Many years ago I was asked if the technology I developed, InnerTalk, might be used with an incarcerated population to lower aggression and hostility, and otherwise assist in rehabilitation efforts. As such, in the mid 1980s, together with two colleagues, we set up the first double-blind study of it’s kind to test this idea.
The hypothesis was straight forward: change the way people think, their self-talk, and you’ll change their expectation, and that will lead to changing their behavior. Little did I know at the time how remarkably true this simple hypothesis would turn out to be, but as importantly, what I would learn and how it would change my life.
We ran some very sophisticated psychometrics in our attempt to find a common denominator among the volunteer inmates. We were looking to determine what sort of inner-talk change would lead to the desired outcome. Our psychometrics revealed that the inmates all scored high on self and social alienation—but we pretty well knew that going in. So I sat down with the volunteer population and we discussed how we would go about the study. I explained everything, took questions, and then asked a few myself.
The feedback from the inmates was revealing—it wasn’t their fault. “There but for the grace of God, there go you,” a bit of a twist on John Bradford’s, “There but for the grace of God, goes John Bradford,” in reference to a group of prisoners being led to execution. In other words, if you or I had experienced their lives, we would be in their shoes now.
The fact is, that’s not true. Often siblings raised in the same home with the same parents, attending the same schools, etc., made different choices and one could be in prison while the other was a physician in a teaching hospital. It always came down to the choices each made given the same or similar circumstances. Now I’m not going to argue nature verses nurture here, instead I wish to delve into the reasoning and rationalizations behind some of the wrong choices made by the volunteers in our study.
A common denominator expressed in this “All but for the grace of God,” metaphor is the role of a victim—and one who addresses the world with blame. Circumstances did it to them. In their mind, they are victims, and what’s more, a good compensation mechanism is righteous revenge. They were entitled to steal or worse, because they were avenging wrongs perceived to have been carried out against them.
What we chose to do with our inmates was undo their propensity to blame. We did this by building a healthy self-esteem profile into our program with three, what I sometimes think of as ‘magic messages,’ “I forgive myself. I am forgiven. I forgive all others.” Today we refer to these three messages simply as the Forgiveness Set.
When you no longer blame—you free yourself. Blame is a trap for a victim and forgiveness is the freedom all victims seek. So long as you blame, you effectively tie yourself up. After all, it’s something or someone else’s doing, so what can you do about that?
Forgiveness snaps the binds of blame and frees you to move beyond the victim role!
Our inmate population responded so positively to our InnerTalk interdiction that the prison system installed voluntary libraries throughout all of their facilities, from youth to maximum security. Other prisons copied the system. As for me, I realized that I too was trapped by blame. This realization changed my life and I will be forever grateful for the lessons I learned during a trying time in my life.
My thoughts anyway, what are yours?