“To err is human; to forgive, divine.”
Dr. Fred Luskin is an expert on forgiveness who has studied and taught the topic for over two decades. From his research, Dr. Luskin has developed the Nine Steps to Forgiveness and used them to help countless people give up their grudges.
Religion traditions have always told us to forgive but have never really offered practical steps as to how to do this. This is unfortunate, because according to Dr. Luskin, forgiveness is a skill that can be taught. It does, however, take practice.
It often seems that we live in a culture that prizes the expression of anger and resentment more than the peace of forgiveness. Because of this, we often don’t take the opportunity to heal ourselves, sometimes from great emotional pain and the physical consequences that result.
DISCLAIMER: There are some hurts you may never be able to forgive.
You may have wounds that are so profound, that happened so early in life, or when you were vulnerable, or wounds where someone you loved was injured, that practically speaking, you will never be able to fully forgive. The hurt is too much a part of who you are.
Various forms of abuse, whether to ourselves or those we hold dear, are often not completely forgivable. Progress toward forgiving can take years of growth and self-work devoted to reinforcing repeatedly the damaged sense of personal worth and power. Abuse makes scars in the brain, and some never heal.
It is better to accept that we are neither ready nor able – and in some instances, not even willing to consider – to be forgiving than to pretend to forgive when we do not. I once wrote down a quote that speaks to this, but I have long forgotten the source: “Pretension only submerges our anger, and anger not expressed always hires a saboteur. This saboteur knows that in spite of advertising forgiveness, in truth it is but a rickety façade behind which rage is eager to launch a lethal ambush.”
Before getting into Dr. Luskin’s Nine Steps to Forgiveness, there are some misconceptions that need to be addressed.
Forgiving an offense means that you condone the offense. As an example, if your partner had an affair, forgiving your partner for the offense does not mean that you condone what he or she did. The affair was wrong, but you do not have to suffer indefinitely because you were betrayed.
Forgiveness means that you have to reconcile with someone who treated you badly. For example, if you were the recipient of childhood abuse or were in a harsh relationship, you can forgive the offender and as part of that choice, make the decision to end or limit contact. Forgiveness is primarily for creating your peace of mind. It is to create healing in your life and return you to a state in which you can live and be capable of love and trust again. Forgiveness does not have to lead to reconciliation. It can also be helpful to remember that we can change our minds and that a decision to sever contact in the present can be revisited in the future.
Forgiveness depends on whether or not the abuser or lying person apologizes, wants you back, or changes his or her ways. If someone’s behaviour is the primary determinant for your healing, then that person will retain power over you indefinitely. Forgiveness is the experience of finding peace inside and can neither be compelled nor stopped by another. As an example, you can forgive an ex-spouse for abandoning you and your children, but forgiveness in no way means you do not ensure that your children get the support payments to which they are entitled. Forgiveness and justice are not the same. You can seek justice with an open heart just as well as with a bitter one.
Forgiveness means that we forget what has happened to us. Of course you’re going to remember your wounds. That doesn’t mean, however, that you need to dwell on them or craft your life story in such a way that the wounds play a central role. Painful events can be life-enhancing experiences when we grieve and learn from them.
Misconceptions addressed, here are the Nine Steps to Forgiveness:
Know exactly how you feel. Know exactly how you feel about what happened and be able to articulate what things about the situation are not ok. Then, tell a couple of trusted people about your experience.
Make a commitment. Make a commitment to yourself to do what you have to do to feel better. Forgiveness is for you and not for anyone else. In fact, no one else has to know about your decision.
Understand your goal. Forgiveness does not necessarily mean reconciliation with the person who upset you nor does it mean condoning his or her actions. What you are after is to find peace. Forgiveness can be defined as the peace and understanding that come from blaming that which has hurt you less, taking the life experience less personally, and changing your grievance story.
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 what offended you or hurt you two minutes – or ten years – ago.
Practice stress management techniques. At the moment you feel upset, practice stress management techniques to soothe your body’s fight-or-flight response. There are all kinds of them at your disposal.
Reduce your expectations. Give up expecting things from other people that they do not choose to give you. Recognize that you cannot control how others behave. Remind yourself that you can hope for health, love, friendship, and prosperity and work hard to get them. However, when you demand that these things occur when you don’t always have the power to make them happen, you will set yourself up for suffering.
Look for another way to get your positive goals met. Put your energy into looking for another way to get your positive goals met than through the experience that has hurt you. Instead of mentally replaying your hurt, seek out new ways to get what you want.
A life well lived is the best solution. Instead of focusing on your wounded feelings, and thereby giving the person who caused you pain power over you, learn to look for the love, beauty, and kindness around you.
Amend your grievance story. Amend your grievance story to remind yourself of the heroic choice to forgive, and focus your conversation on what you have learned about yourself and life.
If you are serious about learning forgiveness, spiritual growth will accompany you. The way of the spirit is to embrace life – all of it. Yes, we need to protect ourselves, but we often have the power to transform what is destructive in life. Forgiveness of others, and self, is an act of transformation and a high spiritual path.
Spirituality and forgiveness are both about oneness. Any study of spirituality will find that at the core of the teaching of the seers and guides are paths for the practice of forgiveness. Spirituality is the name we give to uniting with all of experience; forgiveness is the name we give for humans coming back together.
Without forgiveness, the life of the spirit is handicapped. If we are active on the path to forgiveness, we are making progress and are well on our Way.
BONUS: Find the Gift in the Mistake
It’s so easy to fall down the rabbit hole of criticizing yourself when you’ve made a poor choice or responded badly to a stressful situation. “How could I have been so stupid?” “I can’t believe I did that!”
It’s important to show up for the challenges of life, take responsibility, yes, absolutely. But once that’s done, perpetuating the shame and guilt simply perpetuates the stress. And stress inhibits the functioning of the parts of the brain that could wisely discern what to do now.
Much better to turn regrets into lessons. You can re-frame your mistake as learning:
- This is what happened.
- This is what I did.
- This has been the cost.
- This is what I learned.
- This is what I could do differently going forward.
You can forgive yourself and move on.