Clearing the Air
By Lynn Seiser
It was easy to hear the tension in her voice over the telephone. She needed to talk to someone. I assured her I was a someone and that most people found me a good listener. She was obviously feeling guilty about something. When she came into my office I could not only hear the tension in her voice, but I could also feel it in the air. She looked at me intensely for what seemed to be a long time. "I need to clear the air about a few things," she said. "Sounds like a good idea," I said. Then I added, "We all probably do."
Clearing the air usually means to get something off your chest so that you can breathe easier. When we hold things inside, we also tend to hold our breath. When we finally talk about things, we accompany it with a deep exhalation or sigh. Sometimes what is bothering you is that you do not like what someone else is doing. Other times it is that you do not like what you did. This second one seemed to fit.
She had a lot of guilt, but did not feel safe enough yet to admit what she felt guilty about. I explained that there are two kinds of guilt. The first one is social guilt where someone else is trying to control you to get what he or she wants from you. This did not seem to fit. The second kind, a healthier guilt, comes when you violate your own rules of ecology. It is a conscience. It is a signal that we have done something even we feel bad about because we know it is wrong. This seemed to hit the mark. I complimented her on having a set of rules and a signal for when she breaks them. She wanted to know what to do.
The first step is to be honest, to "clear the air". This is an interesting expression, because air is so valuable to human life. We can go for days without food and water, but we can only go a short period without air or we die. The depth of our breath is what fuels our very life force. People hold back feelings by not breathing deeply. In the midst of expressing deep emotions people breath very deeply. I asked her to think about what she needed to be honest about and to take a deep breath. The tears began to flow. I waited. She began to talk. She began to get honest with herself. She was breathing deeper and the air was getting clearer.
The second step is to make amends. Making amends does not simply mean to say you are sorry. It is too easy simply to say you are sorry. Amend means to admit what you have done. Amend means to apologize to whomever you have hurt. Amend means to repair the damage, if that is possible. Making amends is getting honest with other people. It is to bring things out into the open so they can be talked about and hopefully healed. The thought of admitting things to another person did not appeal to her. I asked her if the tables were turned, what would she want. She took another deep breath and admitted, "Honesty and an apology would be nice." She knew what the right thing to do was. We all do. It takes courage to live honestly and to make amends for mistakes. Though somewhat fearful, I could see her breathing slow down and the air was getting clearer yet.
The third step is prevention. As we talked she became more aware that she had always known what she was doing was wrong. She knew it not only hurt herself but others. I wish I could say she got the forgiveness she had hoped she would receive. She did not. The other person was not able to forgive what she had done. He was grateful for the honesty. After some tearful time had passed, she accepted that the consequences of not doing the right thing were pain and suffering. She accepted that she had clouded the air and had to accept the responsibility and accountability for that. However, it had taught her a valuable lesson. If you do not dirty the air, you do not have to hold your breath, and you do not have to clean it later.
Our discussion changed from just the personal and relational effects of not keeping the air clear. We noticed the secrecy and dishonesty in the community, in the country, and in the world. We talked about the environment. The air had become so dirty. It was hard to breathe anymore. We talked about Earth Day, a day of global awareness on the need for clean air. She decided to make it an anniversary date. While she would try everyday to keep the air clear in her life, once a year she would recommit herself to the task.
That is a good idea for all of us. Our lives depend on us clearing the air in so many ways.
Thanks for listening, for the opportunity to be of service, and for sharing the clean, clear air on this journey.
Lynn Seiser, Ph.D., is an internationally respected psychotherapist in Seal Beach, CA with more than twenty years of direct clinical experience in recovery counseling for offenders and victims of violence, trauma and abuse. He is known for his work in "holistic" recovery from addictions with an emphasis on "healthy relationships. Lynn is a consultant, speaker and writer and may be contacted at (562) 799-1371. Check out his website at www.members.aol.com/SeiserL/index.html .
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