Forgiveness is the path from hurt to healing, from anger to peace. Why forgive people who have truly hurt you and treated you unfairly? Because forgiving them will make you healthy and happy. Letting go of resentment is good for your heart, both emotionally and physiologically. While forgiveness can be taught in the context of cognitive-behavioral therapy for depression and other emotional disorders, it is not exactly new. Centuries ago, the Buddha said, “Holding on to anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else; you are the one who gets burned.”
What is forgiveness? It is giving up hurt and anger that you may be entitled to have and hold. Forgiveness does not imply denying that you were mistreated, or forgetting your pain. It does not mean that you condone being hurt, or that you will stick around to let yourself get hurt by the same boss or friend that just finished hurting you. It just means that you have committed yourself to learning without unnecessary suffering. One definition, written by Jack Kornfeld, is that “forgiveness is giving up all hope of a better past.”
Fred Luskin, author of the book “Forgive For Good”, sees forgiveness as a practical and learnable skill. He points out that we learn to form grievances, by taking things too personally, by holding onto blame, and by creating a “grievance story.” A grievance story is one you tell about being hurt, in which you portray yourself as a victim. Luskin teaches us to retell our stories in ways that cast ourselves as survivors of tough times, or even as heroes. This is part of taking responsibility for creating our own feelings, even if they seem to be caused by the misdeeds of others. Understanding forgiveness means realizing that no other person, no other past event can force us to feel bad now. Many adults seeking psychotherapy understandably see themselves as victims of parents who were abusive or inadequate in some way decades ago. Forgiveness means putting the past in the past, learning from it, and moving on. It means understanding that our parents may have been troubled people, doing their best, who would have hurt or neglected not just you, but any child they may have raised. Forgiveness is aided by noticing this impersonal part of the pain.
Cognitive therapy can help us take the key step in forgiveness, challenging the unenforceable rules that lead to prolonged hurt and anger. Luskin notes that we all have legitimate but ultimately unenforceable rules. Spouses should stay faithful, parents should always be loving and attentive, bosses and organizations should abide by their agreements with us, and other drivers should drive safely and predictably. If we admit that we cannot control others, then these rules can soften from rigid demands into understandable wishes and hopes. Our unrealistic expectations create our pain, even while we irrationally think that the bad guys around us are the sole cause of our misery.
We can have good lives without demanding that people follow our unenforceable rules. This requires us to let go of our small dreams, and reconnect with our big lifelong dreams. If I admit that I could not make that one ex-girlfriend love me in the past, I can remember my lifelong commitment to making every relationship as loving as I possibly can. As the Rolling Stones tried to teach us, “You can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, you just might find, you get what you need.”
While forgiveness does involve letting go of anger, it does not lead to a passive life. If we live a forgiving life, we can still believe in getting back on the horse after falling off. Once we have been hurt, it makes sense to learn the specific active skills-, expressing love, assertiveness, listening, job searching, interviewing, etc. – that can make our lives turn out better. But first we have to admit that we did indeed fall off that horse.
In his book, Luskin describes his H.E.A.L. method of practicing forgiveness.
H: What did you hope would happen? I wanted my relationship with Tracy to last forever.
E: Educate yourself about reality, and accept what you can’t control. I know I cannot make Tracy love me forever.
A: Affirm your big dream/positive intention – I want a lot of loving people in my life.
L: Long-term commitment to Learning: I will gladly devote the rest of my life to learning more and more about giving and receiving love.
Resources for learning about forgiveness on the internet include:
www.learningtoforgive.com (Dr. Fred Luskin’s web site)
www.candlesholocaustmuseum.org (the web site that tells the story of Eva Kor, a Holocaust survivor who can teach us that anyone, even Dr. Mengele, can be forgiven)