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The Importance of Forgiveness
Adapted from work by Fred Luskin, Director of Stanford University Forgivenss Project
The essence of forgiveness is being resilient when things don’t go the way you want—to be at peace with “no,” be at peace with what is, be at peace with the vulnerability inherent in human life.
Then you have to move forward and live your life without prejudice.
It’s the absence of prejudice that informs forgiveness. You realize that nobody owes you, that you don’t have to take the hurt you suffered and pay it forward to someone else. Just because your last partner was unkind to you doesn’t mean you always have to give your new partner the third degree. With an open heart, you move forward and accept what is, without prejudice.
You don’t just accept it because life sucks and there’s nothing you can do about it—though that may be true—but you accept it in a way that leaves you willing to give the next moment a chance.
But before you can forgive, you have to grieve. At the most basic level, forgiveness is on a continuum with grief.
The way I understand it now is that when you’re offended or hurt or violated, the natural response is to grieve. All of those problems can be seen as a loss—whether we lose affection or a human being or a dream—and when we lose something, human beings have a natural reintegration process, which we call grief. Then forgiveness is the resolution of grief.
But the challenges we have with grief are twofold: Some people never grieve, and some people grieve for too long.
A deep human being feels pain and allows oneself to suffer because that’s part of the human experience. Without acknowledging that you’ve been wounded and you’ve lost something, you don’t gain the benefit of the experience—of acknowledging that you’ve been hurt and mistreated, but also of healing. And so there is a power that comes from the experience.
But a deep human being also lets go of their suffering—he or she doesn’t maintain it forever, doesn’t create his or her personality around it, doesn’t use it as a weapon.
In my experience, I’ve identified three steps of grief that are essential before someone can start to forgive.
The first step is to fully acknowledge the harm done, whether by you or somebody else, and to own the fact that you’ve lost something—that you didn’t get something you wanted, and it hurts. In a therapeutic context, that could be painful work. Sometimes its take therapeutic work before somebody’s ready to forgive because they’ve suppressed a bad experience or been in denial about it, and it may take effort to get them to acknowledge the harm or its consequences.
The second step of the grief process is to experience the feelings normally associated with the negative experience. It’s not enough just to have someone say, “Hey, I was beaten for 12 years and I want to get over it” if they’ve never been miserable about their suffering. They’re going to have to be miserable before they let it go. I’ve never met anyone who suffered real loss and didn’t suffer at some level. You experience a range of emotions—you’re sad, you’re scared. But when you forgive, you understand that there are other options besides continued suffering. You’re not letting go of the event—that’s immutable. But you can transform the emotional response to it.
The third and final step is that what you’re grieving can’t be a secret. I try not to let people forgive stuff that they haven’t shared with others because there’s such good research on resilience showing that people who go through harmful experiences and don’t tell anybody have much worse consequences than people who do tell others. The human connection is central to healing.
That said, the people who tell everybody about their grievance have the second worst outcomes. The resilience research shows that what you need for a healthy response to difficulty is to share your problem with a few select, caring people over time. You don’t spill your guts to everybody, and you don’t spill your guts to nobody. For people who don’t have trusted confidants, I have suggested that they go to a therapist or enroll in a 12-step program—something to make sure they’re not holding any shame.
If you proceed through these steps, you can reach a point with your grief where you’re ready to forgive. But it takes time. Fred Luskin says "I once had a woman come into a workshop of mine, very early in my experience teaching forgiveness, and say, “I need to forgive the fact that somebody murdered my son.” I didn’t know what to say. I hadn’t done work with families of murder victims yet, and so the only thing I could ask was, “When did it happen?” And she replied, “A month ago.” I said, “Go home. This is not what you need now. Come back in two years. Come back after you’ve done the unimaginably hard work of grieving that loss, then forgive it.”"
Steps of Forgiveness
Adapted from work by Fred Luskin, Director of Stanford University Forgivenss Project
1. Know exactly how you feel about what happened and be able to articulate what about the situation is not OK. Even if you need a dictionary and thesaurus to find the words categorise or name the emotion it helps to clarify and get our thinking mind back in charge of what the emtional mind has dominated (simly by naming the emotion.) Then, tell a couple of trusted people about your experience.
2. Make a commitment to yourself to feel better. Forgiveness is for you and no one else.
3. Forgiveness does not necessarily mean reconciling with the person who upset you or condoning the action. In forgiveness you seek the peace and understanding that come from blaming people less after they offend you and taking those offenses less personally.
4. Get the right perspective on what is happening. Recognize that your primary distress is coming from the hurt feelings, thoughts, and physical upset you are suffering now, not from what offended you or hurt you two minutes—or 10 years—ago.
6. Give up expecting things from your life or from other people that they do not choose to give you. Remind yourself that you can hope for health, love, friendship, and prosperity, and work hard to get them. However, these are “unenforceable rules:” You will suffer when you demand that these things occur, since you do not have the power to make them happen.
7. Put your energy into looking for another way to get your positive goals met than through the experience that has hurt you.
8. Remember that a life well lived is your best revenge. Instead of focusing on your wounded feelings, and thereby giving power over you to the person who caused you pain, learn to look for the love, beauty, and kindness around you. Put more energy into appreciating what you have rather than attending to what you do not have.
9. Amend the way you look at your past so you remind yourself of your heroic choice to forgive.