I spent my childhood loving a man who I called Grandad. When I was 11, a series of events led to a situation whereby I found myself on the receiving end of the bitterness, anger, aggression and hostility stored within him; and just like that, I casted him as a villain in my life, soon to never speak to or see again.
I have just finished watching the third season of 13 Reasons Why – whether you like the show or not, there was an underlying theme from this season that feels important to me to discuss and talk about; a message of humanisation, empathy, forgiveness, and offering opportunity for change.
As a society we love stories. We create them all the time. We place ourselves in roles within our own stories, sometimes to our own disadvantage. We villainise those who inflict pain onto us and others, dehumanise them, shame them, and see them as nothing more than what they did – and where there are villains, there are usually victims. I know I have done this before. And there was a time when I would have locked my feet firmly into the ground and refused to budge from that standpoint – even when I knew deep down that it wasn’t the full truth. But to do so, would have meant needing to look at the feelings I was trying to ignore.
We have all experienced pain, and when left unresolved and unprocessed, that hurt can start to spread out into feelings of hopelessness, anger, resentment, and a sense of powerlessness. We may start to believe that we don’t belong, that we’re unworthy of love, and that we’re undeserving of anything good. Whilst some may primarily withdraw into themselves, and try to stay hidden and unseen to protect themselves – internalising the hurt – others may make themselves larger and use dominance in an attempt to feel safe, and externalise it; they are both coping strategies on opposite ends of the same spectrum, they are both the result of pain. And so, the cycle of hurting continues.
Imagine how different we would feel if we were to break that cycle? Picture the ripple effect that would have on those around you and spreading out further into society? How would our stories change?
Dehumanisation and shame go hand in hand. When we describe people as “monsters” or as “scum” we are declaring that they are not worthy of existing beside us. We do this to ourselves also – I have called myself “a piece of shit” more times than I can count. When we label a person as nothing more than ‘bad’, we are shaming. When we believe a persons behaviour is all they are capable of doing, we are withholding opportunities for learning and growth. In the midst of pain, it feels like the easy and right thing to do; to simply forget that we are all human, experiencing the same emotions, and that by nature, we are more than simply ‘this or that’. We dehumanise to justify feelings of anger towards one another. In my own story mentioned at the start, Grandad Dave was to become known as “Wanker”.
I was hurt and scared. Speaking out didn’t feel like an option at the time. Aside from screaming “I fucking hate him” to my mum, I didn’t tell anyone what had actually happened or what I was feeling. I grew up believing that vulnerability was weak and that any form of ‘negative’ emotion was self-pitying. I did not feel comfortable with pain, and I felt even more uncomfortable sharing it with others; believing they would think I was overreacting or making it up for attention. So, I stayed quiet. I told myself “Other people have gone through much worse than me”, comparing it to situations I had created in my head so that I could dismiss my experience as something small and insignificant. I invalidated my feelings, and instead held hate towards him for over 17 years – and in the process I directed more hurt towards myself, and unintentionally towards others.
How do we move forward with pain?
I no longer believe there is room for comparing suffering. Learning about the practice of compassion has taught me that the pain two people experience from two very different situations, is still the same pain. That self-compassion involves acknowledging our feelings in a mindful and caring way. I feel thankful to have learnt that vulnerability is strength and is courageous; connecting us with others and helping us to heal. Empathy allows us to look beyond behaviour and circumstance and instead relate to the feelings behind it.
The process starts within; allowing permission to validate our experiences, to feel all the emotions that come along, and confiding in trusted people. Once I had gone through this process myself, I was able to extend the compassion and empathy towards the villain in my story; I recognised that harmful behaviour is a self-protective strategy developed when a person experiences their own pain and suffering within their life – and are yet to deal with it. That, I can connect with. It is something we can all connect with. When we remember that there is always more beneath the surface, that there are emotions that drive our behaviour, and that we only know what we know how to do, we can rehumanise the villains, or even ourselves. This is the space in which we can start the process of forgiveness, and create opportunities for change.
Forgiveness is for healing ourselves. When we forgive, we let go of suffering. We rewrite our stories without villains and victims. Forgiveness requires holding people accountable for their actions without the need to shame and dehumanise. Only people who are hurting hurt other people. When this cycle breaks, we create space for compassion-based change; we inspire and encourage others to grow with us – even those who once believed that change was impossible for them.
We are designed for unity; imagine waking each morning truly knowing that the person you will encounter is there to support you? Is standing strong alongside you? We owe it to ourselves to be that person.