Some people can easily forgive others, but for most people, forgiveness takes some preparation and effort. The good news is anyone can improve their forgiveness skills. Frederic Luskin, PhD, director of the Stanford Forgiveness Project at Stanford University, likens the process to mastering a sport: “If you practice forgiveness, you get better at it. And professionals can teach you skills that help you do it even better.”
Here are some pointers to help you get started:
Lay the groundwork. Robert Enright, PhD, a professor of educational psychology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and cofounder of the International Forgiveness Institute, recommends first taking some time to explore your anger. Have you faced your anger, or have you avoided dealing with it? How has the anger affected you, mentally and physically? Have you been obsessing over the grievance or the offender? Has the situation caused a permanent change in your life or the way you view the world? Enright suggests writing about these issues in a journal. Set aside time each day (10 or 15 minutes) for that purpose, but don’t pressure yourself to write a certain amount. Just keep up the daily writing until you’ve answered the questions to your satisfaction.
Don’t rush the process. “Forgiveness should be a joyous gift, not a grim obligation,” Enright says. If you try to force it, you’ll just end up feeling pressured – and perhaps guilty if you’re unable to follow through. Set your intention to forgive, and then do it at your own pace, knowing it might take days, weeks or months. If you find you aren’t making any headway after months of focused intention and exercise, you might want to consider working toward acceptance rather than forgiveness. Like forgiveness, “acceptance is a life-affirming, authentic response,” says clinical psychologist Janis Abrahms Spring, PhD. Acceptance involves making a thoughtful decision to face what has happened and deal with it in a way that’s in your best interest – even if you feel that true forgiveness is not an option. You can still stop obsessing over the hurt and move on with your life.
Change your story. Do you have a longstanding “grievance story” that you constantly repeat to yourself and others? “A grievance story typically describes how somebody else ruined your life,” Luskin says. “And it’s not true. In reality, somebody else did something painful or difficult. Then you didn’t handle it well.” Turn your grievance story into a hero story that focuses on what you did to recover from or cope with the situation. “By shifting from ‘poor me’ to ‘here’s what I did,’ you no longer cast yourself in the role of victim,” he says.
Focus on here and now. You may feel upset about something that happened in the past, but what’s distressing you at this very moment are the feelings, thoughts, and physical reactions you’re having right now, Luskin points out. Actively calming the body and mind for even six to 10 seconds can help short circuit your ongoing stress response, he says. His suggestion: Take a few moments to “breathe deeply, pray, look at something beautiful or remember how much you love someone.”
Make it about you. You might have a chance to tell the person who hurt you that you forgive him or her. Or you might not. You might receive heartfelt gratitude and reconciliation in return. Or you might not. Regardless, Luskin says, you can still choose to forgive. The aim is to find peace for yourself, with or without the offender’s help. Whatever the outcome, you can still free up the personal energy you’re spending on holding a grudge and begin using it for more constructive purposes.
Take baby steps. “You wouldn’t walk into a weight room for the first time and try to lift 300 pounds. You’d work your way up to that heavier weight gradually,” Luskin says. The same principle holds true when learning to forgive. “Don’t start with the worst thing that ever happened to you,” he advises. “Begin with something smaller, and work up.”
Have elastic expectations. Forgiveness won’t necessarily erase all your pain. “When somebody has deliberately betrayed you, and something reminds you about what that person has done, it’s natural to still feel hurt or resentment or even spasms of hate,” Spring says. “Forgiveness doesn’t mean you lose all negative feelings forever. But it does mean that the hurt is no longer center stage.”
Forgiveness is best regarded as an evolution rather than a one-time event. Especially for egregious offenses, you may need to revisit the process repeatedly, but it should get easier each time. Eventually, you’ll realize that your feelings about the other person’s choices and behavior have changed in a deep and abiding way. That’s when you’ll know you’ve learned to forgive for good.
This originally appeared in “Forgive and Forget” in the November 2005 issue of Experience Life magazine.