Recently the Virginia Tech massacre once again filled our news and talk shows with one of their favorite enemies of the people, terror. We all need to know how to cope with fear, so I’ll give you here my favorite enemies of fear. Those who study and rehearse these can keep them handy as an emergency tool kit for terror.

Fear-fighting techniques for the body and mind are taught in the award-winning self-help book, The Anxiety and Phobia Workbook, edited by Dr. Ed Bourne. This book was written to keep people who suffer from worry and fear from having to pay to come see a therapist like me.

Most fear-fighting techniques for the body teach us that peace comes from tuning out the involuntary nervous system (the nerves that carry messages from the body to the brain, for example, telling it how tense the body feels). Recovery is found in deliberately paying attention to the voluntary nervous system, which gives and carries orders from the brain to the body.

Here are the three basic steps to a relaxed body: One, tune out the involuntary nervous system and tune in the voluntary nervous system. Two, watch a relaxing movie in the theater of your mind. And three, go back to your body and feel the calm. Let’s see some ways to do these three things.

1. Take slow, deep breaths, and keep doing it. Be sure to push all the air out of your lungs before taking the next breath. Change your location, or at least your position: get away from immediate physical sources of stress. Do "systematic muscle relaxation": tense up the muscles in one area of your body (legs, arms, torso or face), hold the tension a few seconds, let your muscles relax, and then move on to the next area of your body to do the same thing.

If you can’t go to sleep, get out of bed and go sit in an uncomfortable chair you designate as a Worry Chair: pray out/write down/talk out your worries, then return to bed, and refuse to think about these things again there. If you can’t stop the worries, take yourself back to the Worry Chair—such discipline teaches the brain a lesson. Note that you may not be able to "go to your happy place" mentally until you’ve done this first step physically.

2. Take a comfortable seat in the wonderful movie theater built into your right brain. Visualize carefully being in a beautiful, safe place (a beach, a lake, grandmother’s couch, a big stream-side tree in a meadow). Take in what all of your senses are experiencing there (sun and breeze on your skin, natural sounds, beautiful sights left and right). Imagine a loved one joining you there (a person, angel or God). Look, listen and feel for signs and words of love (a hug, encouragement, or blessing which you imagine). Do this at least once a day when you’re not scared, until you find you can do these things effectively in the midst of a stress storm.

3. Let your mind go back to your body and feel the difference all this has made. This is a good time to repeat to yourself words of assurance and calm that will now sink in. Good words to say are found in Bourne’s Workbook, which teaches how to change negative self-talk into positive. I’ll describe some of my favorite techniques next time. These will make the chat room found on the left side of your brain as peaceful as the happy place you’ve now created over on the right side.

Perhaps the number one killer of mental and relational health in America is the refusal to go through the learning experience of emotional pain.  But I believe our next biggest mental health buzz kill is our refusal to forgive others and ourselves.  I just have to take a stab here at trying to reduce this colossal waste of serenity.

Forgiveness is a private act.  It is first of all an act of the mind and the will.  You first have to promise with all that you are that you will no longer scheme, hope, and work to get even, to make the other party hurt so bad they will repent and try to make it up to you.  If you think you can’t, start with praying for the welfare of the one who hurt you, and ask for the courage and wisdom to make that promise and keep it.  Only then can the words, actions, and finally the emotions of forgiveness come through you.

It may never include an “I forgive you” talk.  Sometimes the purpose of forgiving someone is to restore our closeness in that relationship, and other times it is to allow detachment to create more distance.  How forgiveness is expressed depends on the other person, on the relationship, its purpose, and how it will be acted out.  But some purposes are common to all occasions of forgiveness.  Let’s look for some motivations to forgive.


Christians are told that when the children of God forgive each other, it makes God happy.

I believe it, as I believe God loves us and knows that forgiveness is good for us.  It reduces the war and crime in our society, and on a personal level, it reduces our resentments, arguments, divorces, ulcers, insomnia and addictions.  Besides, being kind and polite to our enemies without needing or expecting anything in return is just the best way to keep our enemies at a safe distance.


Everyone!  We need to forgive whoever we are angry at, whoever we dread seeing at Walmart or McDonald's, and generally, anybody that can make us mad just by being happy.  We also need to forgive ourselves.  Believing that we have been forgiven by God or another person without forgiving ourselves is just like leaving a Christmas present all wrapped up under the tree -- it gives no joy to the giver or the receiver until we take it out into our everyday lives and enjoy playing with it.


We need to forgive everything they have ever done wrong, to us, to our loved ones or theirs, to themselves or others.  We also need to forgive every good thing they have failed to do, and every bad thing they will ever do in the future.  Past, present, and future, we are to love the sinner and hate the sin.

Now understand that forgiveness is not trust. Unlike forgiveness, trust has to be earned.  We need to forgive for our own sakes, long before the other person has earned our trust that they won’t hurt us again.  And if our enemy DOES mess up and try to hurt us again, we need to trust ourselves to get over it when they do.  This is a heck of a lot easier to do when we can kindly and politely forgive and wish them well without expecting anything in return.  We can trust ourselves to get over another betrayal if we know how and why to forgive, and how to set and enforce healthy boundaries for ourselves (more about those below).

And forgiveness does not mean condoning the other person's behavior.  It may or may not be a good idea to tell the other person you still think what they did was wrong, but it is always okay to say, "It is not that I am condoning or excusing what you did, I am just forgiving you."


ASAP.  Don't wait until the other person repents, reforms, asks for forgiveness, or even admits that they were wrong.  You sure don't need to wait until you feel like it, because forgiveness is a matter of faith, not feeling.  Don't wait until you understand the other person, or why they hurt you.  When it comes to forgiveness, just do it.


First, make a decision to forgive yourself as well as others, because you can’t hold onto forgiveness unless you keep giving it away.  Forgiveness can't be given until it has been received, not from your enemy, but from someone that accepts you as you are.  To accept yourself as you are, warts and all, you must first admit and accept your weaknesses, and repent of your mistakes and bad habits.  Strength is only made perfect in weakness.  Only when you know you need more grace than you deserve can you give forgiveness that isn’t earned.  Like with money, you must have some forgiveness to give it away.  Before you can put a smile on your face, you have to put one in your heart, every day.  Treat yourself as you treat others:  hate the sin (yours included), but love the sinner (yourself included).

The next step to safety is to drop the rock of resentment.  Figure out other ways of making yourself feel safe without carrying around anger to bodyguard your heart.  Believing that a resentment can be justified and smart is like wearing a gun on your hip – it keeps gentle people at a distance, attracts fighters, and generally provokes suspicion and rejection.  Commit to a life work of daily giving up your resentments, justifications, plans for revenge, and wishes for your enemy to suffer or fail.  Carrying a live resentment around is like loading up your gun and wearing bullets on your belt – you 're carrying a chip on your shoulder, wearing your hurt on your sleeve, and just asking for trouble.  

Third, choose and meditate on healthy beliefs.  You can never prove these beliefs right or wrong, but you can prove without a doubt the internal results of holding these beliefs.  You can know if they calm you down.  So taste the following beliefs, see that they have a healthy and calming effect on your relationships.  Then start meditating on them, so you will remember them on the spot, and be able to act upon them:   ~  All human beings are capable of repentance and reform.  ~  If we were born into our enemies’ bodies and situations, we don't know whether or not we might have turned out much worse.  ~  “Who are you to judge the servant of another?” asks Paul in Romans 14:4.   ~ When we are kind to them without needing or expecting anything in return, it delivers deep and painful wounds to their prideful and vengeful egos.  ~  What our enemies may need to hear they wouldn’t be able to hear from us.  ~  So we can just “Let go, and let God.”

Finally, resolve to protect yourself by showing love and respect from a healthy distance.  Set and carefully keep healthy boundaries.  A boundary is not a threat to another person, but a promise to yourself of what you will do to protect yourself if they violate your safety zone.  Protective behaviors that do not attack might include remarks such as, “Well that's your opinion,” or “I'm sorry you feel that way.”  The important thing when you are threatened or insulted is to immediately change the subject or end the conversation, before you take offense, or let yourself get upset.  Otherwise, your distress will show, and that would be showing blood to a shark.  You can’t play it cool on the outside without being cool on the inside, and you can’t do that without forgiving all around.  If you pray for them in private, you can speak to them and about them respectfully in public.  Or, instead of talking, make brief eye contact, give a quick little nod of recognition with a quick little smile, then move on to avoid them.  If you don’t shine a light of goodwill on your enemies, you remain the frightened deer, when you could so much more enjoy being the headlights on high beam.

Still don’t think you can do this?

  1. Underline in green all the ideas you agree with, and all the actions you’re willing to practice.
  2. Underline in red all the ideas you don’t agree with, the actions you’re not willing to practice.
  3. Take this to a pastor, counselor, or accountability partner.  Pray you can turn the red lights green.
  4. Change your beliefs and actions toward one person at a time, starting with one you wouldn’t have been able to forgive just doing it by yourself.  Figure out together what incentives you need.

The key to managing worry and fear is learning how to change the channels in your mind. We learned last time how to switch awareness from the involuntary nervous system that takes feelings TO the brain, and give it to the voluntary nerves taking messages FROM the brain out to the muscles. We also learned how to go into the right brain that imagines scenes, and change the channels there.

Overcoming fear might start with changing the channels on your TV. The best breeding grounds I know for fear are horror and action movies, crime shows, and the evening news. Then learn to change the channels in your left brain, where words live. That’s where fear talks to you, and if you’re smart, where you’ll learn to talk back to it.

Write down all the negative things fear says to you, and later when you’re not afraid, write down comebacks that express your faith. Rather than running from pain, solitude and death, embrace the thoughts of them. Don’t let them be impersonal, faceless foes, but talk with them. Learn to think of them as your friends and teachers.

Whatever you believe in as being stronger, wiser and better than yourself, that is your god, and you can substitute that for "God" in the guidance below. Speak to your fears in your left brain and if you can, out loud, with words like these:

This too shall pass. . . . Let go, let God. . . . One day at a time, one moment at a time. . . . I don’t need worry—it’s just the interest paid on borrowed trouble. . . . No one can take my self-esteem without my permission. . . . Focus on the fire drill, not the fire. . . . If I focus on the problem I watch the problem grow, but as I focus on the solution I am watching the solution grow. . . . I will not act frozen as if I’m a slave to fear, but I’ll act out my freedom and my faith. . . .I can see God holding me, right here, right now. . . .

Write down your favorites of these and other sayings, and keep them with you in your wallet or purse. Bible passages that will help are the 23rd Psalm, Matthew 6: 25-34, Philippians 4: 6-8, and I Peter 5:7. Remember and identify with courageous people from fairy tales (I love the moxie of Hansel and Gretel) and from history. My favorites from biblical history are David and Goliath, Daniel in the Lions Den, Esther defying Haman, Jesus defying the Romans and the church, and the woman who crashed the Pharisee’s kosher luncheon in Luke 7. My favorite role models from modern history are Winston Churchill, Lech Walensa, Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, and Pat Tillman.

School children practice their fire drills when they know the building is not on fire, so that when it is, they can get to safety with peace and calm. Remember these things will only have the power you give them by mediating on them in advance. When you give your mental channel-changing muscles a few work-outs, come the next crisis, you’ll be cool.

People trying to save or help their addicted loved ones are in a similar position to a pastor trying to save his congregation from sin. They often use similar tactics. After a time of this helping, the addict comes to resent the reforming efforts of the loved one, who is after all supposed to be his parent or spouse, not his counselor, sponsor, or pastor. The helping loved one begins to sense this resentment deep down, and to feel that if the addict recovers, he will probably leave, and the relationship will probably be severed. To avoid feeling this fear, the enabler keeps playing the helping games that in strengthen the addict’s dependency on the enabler.  This makes things worse.

The really good pastors remain in their minds rather independent of their churches. They know who they would be, how they would live when they move on. There is an old English term for a pastor who is dependent on his congregation.   The wordvicarious comes from the old English word vicar, referring to a rector (pastor or priest) who wasn't paid enough money to buy his own food and shelter, so he depended on his congregation to feed and house him. He couldn't work anywhere else until they or the bishop released him to. He was taking care of his flock, but he was also depending on them for everything, and he had lost touch with who he would be without them.

Vicars therefore live for and through the congregation, to the neglect of their own personal life. Some are afraid to offend their congregation, and so they tell them whatever they think the people want to hear.  Often they feel they have to raise the congregation up spiritually or financially before they have a right to live their own lives.  Other vicars are tyrants, controlling their flock through preaching that lays down the law in stone, with fire and brimstone.  The controlling types we therapist call active-dependent, and the comforting approach we call passive-dependent.  Whether active or passive, controlling or comforting, vicars live vicariously for and through those they help.  So if you want another word for this process of codependency or enabling, you could call it vicarity.

Now as addictions progress and take more and more of the addict’s freedom and life, addictions go through stages. Likewise, as the loved ones keep trying to help by pouring in more and more love, they are also losing their freedom, their strength, and their life. In the later stages, like the addict, they find they have suffered great losses – finances, freedom, self-respect, health, faith, and relationships with family and friends. At these later stages, the exhausted codependent enabler is like a vampire. Trying to suck the poison out of the addict as if he had a snake bite, she is in effect joining the addiction as she sucks more life, freedom, and self-respect out of the addict. She feels most alive, not when she is living for God through her body, but when she lives for her addict, through his body.  A key sign the enabler is out of control is a loss of good lifestyle balance between work, rest, and play.  Toward the end, burned-out enablers need a sabbatical rest.

All parents from time to time find themselves locked into an ongoing power struggle with a child. The parent’s natural instinct response to a child’s misbehavior is met with more and more of that behavior. My suggestions here will require parents to go against their instincts.

Many of the ideas below can be found in two excellent programs for parents. One is Systematic Training for Effective Parenting (STEP), at The other is Parent Effectiveness Training, begun nearly 40 years ago by then Western Kentucky University professor and later Nobel Peace Prize nominee Thomas Gordon (see

1. Figure out what the child is trying to do. It may take asking, or else trial-and-error learning to determine which games the child might be playing. They play games like Do my work, Show me you care, Take my tension, Pay attention to me, Feel my pain, and You can’t make me.

2. Figure out what you can’t stand, and learn to stand it. Perhaps you can’t tolerate the feeling that you’re not in control, that you’re a failure as a parent, that your child doesn’t love or like you, that you’re acting like your own parent did, or that there’s screaming or danger of violence in the house. Whatever you can’t stand, the child knows it, and will give you that feeling to get you to cave into the child’s demands in return for the child’s stopping the behavior you can’t stand.

3. Redefine your terms. Take the focus off what you can’t change (the child) and onto what you can (yourself). Refocus on being in control of yourself, not failing to change your ways, loving yourself, etc.

4. Learn to time yourself out, and soothe yourself. Take deep breaths, pray, call a friend. If appropriate, wait for the child to re-engage you. Be sure you’ve calmed yourself down before responding.

5. Avoid rewarding children for passivity, dishonesty, disrespect, or dangerous behavior. Don’t cave to their demands when they’re misbehaving.

6. Give them natural consequences for misbehavior. If their selfish demands would provoke rejection outside the home, give it them. "People won’t trust (like, include, admire, cooperate with, want to be around) you when you act that way with them, and neither do I." Parents must teach and act out how misbehavior will be responded to in the real world of school, job, love, marriage, friendships, or college roommates. So the consequences are things like loss of privilege, loss of help, end of dialog, time out, or withdrawal of attention.

7. Offer to let children win their game if they let you win yours too. Give them attention help, sympathy and trust if they give you respect, honesty, self-control and cooperation. If they refuse, just tell them you guess they don’t want what they were demanding as bad as they said they did. Tell them their actions speak louder than their words. Tell them you’ll follow their lead. You’ll cooperate when they cooperate.

8. Realize the wisdom in these proverbs I’ve heard: "You can’t change anyone but yourself." "You aren’t giving up control, just the illusion of control." "Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results." "Children respond better to encouragement than criticism." "You choose the lessons you teach, and let the child choose how and when to learn them."

Just remember, in a power struggle, parents who get upset enough to cave in are not saying to the child, "You win" or "I love you", but "You don’t have to change, I will. This isn’t your problem, it’s mine."

If you’ve ever wondered why so many people spoil their children, it’s simple. They get two big pay-offs. First, the obvious: it’s easier just to get through the moment by indulging children’s demands, rather than stopping to teach them a lesson. And the more subtle reason is that by living for and through the child, they can avoid all their own feelings, issues and responsibilities. It’s like a drug—a pain-killing escape from reality.

The reasons not to spoil a child are that you do get to live your own life. They won’t wear you out, embarrass you, or empty your wallet. And when they get older, they won’t be as quick to turn their backs on you like they have no idea who you are.

It is very satisfying to raise children who have the basic self-confidence to believe that their needs will be met, not necessarily on demand, but always on time, not necessarily by others, but because they’re also learning how to get things done themselves.

Raising unspoiled children requires that you don’t meet their wants or especially their demands when these differ from what you know deep inside that they need. Making them wait fairly often for what they want teaches them patience, and allows them to use their imagination and self-care skills to see how they can more independently meet their own needs.

As they see you sometimes taking care of your own needs ahead of their demands, you are modeling for them how effective caretakers must take care of themselves too.

So how can you tell yourself and your children the difference between what they need and what they demand? They often want or even whine for things they don’t really need, because they don’t know what they need. They need you to teach them what they need, such as:


They need to know their needs will be met eventually if they wait and ask politely.
The demand of the spoiled: I will get others to meet my needs.


They need to know that they are loved, that they can give love and receive love.
The demand of the spoiled: I will charm others into showing love to me.


They need to know they can comfort or entertain themselves when they are lonely, sad or bored.
The demand of the spoiled: I can always find ways to avoid being left alone.


They need to learn to enjoy hard work, finishing a task, and doing it well.
The demand of the spoiled: I am charming and clever enough to get others to do my work for me.


They need to express anger at selfish mistakes, forgiving themselves and others for such mistakes without holding a grudge.
The demand of the spoiled: If you don’t do things my way, my temper will make you wish you had.


They need to trust themselves not to freeze when they’re afraid, but to act smart.
The demand of the spoiled: I will dramatize my fear until you have done whatever it takes to relieve me of it.


They need to give a brief smile or hello with eye contact when they first see a friend or family member.
The demand of the spoiled: I am special, so I don’t look at or speak to people until they have broken the ice first.


They need to trust that they will be praised and rewarded eventually for doing good, criticized and punished eventually for doing bad.
The demand of the spoiled: I am praised because I am specially gifted. I will make anyone feel guilty for criticizing or punishing me.


They need to avoid lying, realizing they don’t always need to tell the entire truth.
The demand of the spoiled: I give whatever version of the truth it pays me to give, but I’ll never admit that.


They need to apologize and discipline themselves when they’ve messed up.
The demand of the spoiled: If I’m in trouble, I will never apologize. My family and friends will bail me out, because if I ain’t happy, ain’t nobody going to be happy.


They need to know they can make friends easily, because they enjoy being a good, loyal friend.
The demand of the spoiled: I’ll treat you like a friend when I feel like it, depending upon what you’ve done for me lately.


They need to know that they are being prepared to leave home someday and live their own lives.
The demand of the spoiled: I will leave home (and come back) whenever I feel like it, for a bigger stage and a better audience.

When you’re tempted to indulge your children, just remember, you’re not giving in to them, you’re selling them out, down the river to a sick society. You’re spoiling their lives, and not just theirs, but yours, and everybody else’s they’ll spoil. So Buck Up, Campers. Let’s put our grown-up pants on.

Work, rest and play all affect each other. They are a spiraling interdependent cycle: doing well at one makes it easier to do the others, and doing poorly at any of them makes the others go harder. (Diet, exercise, sex and sleeping work the same way, as do praying, forgiving, and acts of kindness.)

Work includes the job you do for a living, but also child care, helping friends and family, volunteer service, and household maintenance. It usually takes up about two fifths of your time when the kids are at home and in need, and a little less after that.

Rest involves more than sleep. It includes all forms of relaxing down time, such as taking in music, pleasure reading, solitary TV or computer time, etc. We’ll include personal grooming and hygiene here. All this should take up roughly one third of your time, more if you need eight hours of sleep, or if you’re female, older, or retired.

Play is activity that leaves you recreated, refreshed. It includes things like exercise, playing sports, learning, worship, praying, lovemaking, visiting live or on the phone or the internet, and going to festivals, plays movies, concerts, ball games, etc. Shopping for clothes, tools, play equipment, or house furnishings is usually play, but solitary shopping for groceries and provisions is clearly work.

Play usually gets the leftover time, but if we give it less than one fifth of our time, we’re probably getting burned out. The quality of our work and rest is suffering, because the worker is not getting recreated by rest alone.

The quantity of time you spend in work, rest, and play is no more important than the quality of that time. Mental health requires that we change gears well, that we do only one thing at a time. Thinking about work when we should be at rest or at play, or vice-versa, is called worry—leaving the here-and-now to be there-and-then. Worry screws up whatever we should be doing at the time.

When we don’t do enough of our work, we often work on other people instead. When we have too few responsibilities, we tend to take on those of other people. This form of worry is called meddling, and it screws up the work, rest and play of both parties.

A key to being focused and efficient in our work, rest and play is how we make our transitionsfrom one into the otherWe need to mark our changing gears clearly so that we and everybody else knows which gear we are in. If you have trouble shifting into the play of your personal life, get something going like Mr. Rogers’ slippers to remind you that work is over. How?

On your way home, turn your phone off and think about family and play. When you get in the door, put your cell phone away, or change it to a different ring that reminds you it’s family first, and it’s time for everybody’s recreation. If you can help it at all, don’t take business calls during family time.

As soon as you see your spouse, make it a point and habit to kiss your spouse--not just a peck, but a good, checking-in kiss. Sit down together and ask how each other’s day has gone so far. Review plans or hopes for the evening. Once in the door, change your clothes. Take off your watch. Don’t be waiting around for a hug or try to take one, but give the kids a hug.

One last tip: don’t try to go straight from work to rest, and then think you might play. Once you numb out, your emotional heart goes to sleep, and you’re pretty much shot for the day. Work and play first, then get your rest. You’ll sleep a lot better and do better work tomorrow.

 With any activity or relationship, here are five signs you might need to take a break and give it a rest for awhile:

1.  You’re losing interest or passion.  You’re burning out, forgetting what you’re really doing here, what’s the point.

2.  You’re losing focus or concentration, so that your mind is often distracted by other things you’d rather be doing, other people you’d rather be with.

3.  You’re obsessed, preoccupied, and giving too much focus and concentration.  You’re thinking or worrying about something or someone when you can’t do anything about it.

4.  You have too much passion for it, so that your devotion and enthusiasm is giving more important activities or relationships reason to feel neglected.

5. You’re stuck in a negative, self-defeating pattern of interaction.  You know you should change, but don’t know how.  You do the same thing over and over but still stupidly expect different results.

Until now we’ve been talking about taking a break to solve problems.  The best use of breaks is to take them periodically to prevent problems, to keep the focus, passion, health and balance sharp.

Periodic preventive breaks like this are called sabbatical breaks.  They come from the Jewish tradition which sees God as taking off on the seventh day after creating the world in six.  The Old Testament God included as one of the Ten Commandments resting from all labor on the Sabbath day.  The Torah even teaches farmers to rest their fields every seven years.

Colleges have realized the wisdom of this tradition by giving tenured professors a “sabbatical” from their duties for a semester or a year every seven years.  Many churches prevent burn-out by letting their pastors take a similar sabbatical time-out for study, travel and rest every seven years.

However, most Americans do not take either periodic preventive time-outs for sabbatical rest or curative breaks for a prelude to their problem-solving.  The result is a loss of mental health, such as in the five examples above.

One interesting testimonial to value of taking long breaks is the mental health industry in Japan.  When Japanese people get anxious, depressed, explosively angry, addicted, or torn up in their relationships, the counseling wizards in Japan all prescribe morita therapy, and I’m embarrassed to say it appears to work about as well for them as psychotherapy or medication do for us Americans.  So what is it?

Morita comes from the Japanese word for sleep.  Therapy is solitary confinement from contact with the outside world.  They give a two- to four-week break from all relationships and activities except meditation and sleep.  It’s a little frustrating, frightening, and rather revealing how hard that is to do in America.


Imagine that you have messed up big time—physically abused your child, cheated on your wife, stole money at work, or lied to your husband about where you were.  And let’s say you really want to make sure that both you and the people you’ve hurt can trust that you have learned your lessons of how and why not to do that again.  How would you go about crafting an apology that would do all that?

The purpose of most apologies today is merely to minimize pain for the apologizers, protect their image, and enable them to avoid the work they need to do but don’t want to do.  Like any other form of lying, over time, a weak apology fails at all three of these goals.

Most people don’t know how to go about restoring both the trust of others and their own trustworthiness.  That’s because there are so few role models in America for genuine remorse.  I can’t recall when I last heard a satisfactory apology from a public figure who had made a moral mess, can you?  An effective apology needs to answer three simple questions.

Why did I do it? 

Don’t blame it on the situation, or on anybody else’s behavior, because you can’t guarantee those won’t come up again.  Besides, that doesn’t take responsibility for the choices you made about how to handle your feelings.

Sure, maybe you put yourself in a bad situation, and you can change that.  But what else do you need to change?  attitudes you have harbored that provoked your choice?  beliefs you have used to rationalize or excuse your behavior?  images you’ve had of yourself and the other people involved here?  These ideas in your head can’t be proven right or wrong, but you and others can prove the kind of words and actions these beliefs will provoke and excuse.

Who did I hurt and how? 

Put yourself in their place.  Imagine a situation where they could theoretically do something like this to you.  Imagine how you’d feel, if there were no real remorse in the other person, how hard it would be to carry on like nothing had happened.  What would this do to your mind, your heart, your ability to go on like before, doing things for that person, facing your friends and family, trying to go to sleep at night, or fighting off your own bad, stress-related habits, like eating or drinking to your frustration?

If you have hurt someone in your personal life, you can apply what you have learned to your situation, and to your loved one.  “I understand that I have made you have to carry around feelings of ______ and _______, that I have embarrassed you in the eyes of ____, and that now you’re going to have to really struggle with your ­­­­­________ and _______.  This is what I have done to you.  What else have I messed up in your life?  I know that I have hurt _____ and _____, but who else do you think I have hurt, and how?”

What am I going to do about it?

How will you clean up your side of the street?  What will you do to help heal the hurt, and earn back the trust you have broken?  Again, put yourself in their place—what would you need them to do in this situation to resolve your hurt and mistrust?

Do you need to go have a talk with others you have hurt, to see how your actions have affected them, and tell them you were wrong and you are sorry?  How can you show them that you are going to teach yourself a lesson, by making sure you suffer more than all the pleasure you have derived from your bad habit over the years, even if it is possible, more than they will have to suffer for your actions?

Do you need to get an education, like anger management training, or understanding another culture, gender, or generation?  Do you need to talk with someone to learn new role models for your behavior in certain situations?

Do you need counseling to work through old feelings that you’ve never expressed toward people in your childhood, feelings that piggyback on your natural emotions to provoke and rationalize your bad habits?  Do you need residential treatment to break an addiction, to let your family have a break from you to heal, and to get you away from temptations you can’t resist?

Changing your beliefs requires admitting that you can and should change them, because they caused harmful behavior.  You first confess this to people you’ve hurt, but real change inside requires you to tell others who share these attitudes and beliefs, especially the friends and family who may have taught them to you in the first place, by their words and lifestyles.  And your lifestyle will also have to change, to express and firm up your new attitudes and beliefs.

Why don’t we ever hear apologies that answer these three questions in America?  Very few of us really believe in and practice personal growth.  Spin doctors say the public would see repentance as weak, weird and wacko, but I think those words better describe the conscience of any nation which values image over substance, and anesthesia over the truth that hurts while it is setting us free, free of the illusions that we are better than others, and don’t need them.

I pray that America may soon see a genuine, effective apology from one of its celebrities.  I pray that you and I will amend our wrongs by helping others get over our messes, by cleaning them up.  That way we can bring some major good things out of the next bad situation we create.

Dr. Schmidt is a psychologist life coach with offices in Middletown, Lexington, and Shelbyville. 



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Dr. Paul F. Schmidt