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Can You Let Go of Past Hurts?

Interview with Fred Luskin

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How easy do you find it to forgive others? Let’s face it, sometimes other people can be rude, mean, and downright hurtful. You get cut off on the freeway, someone betrays your confidence, or a colleague fails to deliver and, you’re left with the consequences. It’s natural to want to hold on tightly to our feelings of judgement and resentment in an effort to protect ourselves, but might forgiving people and moving on be a better way to improve our wellbeing and performance at work?

“Difficult experiences can create mental grooves that become very challenging to replace,” explained Dr. Fred Luskin from the Stanford University Forgiveness Project when I interviewed him recently. “Forgiveness is one of the names we give to replacing those grooves of negativity, and the ability to do this is one of the keys to mental health.”

Fred explains that most of our difficulties and disappointments come down to not having your wishes and desires met in some way. For example, you might have wished for a more sensitive boss, more trustworthy friends, diligent colleagues, or more loving parents. But if you’re still feeling distressed about past events, it is coming from the feelings, thoughts or physical pain that you’re experiencing right now about these hopes or expectations not being met, not from what someone has or hasn’t done in the past.

While not letting go of these painful feelings and thoughts can protect you and help you to learn from the things that have harmed you, this protective mechanism goes awry when you get stuck in rumination or blaming the past, sucking the joy from your days and overtime undermining your mental and physical wellbeing. Whereas research suggests that by acknowledging that you’ve been hurt, recognizing that it’s in the past and that today’s a brand new day, you’re able to forgive and release this negativity allowing you to become healthier, happier and more resilient.

For example, a recent study within the financial sector found that learning and implementing a practice of forgiveness at work can increase your positive emotions by twenty percent and your satisfaction with life by ten percent. It can also improve your productivity by up to four hundred percent, and sales by twenty-five percent.

This doesn’t mean you need to accept or condone someone’s bad actions or reconcile with people who have harmed you. Nor does it mean that you shouldn’t confront bad behavior in the present moment. But when you forgive you can let go of the judgment, blame, and grudges and change your grievance story to remind yourself of your heroic choice to forgive. At the end of the day, forgiveness is something you do for yourself and not for anyone else. 

How do you practice forgiveness?

Fred suggests using the HEAL acronym as an easy way to remember the four principles of forgiveness:

  • Hope – you acknowledge the hurt and make a commitment to let go and forgive.
  • Educate – accept that you may not always get what you want. Try to give up expecting things from life or others that they do not choose to give you.
  • Affirm – remind yourself that you can hope for health, love, peace, and prosperity and put your energy into achieving your positive goals. 
  • Legitimate – keep doing the best you can and not give up on getting your legitimate needs met. 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, good and kindness around you. Forgiveness is about personal power. After all, a life well lived can be your best revenge.

“But while it’s perfectly good to have all sorts of desires and to go for all the things that you legitimately want in life,” cautioned Fred. “You also have to have space in there for the world or people to say no, and then be able to move on from this.”

To start embedding a practice of forgiveness into your daily life Fred recommends:

  • Recognize other’s forgiveness – consider when you have needed others to forgive you. It might be your parents, your partner, work colleagues and other relationships. Chances are you’ve been given huge doses of forgiveness over your lifetime. Considering how others forgive you can be one of the most striking, humble, honest, truth-telling things you can do to embed a practice of forgiveness. 
  • Forgive others close to you –reflect on where you may be hurting and need to forgive within the relationships with people you care deeply about or with people you like and are fond of. For example, if you have a partner, what little grudges are you currently holding against them? Are they deserving of you holding on to these? Make a commitment to forgive and let go of some of these feelings.
  • Build your forgiveness muscles – start practicing forgiveness on easy rather than difficult things. It might be mistakes and inconveniences such as someone cutting you off in traffic or receiving bad customer service. Practicing on things where it doesn’t really matter, can help you build up your muscles. In this way, you can show yourself that you can let go of things and deal with things not working out the way you want without having to ruin your day.

Who or what do you need to forgive?

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