What does it mean to forgive, and is there a way to do it that truly works? Why is it essential to practice forgiveness in your life, especially in your relationship? And how does the practice of forgiveness change when it’s something BIG you’re trying to forgive, vs. the everyday things? Did you even know that forgiveness can help you get through the everyday ups and downs of life with your partner?
In relationship, it’s inevitable – big, or small, one of you is going to hurt the other. So then, the question is: what do you do? HOW do you repair, and find your way to forgiveness. In today’s episode, we’re going to explore the topic of Forgiveness with one of the world’s experts on the topic, Dr. Fred Luskin, director of the Stanford Forgiveness Project, and author of the books “Forgive For Love: The Missing Ingredient for a Healthy and Lasting Relationship” and “Forgive for Good” – which are both eye-opening journeys into how the process of forgiveness works in the context of life and love. Fred Luskin has worked with couples, and has also worked with people from war-torn countries – so his forgiveness methodology covers a wide range of the human experience.
When we talk about forgiveness- is it necessary to have someone on the other end who is saying they’re sorry? It certainly is easier when we can directly respond to someone offering us an apology, however this is often not the case. Either that person does not believe they did something wrong, they are no longer in our life, or they are incapable for some reason or another. The crux of forgiveness is when you wanted a certain outcome but that outcome did not occur. Forgiveness is about making peace when you don’t get what you want – and about how you reconcile your desire for something with the reality that it did not happen.
Practicing forgiveness: For most of us, true forgiveness, the deep acceptance form (rather than the ‘sorry’ and ‘it’s okay’) is challenging! People don’t want to forgive, and often don’t know how. It requires an acceptance that the relationship matters more and that owning one’s own weaknesses matters more than whatever grudge you are holding. This is difficult for our egos to accept. It is a a releasing of focusing on our own hurt, and a switch to being able to say ‘you might have harmed me but I am going to release that image of you as someone who does harm’. It is hard to battle away the power of our self-absorption, for many of us this has become a great defense strategy, but you will find that your life and your relationships are more successful when you do make the shift.
Temporary grief is necessary. It is easy to be caught in the habit of wanting to stay in the hurt and the blame, versus choosing to do whatever it takes to release that feeling. It is not just that it is a habit – there are good reasons to feel the hurt, initially. Grief is a necessary experience – that moment of really feeling that thing you didn’t get that you wanted or needed. When you don’t get the love you wanted, OUCH. It is hard. The struggle, however, helps shed light on our desires, stuck places, expectations, and opens our awareness. That said, this period of hurting is not necessarily bad – it can be necessary to experience grief, on some level, in order to grow!
Choose to grow. Grief becomes negative when it becomes chronic. This is often caused by being stuck in an inept or unuseful schema of how life should be. Throughout your entire life you have a choice on how you are going to move on from hurt – are you going to use this as a chance to grow, or as a chance to remain bitter?
Creating new ways of thinking about things: The understanding of what happened requires creating some new cognitive schemas around events. For example, instead of the thought ‘they owed me’, a new schema could be ‘I don’t always get what i want’. In order to have adult relationships we have to accept that we are all flawed human beings. It is important to grow out of our immature and young schemas that hold that we should get everything we want. These old schemas can be replaced- it just takes time! Thanks to neuroplasticity our brains themselves change as we change these long held stories and beliefs.
The process of forgiving does not depend on what you are forgiving! The easiest way to practice forgiveness is to practice on the little things. If you want to become more forgiving in your relationship(s), you can choose minor things that your partner does that you don’t like as a way to develop your skills. This way, when the bigger things come you have already developed the skills and created the brain pathways that you are going to use! We need these new pathways to help us handle disappointment – work towards building this ‘muscle’.
Moving away from blame. In order to move out of the grudge and blame cycle it is essential to shift your perspective from THEM to YOU. You have to take responsibility for your own part and your own life. It is not always about finding out what you did wrong, but rather about taking responsibility by saying “my nervous system, my moods, my brain, these are all up to me and not that other person!” Even though your partner sends out a lot of information and stimulus that can be frustrating and triggering, you are responsible for knowing how to handle yourself and your life. This sense of efficacy in handling yourself is what forgiveness helps lead us towards. If you do not practice this shift in perspective than you suffer due to constant fear of what others can do to you.
Reframing really traumatic and difficult experiences: While it may seem counterintuitive at first, when it comes to the more damaging and traumatic experiences in our lives, the most helpful thing we can do for ourselves is to reframe our hurt in the context of all humanity’s wounding. Devastation and hurt are ubiquitous on planet earth, and it may be one of the aspects of being human that we have to struggle with. Be careful not to exaggerate your experience by seeing it as unusual – yes, your individual wounding may feel distinct, but reframe it within the context of the amount of human suffering. Focusing in on the uniqueness of our specific hurt can cause incredible extra suffering. By reframing your suffering in the greater sense of human suffering it is possible to feel connected to a greater universal truth and power. From here you can more easily access a sense that change and obstacles are a part of life. The question then becomes, given that suffering is part of life, am I going to, in my present life, let these things have power over me and control my life? You have the choice on how strong and capable you want to be when it comes to your own hurt.
Blame, in the context of love: Much of the reason that couples blow up is due to the fact that everyone has been hurt, and everyone has a lot of anger, and we are all looking for places to put this anger. When we find something wrong with our partner, part of us focuses on this so that we can channel the bigness of our frustration that existed – long before we had a partner! Their mistakes and flaws become a place to blame so that we do not have to directly address our deeper dissatisfactions – in other words, our partners actions become ammunition we use to protect ourselves from our own disappointments. To break this cycle we have to choose to be a loving person, even in the midst of hurt. We have to look at our own flaws simultaneously. It is not a matter of “how am I, perfect and whole, going to deal with this broken person?”. No, the question instead is: how do two flawed humans get along? This question moves you away from blame, and out of the victim cycle of someone doing something to you, and moves you towards the true creative challenge of figuring out how two people trying to work with their own weakness can learn to love each other!
You cannot actually push forgiveness – you can sneak around to it though! Forgiveness lives in the part of the brain we have access to when we are calm and centered. It is a natural response to life, but you have to cultivate conditions to bring out that natural response!
The 4 practices towards forgiveness:
- Calm yourself! Quiet down, relax and do practices that are gentle and calming to your nervous system. The adrenalized brain is going to make everything worse… taking care of it is primary to the process of forgiveness.
- Find good! See the good in whatever it is you are dealing with and in your life so that you do not exaggerate the negative.
- Cognitive reframing. Help yourself understand that ‘hey! It is a given that at some level I am not always going to get what I want!’
- Alter the victim story. If you have gotten stuck in the perspective and the story that this has all happened to you – get out! Find a new way of looking at things that helps you take responsibility for your own actions – whatever part is yours.
Your anger may be automatic, but you still have a choice: When you are upset and triggered your sympathetic nervous system reacts and will take over if you do not learn to calm it. When you are on the adrenal pathway, you are going to say the same stereotypical things to yourself, and you will likely revert to older and more immature patterns and habits of reactivity. There are of course, certain experiences in which it is appropriate to use your adrenaline to react so that you can protect and defend yourself, but most often in relationships we are not dealing with actual fight or flight situations.
Instead, what is often happening is that your partner does something that makes you enraged, and your nervous system reacts as if you are ACTUALLY in danger. You can learn to change this response. The habitual response to hurt is often “Wow! I am so angry because they did that horrible thing!”, but the deeper truth is you are upset because you have been practicing certain kinds of thinking and being, expectations, that can lead you to being upset. In blaming your partners for our upset (which is often connected to a very old hurt) and focusing on how it is their fault, you feel helpless. This helplessness is what is so dangerous. The more awareness you learn to have around your automatic reactions, and the more you learn to calm your nervous system, the easier it will be for you to make the shift. You will be able to say, in the midst of hurt, “Oh! I am upset”. And sometimes you just need to feel this upsetness for what it is.
Calming yourself: It is important to continually practice ways of calming yourself down so that when you get to a triggering situation, you can rely on known and developed abilities and strategies. There are endless options here! Get creative, explore, try things out – find what feels good to you and your nervous system. Heart centered breathing, for example, is a meditation technique of bringing attention to your abdomen, and noticing its expansion on each in breath. Deep breathing is critical as it helps get our parasympathetic nervous system to kick in and calm our sympathetic nervous system. After a few breaths you can bring in an image of something loving or positive. This quick practice gives your nervous system a reset, and gives you the mental bandwidth that you did not have 30 seconds prior! When you are angry and stressed out you do not have much bandwidth at all, and are unable therefore to make much sense of what is actually going on. From a slightly more centered place you will now be able to think to yourself “oh boy, I’m getting upset, I’ve been upset about this 500 times before, isn’t it enough?”, or “Hmm…I am getting upset again, is there another way to deal with this?”
You have a choice in how upset you get: Once you know that you can calm yourself, despite who said or did what, you gain choice and freedom! As long as you are blaming others for the actions of your nervous system, it is going to be very hard to have any clarity. Once you take responsibility though, for your own physical, mental, and emotional reactions then you have the choice: do you want to go back to contempt? Or do you want to try something else?
Unenforceable Rules: You can want the sun to rise in the west, but if you get upset when it rises in the east, then you KNOW you are holding onto an unenforceable rule. In relationships these rules could look like, “they cannot lie to me, they shouldn’t drink, they must be home at 8, they should want sex as much as I do”…. We can think this, but we do not have control over the decision our partner makes.
Often these unconscious rules show up when we become upset. The anger helps to highlight where it is we are engaged in a futile attempt to keep a rule that cannot be enforced. Generally, when you notice that you are getting very upset and there is not any immediate danger, then likely there is an unenforceable rule in there.
If you are in the middle of the same argument you have had a million times, then recognize there is something going on in your head that is not helping. Step away- even if it is just psychically, and take a deep breath. Turn your body away for a second. Ask yourself seriously – do they have to do what i want? The answer is always no. So how can I take care of myself? Usually the answer has to do with calming down so that you can get your brain back! Once you are back in a more regulated space you can get curious – what is truly happening here? What can I do differently?
When you do this process of caring for your reactions, it is called forgiveness. You are no longer just getting upset and staying upset – you are taking back control of yourself so that you can have a more successful relationship and successful life!
There are going to be lots of things you just have to live with. The research on successful relationships shows that forgiveness is at the top of necessary qualities to thriving in partnership. Even if there is nothing atrociously wrong with your partner, the interaction of two good people sorting life out is going to create all sorts of conflict! Your expectations, temperatures, biological rhythms, and upbringings are all different and the integration of two different people into a functioning unit is hard. There are inevitably going to be gears that grind, EVEN if you REALLY love each other. If you use the differences as ammunition, you will be miserable. If instead you can recognize that there are many places where you are just going to have to make peace with the fact that you are different, and that there are places you just won’t agree on, then you have a much better chance of openness and happiness. Furthermore, these differences and stuck areas will work out much more successfully once you get out of the mental head space that there is something wrong. Try thinking “we are different, and this is the person that I chose”. Just this thought alone can move you out of the blame and victim cycle, and into the possibility of change.
Create a positive story that you tell about your relationship. Try on this frame of mind: What a remarkable thing it is that someone would try to love me! That as flawed and difficult as I am, someone would take me on! The effects of this kind of humility and humor are profound and allow us to be in relationship successfully!
NOTE: Don’t forget to take some time now to create an image that evokes love and gratitude for you. Find it, develop it, and practice visualizing it often so that it is available to you next time you get angry and need help calming your nervous system!
Read Dr. Fred Luskin’s practical and powerful book: Forgive for Love: The Missing Ingredient for a Healthy and Lasting Relationship
http://www.neilsattin.com/forgive Visit to download the show guide, or text “PASSION” to 33444 and follow the instructions to download the show guide to this episode with Fred Luskin and qualify for a signed copy of his book.
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