To earn his doctorate in counseling and health psychology from Stanford in 1997, Fred Luskin had to write a dissertation. At the time, Luskin was furious with a friend. To complete his graduation requirement and to cope with the pain, Luskin researched and wrote about forgiveness.
“I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t forgive,” he said. “I was badly hurt by a friend of mine and it threw my world upside down.”
Luskin, now a research associate with the Stanford Center for Research in Disease Prevention, focused on Stanford students’ experiences when he initially began studying forgiveness. In 1999, after earning his doctorate, Luskin launched the original Stanford Forgiveness Project, which studied Bay Area residents. According to Luskin, the study involved 260 participants, including 100 men.
“The results were very positive,” Luskin said. “People showed less stress, less anger, more optimism and more forgiveness.”
Research is conducted in a workshop format and typically lasts from five to six weeks, he said. In his research, he teaches forgiveness as a skill.
“It is not therapy. It is teaching people how to learn this kind of skill,” he said. “We can teach people to forgive and that will improve their well-being.”
The Stanford Forgiveness Project has evolved and now exists as an umbrella organization for numerous Stanford research projects that address forgiveness.
Over the years, researchers with the Stanford Forgiveness Project have worked with families from Ireland who have lost loved ones due to civil strife. The Stanford- Northern Ireland HOPE Project has conducted research on three different occasions with Irish families.
Four Steps Toward Forgiveness
The process of forgiveness can be a liberating experience. One that if practiced proactively can lead to a wonderful experience of life. Interestingly, forgiveness can only occur because we have been given the gift of the ability to make choices. We have the choice to forgive or not to forgive and no one can force us to do either. Conversely, if we want to forgive someone no one can stop us no matter how poorly they may act. This ability to forgive is a manifestation of the personal control we have over our lives. It is nice to reflect upon and feel the respect that we have been given to be able to make such profound choices.
Compellingly, the option to forgive also implies that we had discretion as to whether or not we took offense in the first place. While forgiving may be a difficult enough choice for many of us, imagine how our lives would be if we rarely or never used our power of choice to take offense. Since we have choice, wouldnít it make sense to limit the amount of times we are hurt or offended so that the need to forgive rarely if ever arises? The ability to live life without taking offense, without giving blame, and by offering forgiveness are choices that offer a life of great peace.
The ability to offer proactive forgiveness proceeds along four steps. At step one you are filled with self justified anger. At some point in your life you have been hurt and you are mad at the person you feel wronged you. You blame the person committing the wrong for how you are feeling. It is their action and not your choice of response that you feel is at the cause of your anger. You have forgotten that you have a choice as to how you will react, or are so angry that you are convinced that it would not be right to forgive the offense. At this stage there is usually both active and submerged anger.
The second step towards forgiveness emerges when after feeling angry with someone for a while you realize that the anger does not feel good to you. It may be hurting your emotional balance or your physical health. Or you wish to repair the damage to the relationship. So you take steps to forgive. You may begin to see the problem from the other personís point of view or you may simply decide to let the problem go. In either case after an extended period of time you are no longer angry and you have forgiven the person with whom you were angry. This process can be applied to anger at oneself, another person or to life in general.
The third stage of forgiveness comes after you have seen the beneficial results of forgiveness and you choose to let go of your anger fairly quickly. In this stage the choice is to feel the hurt for a short period of time, and then work to either repair the relationship or let go of seeing the situation as a problem. In either case you decide to forgive because you have had some practice with it and see the benefit in your life. This could emerge in as simple a situation as being cut off by another car on the expressway or in a complex situation like an affair in a marriage. At this stage you are aware that the length of time you experience the situation as a grievance is primarily up to you.
The fourth stage of forgiveness involves the proactive choice to rarely if ever get angry. This means often to forgive in advance of a specific trigger. This stage often emerges at the same time as some or all of the following thoughts:
I don’t want to waste my precious life in the discomfort caused by anger so I will choose to feel differently. I am able to forgive myself, forgive others, forgive life, and forgive God.
I know how it hurts when people donít forgive me. I do not want to hurt other people by my anger so I will let it go.
Life is filled with incredible beauty and I am missing some if I am experiencing unresolved anger. I forgive myself for getting sidetracked.
People do the best they can and if they err I can best help them by offering understanding. The first step in this process is to forgive the specific offense.
Everyone, including myself operates primarily out of self-interest. I must expect that some times I, in my self-interest, will be annoyed by some one else’s expression of their self-interest. If I can understand that this is an ordinary part of life, what is there to be upset about? If I understand that self interest is the way that I behave, how can I but offer forgiveness to everyone, including myself for behaving that way?
These four stages of forgiveness will not be followed in the same way by all people and in all relationships. There are some people for whom we feel such love that we are almost always at stage four: open hearted and ready to forgive. There are other people for whom we feel so egregiously hurt and our well of good will for them is so dry that we can spend years at stage one. What is critical to remember is the power of personal choice and the importance of exercising that choice to forgive so that we can bring peace and healing into our relationships and ourselves.
Nine Steps to Forgiveness
from “Forgive for Good” (Harper Collins, 2002) by Frederic Luskin, Ph.D.
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.
3. Forgiveness does not necessarily mean reconciliation with the person that upset you, or condoning of 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 ten years ago.
5. At the moment you feel upset practice 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.
7. 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.
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 heroic choice to forgive.
Please note: Dr. Luskin expands on these suggestions in his new book, Forgive for Good, which you can order through the New Conversations Bookstore and Reading List. For more information about Dr. Luskin’s work please visit www.learningtoforgive.comFred Luskin, PhD, is a Professor at the Institute of Transpersonal Psychology in Palo Alto, CA, where he teaches tests and measurement and forgiveness classes. He is the Director of the Stanford Forgiveness Projects – a series of research projects affirming his forgiveness training methodology. He has taught and lectured on forgiveness worldwide and has been featured for his forgiveness work in many major media outlets. Dr. Luskin is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and a Nationally Certified School Psychologist.