Dr. Fred Luskin On How Forgiveness Can Change Your Life

An expert talks about how to practice forgiveness to live a healthier and happier life.

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Dr. Fred Luskin is a senior consultant in health promotion at Stanford, a professor at the Institute for Transpersonal Psychology, and an affiliate faculty member of the Greater Good Science Centre. After years of personal struggle with an unforgiving heart, Dr. Fred Luskin started studying forgiveness. He now is the Director of the Stanford University Forgiveness Project, and has written ‘Forgive for Good: A Proven Prescription for Health and Happiness’ and ‘Stress Free for Good; 10 proven life skills for health and happiness’. 

(Our conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity) 

*** 

Could you explain how you have become an expert on forgiveness? 

Probably the most important thing that made me an expert in forgiveness was not being able to do it myself. Suffering and being an angry, annoying human being. I spent years struggling to get over a really bad personal hurt a long time ago and that’s what led me to carry out the research that I have conducted. A very close and dear friend betrayed me and I didn’t have the skills to handle it without being angry and cranky. I was miserable, and digging myself out of that pit was what led me to start the Forgiveness Project at Stanford University. 

What does forgiveness actually mean? Is it a change in your mental state? 

On a conceptual level, it’s making peace with the parts of your own life that didn’t work out the way you wanted them to. That’s actually what forgiveness is, that I can make peace with parts of my own life that didn’t make the script that I wrote for them. Ultimately, that’s the conceptual framework that people come to when they’re at peace with things. There’s a sense of, I would have loved it if my partner was faithful. Or I would have loved it if my boss didn’t fire me, but it happened, and this is just my life. There’s nothing else there but my own existence. So it’s that transition from resentment, or anger about an experience of my own life, to some degree of peace and acceptance. 

What are the practical steps you can take if you are feeling resentment or anger towards someone? 

One of the practices that we suggest to people is when you’re upset with anything in your past, take a couple of breaths in and out of your belly and remember that you love somebody. The experience of loving somebody in and of itself feels good. It’s a substitute as well as a distraction from contempt or hatred. But in and of itself, it feels good. So that’s something else you can

practice when you’re tempted to complain about your life. Instead of complaining, say something good about your life. That’s a substitute behaviour that in and of itself feels good. So when people have motivation, and they practice any kind of substitute behaviour that is compelling, they start to change their habits. Then they can start recognizing how toxic their past behaviour was to them. 

So what happens with forgiveness is you decide that you want to forgive, and then you practice something that is in and of itself rewarding. When you go back to the more hostile processes, they don’t feel so good, and that’s what’s required. It’s not complicated, but it takes some repetition. 

We did a handful of research projects where we took people from both sides of the violence in Northern Ireland who had lost family members. Brought them to Stanford and taught them forgiveness. This is one of the ways we established our methods. The first time we brought women from both sides, who had children that had been murdered in the Irish, Catholic Protestant violence. We took them outside and had them open their arms and feel the rays of the sun hit them, and then we asked them to recognize that this feels good. But then we said this (and this is getting into some serious forgiveness) we said the same universe that killed your child, is now nourishing you through the sun. Just different parts. At some point, you’re gonna ask yourself what do I want to remember? Do I want to remember the horror of the murder? Maybe you do initially, but ten years after the murder you want to remember the sun. And so we taught them to allow themselves to change a habit. When you remember that the sun is beautiful, then it doesn’t quite feel the same when you hate your life or you hate somebody else. 

Is the process around forgiving others different to that of forgiving ourselves? 

Forgiving other people at times can be easier because they’re separate from you. You can calm down your reactivity towards them. You can create more benign explanations for their behaviour. Such as ‘they didn’t mean it’ or ‘they had a bad day.’ When it comes to forgiving oneself, the challenge is that you have more control over the bad behaviour and the responsibility to change it, which is really hard. 

So the self forgiveness piece is actually less about the emotion and more about a couple of tangible steps such as: 

Did you sincerely apologize? 

Did you try to make amends? 

Did you make it a point of letting them know that it was not their fault? Did you try to make them feel better? 

Did you figure out what is wrong with you, so you don’t do it again?

That’s the crucial aspect of self forgiveness. It’s about our behaviour and taking responsibility for what we did. 

How long does it take to see the rewards? How do you know if you’re making progress in practising forgiveness? 

It’s a hard question to answer because different wounds and losses take different amounts of time to grieve. So you have normal grief, with all losses and changes and then the unforgiveness piggybacks on the normal grief and has to be unwound as well. For example, if you’re driving and somebody cuts you off and almost harms you, a normal healthy grief reaction could be giving them the finger for two seconds. But an exaggerated reaction would be to point your finger at them for the next 10 seconds as they’re driving off. To shout back at the car and to call up people you know and say, “You won’t believe the idiots that drive on the road” That’s all extra. 

So you have the normal response that you’re going to have to deal with and then release, and then you have all the added stuff that people put on it when they don’t know how to cope with a difficult life event. So the forgiveness piece first has to do with the extra junk in our life. I didn’t need to give you the finger for 12 minutes, and I didn’t need to call everybody up, but you still cut me off. You can’t even get to where you cut me off because you’re too angry and you’re too lost in it. So that has to be dialled down first. The first step is saying to yourself, “OK, I see, I overreacted. I took it too personally, I blame them for the fact that I had a miserable day when they might have just had a miserable day themselves.” You’re making progress when you’re asking questions that actually matter, not just about how upset you are. 

Many of us spend most of our time upset just because we’re upset. We don’t deal with the situation that needs dealing with. And that’s why forgiveness is so important. It allows you to finally deal with the difficult situation like “Wow, I may have to find another job and be my best self, not just hate my ex-boss.” 

So when you can start asking questions that will actually help your life, then you’re making some progress. When you see yourself capable of a variety of feelings, then you know, you’re making some progress. If you’re just angry, you’re stuck. But if you’re angry, and maybe a little confused, 

then maybe you’re making some progress. If you’re angry and confused, and you’re willing to feel sad over things, then you’re also making some progress. 

And when you find yourself reaching a moment of peace, but then get upset again, that’s the last step of adaptation. Because the challenge then is, oh, I’m upset again, it must still be a really bad thing. But the last step of forgiveness is to say, No, it’s not that the thing is so bad, I just need more practice in releasing it. 

Is there a way that we can practice forgiveness on a day to day basis rather than trying to tackle a massive issue like the end of a relationship or a loss of a relative?

The most important place to put forgiveness day to day is towards people you care for. Find the people you love, and work on the negativity that you have in your head about them. Look at whether or not during the last fight you had with your partner you brought up something that they did two years ago. If so, you have some forgiveness work to do. Where this stuff is most powerful is in relationships to keep them strong and healthy, and vibrant. So they last through time and don’t get corroded. 

For example, your partner doesn’t take out the garbage. They told you, they’re going to take out the garbage and they don’t take out the garbage. Then you tell them, “You didn’t take care of the garbage.” And they said, “That’s right. I didn’t take out the garbage – I’m human.” And then you say, “Yeah, but last week you didn’t take out the garbage either, and twice the week before.” There you’re showing both your inability to forgive and inability to deal with something when it should have been dealt with. So when you see yourself doing that you want to forgive yourself, but you also want to say to your partner, “I want to be able to trust you when you say you’re going to do something that you’re going to do it. That’s now but I’m sorry for bringing up actions from the past.” 

That’s practising forgiveness, where it really matters, so that your partner doesn’t feel attacked, but that you can still get your point across.

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