A proven presciption for health and happiness
by Frederic Luskin, Ph.D.
I AM A SENIOR consultant for the Vaden Health Center at Stanford University where I teach people ways to manage their stress and to live lives of greater satisfaction. I do this to reduce their risk of disease and to help their bodies and minds remain strong and resilient. A funny thing happened to me in the midst of doing this work. I started to research the effect that forgiveness had on physical and emotional well being. Towards that end, I developed a simple process of teaching people to let go of the grudges and grievances they carried around. As I started to teach forgiveness, I discovered that an unexpectedly large number of people responded to this work with fascination, confusion, enthusiasm and mistrust. Almost no one knew for certain exactly what forgiveness was and why it might be useful to study.
My work as director of the Stanford Forgiveness Projects has shown that learning to forgive helps people hurt less, experience less anger, feel less stress and suffer less depression. My research also shows that, as people learn to forgive, they become more hopeful, optimistic and compassionate. As people learn to forgive, they become more forgiving in general, not just towards one particular person who did them wrong. Our research has also shown that forgiveness has physical health benefits.
People who learn to forgive report significantly fewer symptoms of stress, such as backache, muscle tension, dizziness, headaches and upset stomachs. In addition, people report improvements in appetite, sleep patterns, energy and general well being. Finally, one research project showed that angry people with high blood pressure showed a decrease in both anger and blood pressure when they learned to forgive.
If forgiveness is so good for us, why do so few of us choose to forgive when people hurt us? First, no one has taught us how to forgive. The religious traditions usually tell us to forgive, but do not offer the practical steps as to how. We live in a culture that prizes the expression of anger and resentment more than the peace of forgiveness. And most people are confused about what forgiveness is and what it is not. Because of this, too many do not take the opportunity to heal themselves, sometimes from great emotional pain and the physical consequences that result.
First, forgiving an offence such as an adulterous affair does not mean you condone the affair. I am reminded often that we can only forgive that which we know to be wrong. Your partner’s affair was wrong, but you do not have to suffer indefinitely because you were betrayed. Secondly, forgiveness in no way means you have to reconcile with someone who treated you badly. If you were the recipient of childhood abuse or are 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 where you can live capable again of love and trust.
Another misconception about forgiveness is that it depends on whether or not the abuser or lying person apologizes, wants you back or changes his/her ways. If another person’s poor behaviour was the determinant for your healing then the unkind and selfish people in your life would retain power over you indefinitely. Finally, you can forgive you ex-spouse for their insulting speech and even for abandoning you and your children… but forgiveness in no way means you do not take the ex to court to make sure your children get the support payments to which they are entitled. Forgiveness and justice are not the same. Forgiveness and reconciliation are not the same. Forgiveness and condoning are not the same.
What I have seen time and time again is that people have the capacity to make peace with their past. They regain their ability to trust and love and stop blaming other people for their emotional distress. They take more time to count their blessings and less to complain about what went wrong. They understand they need to look more at who they are becoming and less at what has happened. They grasp that each day they wake up with a fresh start no matter what happened to them yesterday. They learn to forgive and heal in both body and mind.
Nine steps to forgiveness
Forgive for Good
1. Know exactly how you feel about what happened and be able to articulate what about the situation is not OK. Then, tell a couple of trusted people about your experience.
2. Make a commitment to yourself to do what you have to do to feel better. Forgiveness is for you and not for anyone else. No one else even has to know about your decision.
3. Understand your goal. Forgiveness does not necessarily mean reconciliation with the person that upset you or condoning their action. 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.”
4. 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 10 years – ago.
5. At the moment you feel upset, practise the Positive Emotion Refocusing Technique, a simple stress management technique to soothe your body’s flight or fight response.
6. Give up expecting things from other people, or your life, that they do not choose to give you. Recognize the “unenforceable rules” you have for your health or how you or other people must behave. Remind yourself that you can hope for health, love, friendship and prosperity and work hard to get them. However, you will suffer if you demand these things occur when you do not have the power to make them happen.
7. Put your energy into looking for another way to get your positive goals met [other] than through the experience that has hurt you. I call this step finding your positive intention. Instead of mentally replaying your hurt, seek out new ways to get what you want.
8. Remember that a life well lived is your best revenge. 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.
9. Amend your grievance story to remind you of the power you have to create a better story, one where you can let go of the need to be a victim.
Dr. Fred Luskin is the director of the Stanford University Forgiveness Projects, a renowned researcher, author and expert in forgiveness. He presents “Forgive for Good: 9 Steps to Forgiveness” at the Justice Institute of British Columbia (Theatre), New Westminster, BC, March 26, 9AM-3:30PM. Call 604-528-5590 or 1-877-528-5591to register