Forgiveness is the ability to regain peace when part of your life didn’t work out the way you wanted. Who doesn’t want that?
Getting hurt by others is inevitable. It feels lousy. And sometimes that bad feeling lasts and lasts. Fred Luskin, PhD ’99, has a radically simple (though not easy) way to feel better: Forgive.
Luskin, founder of the Stanford University Forgiveness Projects and author of Forgive for Good, says that in the most elemental terms, to forgive is to let go of bad feelings or the desire for revenge after you’ve been harmed. “You’re letting go of your internal bitterness, resentment and self-pity over an experience that’s in the past,” he says.
Luskin has spent decades studying the benefits of forgiveness. In a recent Stanford Pathfinderspodcast episode, he explained that most of the reasons to forgive are for your own welfare. “When you’re remembering a hurt or a wound that you haven’t resolved in your mind and heart, that remembrance triggers stress chemicals. It triggers physical distress. When you remember it often, you are stressing your body on a chronic basis,” he says. “That has a physical cost.”
While forgiveness doesn’t necessarily mean reconciling with the person who hurt you, Luskin says, it’s especially important in the relationships you want to keep. “I think our culture has focused in the other direction, which is that forgiveness is most important around relationships that you don’t want to keep. The real need for forgiveness is in marriages, families, business relationships, friendships, between siblings,” he says. Here are eight ways to work on that.
Get mad, feel hurt and grieve.
When someone hurts you, Luskin says, grief and anger are natural and healthy responses. So is self-pity! And there’s no set time for how long it takes to work through and process the hurt. “Forgiveness is allowing negative feelings of outrage and grief to come in, and then letting them go because you’re now at peace with your life.”
Ask yourself whether your anger is constructive or destructive.
Constructive anger solves a problem in the moment by galvanizing you so that you respond appropriately to a threat, Luskin says. Destructive anger is repetitive and has no positive result. “The person you’re angry at isn’t changing, and you’re not growing. In fact, you’re creating brain pathways that make the anger more likely.” When anger becomes a habit rather than a way of processing, or when you hold on to it for a really long time, he says, “it turns out to be destructive both to your physical well-being and to the people around you. No good comes of it—it’s a misuse of one of our biological coping mechanisms.”
Don’t worry—you aren’t saying the offense was OK.
One of the biggest misconceptions about forgiveness, Luskin says, is that it means you’re condoning the offender’s behavior. “In fact, forgiveness means that you don’t condone it. You know it’s wrong or inappropriate, but you choose to cleanse your heart. You don’t make excuses for the behavior. You just accept it and make peace. That’s very different.”
Practice stress-reduction techniques.
If you’re at the table and a family member says something hurtful, Luskin says one of the simplest things you can do is to take a couple of breaths. Stress-management techniques soothe your body’s fight-or-flight response so you stay calm and keep your head.
Remind yourself why you want this person in your life.
When someone you care about acts in a way that is hurtful to you but you want to keep the relationship, it’s important to remember the good the person has done for your life, Luskin says. “People are not replaceable. It’s important to remind yourself that you have one father, one mother, one best friend.” Luskin adds that this doesn’t mean people should stick around for mistreatment or stay in a bad or unhealthy relationship. It does mean that successful relationships are hard to cultivate and maintain if you’re holding grudges, keeping score, or thinking about ways to make someone pay for something he or she did.
“Just about every relationship that you’ve ever been in requires some forgiveness to maintain itself,” he says. “Everyone is flawed, and our perceptions are too. So getting hurt is inevitable. We have to have a mechanism for letting it go and making peace, in order to have happy sustainable relationships.”
When you’ve been hurt by someone you have a relationship with, some gentle boundary setting may be in order. But Luskin says that doesn’t mean calling people out, blaming them or disowning them. “Learn how to simply say, ‘What you just did is not OK.’”
Recognize that you’re telling a story that can be changed.
Our brains are designed to keep us safe from danger, Luskin says, and so a lot of the stories we tell ourselves are not accurate. “We simplify to accentuate the threat. We create these distortions in our head to keep us safe.” Luskin says the quickest way to forgive is to change the story.
So if you’ve been telling yourself a story that five years ago, your friend didn’t invite you to her wedding, and it was a terrible offense that you’re still smarting over, consider that perhaps the two of you were in a rough patch, and she may have made a mistake, but she did the best she could.
Make yourself the hero.
Luskin says that attributing your present distress to something that happened in the past is a way of making yourself a victim. He offers this example: “If I say, ‘The reason I’m unhappy now is that my wife left me three years ago,’ that’s creating victimhood.” A more truthful statement, he says, would be something like, ‘The reason I’m unhappy now is that my wife left me; I didn’t have adequate resources for dealing with it, and in the years since I haven’t figured out how to make peace with that.’
“When you tell yourself, ‘The only one who is going to rescue me is me,’ that creates a kind of heroic efficacy that says, ‘I have to solve this problem. I have to figure out how to be OK and be happy in a life that includes the painful end of a marriage,’” he says. When you can do that, you gain a sense of your own resilience. “When one is able to forgive, it leads to a little more efficacy in handling one’s life. Instead of being limited or afraid, you get a sense of, ‘I know I can cope with difficulty.’ That’s probably the biggest personal benefit.”