“Forgiveness Is Not a Sign of Weakness. It Is the Exercise of Empathy.”
“Empathy is not learned instinctively; it is taught by the people around us. It is communicated in spoken and unspoken ways — in language, body language, and patterns of relating. It can be neither bought nor sold, but it can and should be given freely.”
I misplace and forget things. In fact, the security guard who works in the supermarket opposite our home became so accustomed to me asking if I had left my phone or bank card at the self-checkout that I now carry a satchel, which serves as my ‘back-up’ brain. I am far less embarrassed by my satchel than I am by my past transgressions, which weighed heavily on my mind when the tables were turned recently.
In preparation for a family camping trip, we had ordered miscellaneous camping equipment and I had offered to pick it up. But when I arrived back home again, some items were missing and I had to make a return trip to the store. At first, I assumed this was my mistake. However, when I arrived at the shop, the cashier appeared visibly mortified and began issuing desperate excuses while fumbling through drawers trying to locate the items. Moments later, he found the missing items and handed them over nervously, glancing at me. I found something about this situation comical; I could not help but start laughing. Upon reflection, I now see this was not helpful, but honestly I was out of my element — for once in my life, I had the power to condemn or forgive a mistake.
More than that, I had power over our interaction and the feelings or behaviors that would manifest from it. I know I had this power because I had been on the receiving end of it many times before; I knew that I could exploit the cashier for my own gratification and be the perpetrator of shame. I had a right to be upset, and I could be justified in blowing up or calling for the manager. But being justified doesn’t mean being just or even being right.
The drama triangle is a social model of human interaction proposed by Stephen B. Karpman. The triangle maps a type of destructive interaction that can occur among people in conflict. It models the connection between personal responsibility and power in conflicts and the shifting roles people play. We all take part in games — expressing emotional states and trying to get needs met, but in a manipulative way. We do this in our families, in ways influenced by and recycled from our parents. We do this in relationships when we feel some inequity or injustice. And we definitely do this in our transaction-based society.
You need only look at the news or social media to see that empathy is in short supply these days, probably because its intrinsic value is not always clear. Empathy is not learned instinctively; it is taught by the people around us. It is communicated in spoken and unspoken ways — in language, body language, and patterns of relating. It can be neither bought nor sold, but it can and should be given freely.
Empathy helps us to communicate our thoughts in a way that makes sense to others. It enables us to understand others better when they are communicating. It’s the joist of fulfilling social interaction. If we are taught it during the formative years, it can benefit interactions like the one in which I found myself at the camping store.
As an art psychotherapist in training and someone who attends therapy regularly, I was aware of my power in that moment. At the same time, I could connect as a free-thinking adult not willing to play a social game. I have worked in consumer retail before; I know the demands and pressures involved in the job — the stress and uncertainty of dealing with the public and being spoon-fed the company message that “it’s all on you.” So I promptly apologized for the laughter and explained how I perceived the situation and how often I find myself in his position. I picked up the items and eased his anxiety by saying I had no complaint. “These things happen,” I said, and wished him a good shift. I chose not participate in the game.
The adult diagnosis of ADHD has been previously described as a ‘medicalization of underperformance,’ which reflects modern society’s competitiveness and performance-driven culture. All too often, I internalized the feelings associated with how my ADHD impacted others. I gave other people too much power, playing the victim and then playing games myself as a way of getting my needs met. But everyone struggles. We are all fundamentally human. We all need to earn money, pay the bills, and walk the dog. There are pandemics, overdraft expansions, and other beasts with which we must contend. Along the way, we all make mistakes. Not just me, not just you. And forgiveness is the most valuable thing we can give away for free in this transactional society.
Forgiveness and ADHD: Next Steps
- Read: “ADHD Makes It Hard to Forgive Others, But Are We Hardest on Ourselves?”
- Free Download: Unraveling the Mysteries of Your ADHD Brain
- Learn: “You Can’t Buy Forgiveness for Your ADHD. But You Can Learn to Apologize Without Accepting Shame.”
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