acceptance – and in some cases self-forgiveness too – maybe they would still be here.