I recently witnessed a very decent person face a very difficult situation when a false accusation was made against them. Their innocence has since been established but at the time, they were left feeling utterly devastated by the accusation and riddled with anxiety about the implications for their future.
The source of their anxiety is now gone. But despite this not being my usual ‘beat’, I am writing this because I know many people struggling with experiences of being wronged and I want to share the advice I shared with my friend.
It is a painful truth that sometimes really unfair things can happen to really good people.
A false accusation.
When our sense of right and wrong, of morality and justice, is violated, it can rock our world and leave us awash in a swirl of emotions – hurt, anxiety, shame, outrage, despair, and even grief for all that we’ve lost.
Trust. Friendship. Security. Certainty.
Our reputation, community, or faith in common decency.
Making yourself right after you’ve been wronged is no light task. Yet processing your emotions and reconstructing your mental maps of the world in ways that enable you to make peace with your experience while retaining optimism in your future is paramount. The alternative? Hobbling forward, emotionally wounded, distrustful, with an over-armored heart. Probably growing a hernia in the process.
Of course there’s no six step formula for recovering from such experiences. Yet research finds that however acute our sense of moral injury, it’s possible to process even these painful experiences of being wronged in ways that facilitate what is called ‘post traumatic growth’ – enabling us to expand and reconstruct those mental maps to create even more rewarding (and trusting) relationships and forge an even more meaningful future than we may have otherwise.
Here’s a few suggestions to help you do just that.
1. Be extra kind to yourself.
You are going through a really hard experience. You won’t always feel as strong or brave or (insert-idealized-response-here) as you’d like. Cut yourself a little slack and embrace your own humanity in this moment. You cannot lift yourself up by beating yourself down.
Sometimes life is difficult and accepting that as a fact spares us additional suffering from the negative judgements we might make about ourselves. Self-compassion researcher Kristen Neff suggested on my podcast to tune into the loving voice within us in hard times. So ask yourself, what would the most loving person you know say to you right now? Perhaps to be patient with yourself. To cut yourself some extra slack. To take a nap. Sit under a tree. Call a friend or just to keep faith in yourself and your future.
Self-compassion is a powerful source for resilience.
2. Own your emotions, but don’t be overtaken by them.
We innately emotional creatures. We can’t choose not to feel emotions but we can choose how we respond to them. Unchecked emotions can highjack logic and limit our ability to think rationally.
Learning to master your emotional state begins by cultivating self-awareness, learning to distinguish who you are from the emotions you feel.
Labelling your emotions can help you avoid over-identifying with them. One way to do this is by labelling them. A study by UCLA found that putting a label on your emotions – hurt, vindictiveness, shame, betrayal, anxiety – loosens their grip so they can move through you rather set up permanent residence within you.
Another way to help process your emotions is to give yourself permission to feel them fully. So if you’re feeling anxious or angry, notice where that emotion is sitting in your body. Your stomach. Your throat. Your chest. Then inhale slowly and deeply into that space until it loosens. You may need to repeat this a few times initially. Whatever you do, don’t run from hard emotions. No emotion is buried dead so trying to numb or bury or busy ourselves from feeling them will only drive them underground to resurface later in toxic ways.
And of course, engaging a therapist to help you work through these tough emotions in a healthy way is also wise move.
3. Focus forward.
Harvard’s Daniel Gilbert found that we tend to overestimate how long we will feel bad and underestimate how quickly we will adapt and recover. So rather than dwell on how things are now, focus all your energy on how you want them to be in the future.
When people decide to dwell on what is wrong and who’s to blame they essentially leave themselves living through their rear vision mirror, stuck in a past which cannot be changed rather than authoring their future. So invest your energy into writing your next chapter. As Harvard’s Ellen Langer told me, “Every situation can be turned into a win if you work at it.” Likewise, your greatest challenges hold the seed your greatest triumphs… but you must do your part – to look for the seeds, to water them and to reaping their fruit over time.
As I wrote in You’ve Got This!, however bad things feel right now, they will not feel this way forever.
4. Be for yourself, not against others.
After my friend was exonerated, he felt immensely relieved and vindicated. Yet a part of him wanted his accuser to pay for their lies, much less his legal fees. I suggested that he be for himself, not against his accuser; to live by his highest values, not the world’s lowest. Besides, karma knows everyone’s address.
While forgiving others for their wrong doing may feel beyond you right now, there’s no greater way to lift yourself up than by not giving any person(s) the power to keep pulling you down or living in the past.
The decision to ‘go high’ – to not compromise your integrity, character and values – will be a deep source of personal power you can draw on for the rest of your life. Focus on whatever elevates your vision and lifts you higher.
You don’t extinguish darkness by adding more darkness. You remove darkness by adding light. Taking control of your current experience is the most powerful way to rise above the circumstances that might otherwise pull you down.
In the garden of your life, you will always need to pull some weeds. But your focus should always be on planting flowers. After all, what you focus on expands.
5. Zoom up. Keep faith. Press on
Assessing your life through the narrow lens of this moment can blind you to the larger truth that dots never connect forward.
Consider that one day you will look back on this experience and see with a clarity you cannot see now how this experience, painful as it may be, will be every bit as instrumental in shaping the wiser and more compassionate person you’ve yet to become.
Allowing painful experiences to become our identity never serves us. Or anyone else.
Be patient. The puzzle of your life is still forming.
Keep faith that your future won’t be defined by the wrong done against you. Rather it will be expanded by who you’ve chosen to become as a person to rise to this moment.
And finally, trust yourself, that you have everything within you to handle any situation, however unjust or unfair, one moment at a time.
Some of life’s most valuable chapters don’t get a title until much later.
Margie Warrell is the author of You’ve Got This! The Life-Changing Power of Trusting Yourself (Wiley 2020)