What I’ve learned about forgiveness


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Last Christmas Eve, alone and on the verge of having a very bad acid trip, I accidentally committed to forgiving a bunch of people. The following is everything I’ve learned about forgiveness since.

The very first idea that helped frame my approach is that emotions are constructions. We know this because: 1. People in cultures without words for specific emotions don’t report feeling them. 2. We react differently to the same thing on different days.

There’s no divine right to react with Y to X stimuli.

“If you think about it from a brain’s standpoint, it’s trapped in a dark, silent box called your skull, and has no access to the causes of the sensations it receives,” Lisa Feldman Barrett, who wrote the book How Emotions Are Made, said. “It only has the effects, and it has to figure out what caused them. So how does it do this? There’s one other thing it can use, and that’s past experience. The idea is that your brain is constantly predicting what sensory inputs to expect and what action to take, based on past experience. Then it uses the incoming input to either confirm its prediction, or change it.”

Given enough updated input data, we can relearn what stimuli produces what chemical reactions. It’s extremely hard, but extremely possible. That gave me enough hope to push ahead.

Pretty quickly after googling “how to forgive” I got pretty frustrated. As a culture, we talk about forgiveness as an immediate decision. It’s just something you do and then magically you feel better. It took a lot of digging to unearth the bones of a process for how that happens. The best resource I found is Berkley’s Greater Good site.

How to forgive

Here’s my operating theory: The antidote to resentment is empathy. So what I’m trying to do here is to work my way from grudge to compassion. That’s the general arc, so then all I needed to do was break it down into steps.

Fred Luskin studies forgiveness at Berkley. He looks like a twerp who would wear a cellphone holster and zip-off khakis, but he’s got some good ideas. I amended his list of steps to forgiveness:

  1. “Know exactly how you feel about what happened and why it hurt you. Be able to articulate it to friends.”
  2. Grieve.
  3. “Recognize that your primary distress is coming from the hurt feelings, thoughts, and physical upset you are suffering now, not from what offended you or hurt you two minutes—or 10 years—ago.”
  4. “Give up expecting things from your life or from other people that they do not choose to give you. Remind yourself that you can hope for health, love, friendship, and prosperity, and work hard to get them. However, these are ‘unenforceable rules:’ You will suffer when you demand that these things occur, since you do not have the power to make them happen.”
  5. “Put your energy into looking for another way to get your positive goals met than through the experience that has hurt you.”
  6. Gratitude.

Luskin’s main theory is that our hurts come from when we have an expectation about the world and it gets answered with a “no.” So for example you expect your best friend not to sleep with your partner, and the universe answers, “Nah.”

“The essence of forgiveness is being resilient when things don’t go the way you want—to be at peace with “no,” be at peace with what is, be at peace with the vulnerability inherent in human life,” Luskin says. “Then you have to move forward and live your life without prejudice.”

You’ll notice this doesn’t involve absolving them. In fact, fully understanding and enunciating the pain they caused is essential. It’s acknowledgement, not acquittal.

I added “grieve” to Luskin’s steps. He mentions it elsewhere, and I’ve found it an integral part of my process. Especially if, like me, you are only articulating past hurts later, the grief can be decades delayed.

“At the most basic level, forgiveness is on a continuum with grief,” Luskin said. “The way I understand it now is that when you’re offended or hurt or violated, the natural response is to grieve. All of those problems can be seen as a loss—whether we lose affection or a human being or a dream—and when we lose something, human beings have a natural reintegration process, which we call grief. Then forgiveness is the resolution of grief.”

Luskin also has some convenient steps to grief:

  1. Acknowledge the full extent of the harm done.
  2. Experience the negative emotions that come with that.
  3. Tell people. “The human connection is central to healing,” he said.

Steps 3-5 on the forgiveness list are self-explanatory and also obscenely hard. If you can, try to surround yourself with people who tell you that you are worthy of love, and, if you can, try to believe them.

The last step I added to his forgiveness list was gratitude. This has been essential to shifting my brain’s impulses. Gratitude has only one step:

  1. Noting.

Just make a mental note when things are pretty alright, and store it away. Then make sure you’re looking for it. Note the color of the sky, once a day. Note when someone commits an act of compassion. Note when your cat is looking extra cute.

To practice this I meditate every day.

Self-forgiveness

In order to forgive others we must first forgive ourselves.

One Sunday after the Christchurch massacre I was sitting in silence at a Quaker meeting and one person stood up and said the sentence above. I very immediately recognized it to be true of myself, so it might be true of you too.

For example, I’m angry at my parents for inflicting existence upon me. In order to forgive them, I will need to forgive myself for existing. It will flow naturally through to them.

Cool. So what’s self-forgiveness look like?

One study suggests it’s “the shift from self–estrangement to a feeling of being at home with the self.”

Another: “We conceptualize self–forgiveness as a set of motivational changes whereby one becomes decreasingly motivated to avoid stimuli associated with the offense, decreasingly motivated to retaliate against the self (e.g., punish the self, engage in self–destructive behaviors, etc.), and increasingly motivated to act benevolently toward the self.”

I liked these definitions because they hint at a continuum. It’s not a decision you make by snapping your fingers. It’s years of intentional work.

One thing everything I read about self-forgiveness agreed on is that reconciliation is essential. To forgive others, most studies argue, you don’t necessarily have to reconcile or ever talk to them again. You can just release that pain and move on with your life. But it’s harder to never talk to yourself again.

Part of that is that you can’t control what others do. But you can control what you do. So if you know you’re going to continue to do something that demands forgiveness, it’s hard to keep extending that forgiveness. Or at the very least it cheapens the forgiveness into meaninglessness.

I see this as tapping into the same principle as the difference between guilt and shame. Guilt is feeling bad about something you did/didn’t do. Shame is feeling bad about who you are. “When we feel shame we need to learn that it is okay to be who we are,” according to Beverly Engel, a psychotherapist who studies emotional abuse.

My specific shame comes from my messiah complex, and the gap between my current self and perfection. I don’t know what yours is!

“This need to be ‘all good’ may have started because your parents or other caretakers may have had this unreasonable expectation of you and may have severely punished or abandoned you when you made a mistake,” Engel said. “Now you may find that you are equally critical of yourself and equally unforgiving.”

This is probably self-evident to you, but wasn’t to me: Perpetual guilt isn’t beneficial.

“The only wholesome purpose of guilt or remorse is learning—not punishment!—so that you don’t mess up in that way again,” Rick Hanson, who also works at Berkley, said. If I feel perpetual guilt (i.e. shame), it lessons my ability to learn from it.

“Sort what happened into three piles: moral faults, unskillfulness, and everything else,” Hanson suggested. “Moral faults deserve proportionate guilt or remorse, but unskillfulness calls for correction, no more.”

For me, self-compassion looks like recognizing my faults and feeling appropriate guilt for them, but refusing to let them bleed into shame or believe they are indicative of my self-worth.

There are a lot of reasons to not want to forgive. Linda Graham broke them down into three categories. (I don’t know who Linda Graham is and don’t feel like Googling.) The third reason is saving face.

“If our concerns about saving face foster a desire to retaliate or seek vengeance rather than forgive, we may need to re-strengthen our inner sense of self-worth and self-respect before forgiveness can be an option,” Graham said.

Great. So we’re back at others-forgiveness.

Methods

I have a few practical tips.

Again, what I’m trying to do is develop empathy. One thing many places suggest is trying to understand why the person who hurt you did what they did. This doesn’t mean absolving their decisions, or even believing that they tried their best. They probably had terrible and shitty reasons! As my friend Evan told me, “They did what worked for them, and that didn’t work for me. It’s as simple as that.” Rather, I find examining their thought processes mostly useful as an empathy-building exercise, by trying to imagine the world through their eyeballs.

So, for me, learning about cycles of abuse helped. “The sad truth is that those who were abused or neglected in childhood are more likely to become abusive or neglectful of their own children than someone who didn’t have these experiences,” Engel said. It’s still shitty whenever someone perpetuates it (especially because they know exactly how it feels!), but if you imagine your abuser as a scared kid being abused, it’s easier to feel compassion for them.

Another practice I’ve found helpful is to seek out and talk to others in similar situations as those who hurt me. I find that I’m quickly able to build empathy for the strangers struggling with the repercussions of their actions, even if I disagree with their decisions, even though I know the hurt they’ve caused. Then I try to transfer that empathy onto the people who hurt me.

It may also help to give them a gift, according to Robert Enright, who has a 24-step model to forgiveness. (Too many steps, imo.)

I like this because it reminds me of the Benjamin Franklin Effect. Basically, you are more likely to do a favor for someone if you’ve done a favor for them in the past than if you’ve received a favor from them. Benjy Frank had a hater, and how he won him over was asking to borrow a rare book from the hater’s library. Franklin sent it back a week later with a thank-you note, and they became lifelong friends after that.

Does it work the opposite way? Can you learn to care about someone by doing nice things for them or giving them gifts? Probably! Our brains are super dumb and prone to manipulation, even when they are aware of the manipulation happening.

The last thing I want to leave you with is a Taoist meditation my friend Margarita taught me. This was the first bit of actionable advice I heard, around which I built everything written above.

It goes like this. Imagine a cup. It’s sitting in front of you. Now imagine that cup shattering. It’s in many, many shards in front of you. The meditation is two-fold:

  1. Acknowledge that the cup is broken. No amount of duct tape or Elmer’s glue can put it back together.
  2. Recognize that the cup held no value in and of itself. It was a collection of molecules in a particular arrangement. Any value came from what you placed on it. Maybe it was sleek and had a cool design you liked. Maybe it had sentimental value. More likely, you poured water into it and then used it to pour that water into your mouth. None of these are things the cup, sitting in the cabinet, inherently holds. They are things you added.

Then extrapolate this to your life. 1. Acknowledge what happened. You were hurt. Something was broken. 2. Recognize that the relationship held no intrinsic value besides what you placed on it. You sought love there, or you expected a need to be met. Most likely, your core desire was pure and beautiful. Forgive yourself for it, and learn how to meet it elsewhere.

I recommend investing in a sturdy broom.

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