A PROVEN Prescription for Health and Happiness
Reviewed August 11, 2007.
HarperSanFrancisco, San Francisco, 2002. 240 pages.
2006 Sonderbooks Stand-out: #3 Nonfiction, Personal Growth
I’ve checked out or bought several books on forgiveness since my husband left. This one, so far, has seemed the most practical and do-able.
I don’t care who you are or what your spouse did.—In any divorce, you will both have major things to forgive. For that matter, in any marriage, you will both have major things to forgive. Didn’t Harold Kushner say that forgiveness is the main quality of a mature marriage?
It seems fairly obvious that if we hold onto resentment over what our spouse did, we will never be able to be happy. Even our health is in jeopardy. There’s one little problem: How can you forgive someone who’s hurt you so deeply?
This book doesn’t only cover forgiveness between partners, but also forgiving for people whose family are victims of war or terrorism, forgiving for victims of child abuse, forgiving great evil as well as small inconsiderate acts.
He uses a practical approach. Why should you let the offender harm you further by taking up so much space in your mind? Why should the offender have the power to destroy your health and happiness?
Right at the beginning, he talks about some myths about forgiveness. Forgiveness is for you, and not for the offender. Forgiving does not mean condoning evil or turning into a doormat. Forgiveness is not about denying or minimizing your hurt. It doesn’t even necessarily mean reconciling with the offender.
Forgiveness is a choice, and a skill that people can learn to do, as this author has shown with the studies he has done (even with Irish mothers whose children were killed). Forgiveness is taking back your power, and taking responsibility for how you feel. Forgiveness is about your healing and not about the people who hurt you.
Dr. Luskin says, “I define forgiveness as the experience of peace and understanding that can be felt in the present moment. You forgive by challenging the rigid rules you have for other people’s behavior and by focusing your attention on the good things in your life as opposed to the bad. Forgiveness does not mean forgetting or denying that painful things occurred. Forgiveness is the powerful assertion that bad things will not ruin your today even though they may have spoiled your past.”
First, he talks about how a long-standing grievance is formed. He says there are only three components:
--The exaggerated taking of personal offense.
--The blaming of the offender for how you feel.
--The creation of a grievance story.
The author never promises that people will stop hurting you. He says,
Learning to handle hurts, wounds, and disappointments more skillfully will not stop things from going wrong in life. People may still be unkind, and random events can still hurt you. The world is filled with suffering and difficulty, and just because you have learned to adapt better does not mean these problems go away. What will change, however, is the space you rent them in your mind and the amount of anger, hopelessness, and despair you feel. I cannot emphasize this point too strongly. Life may not be perfect, but you can learn to suffer less. You can learn to forgive, and you can learn to heal.
The first component, taking things too personally, can be solved by learning to look at the impersonal aspects of a hurt. This sounds callous or as if you are excusing the offender, but that’s not it. You are, in effect, acknowledging that being hurt is common, and reminding yourself that you will be able to deal with it, just as so many others have done.
The author says,
The easiest way is to realize how common each painful experience is. It is a fact of life that nothing that has happened to you is unique. If you remind yourself that you are just one of two hundred people burglarized in your community, it is hard to take it as personally. By looking carefully, we can always find at least ten people hurt in the same way…. Remembering how common our suffering is can make it seem like the hurt is being trivialized, but it is worth taking that risk to suffer so much less pain.
The second way to uncover the impersonal dimension of hurt is to understand that most offenses are committed without the intention of hurting anyone personally…. Many of the offenses we ache over were not intended to hurt us personally…. To suggest there is an impersonal dimension to many of our offenses is not to deny the pain of loss and neglect.
Please note that Dr. Luskin is not advocating denying all your hurt feelings and sucking it up because you’re human like everyone else. He is talking about avoiding forming a long-term grievance. There’s a personal aspect as well as the impersonal one.
People deal best with offenses when they can find both perspectives. When you see the impersonal dimension after focusing only on your personal pain, you discover that your specific hurt does not have to cripple you…. When we react to things that happened to us or to others we want to be able to acknowledge the pain but not remain stuck in it…. I believe we heal best from our offenses when we are able to acknowledge the damage done. At the same time, I want each of us to be able to say that what happened is not a unique catastrophe but the beginning of a new story of forgiveness and healing.
The second component in forming a grievance is blaming the offender for how you feel.
When we become upset and ask ourselves “Whose fault is this?” and then insist that the reason for our suffering lies with someone else, we have entered the second step in the grievance process. We are playing the blame game, blaming someone else for our troubles. This is a problem because when the cause of the hurt lies outside us, we will look outside ourselves as well for the solution.
When we are in pain in the present, we often blame our bad feelings on the hurts done in the past. One of the ways we do this is to assume that people meant to hurt us. Another way is to link the cruelty in the past with our current feelings. Both of these hypotheses make it harder for us to heal….. When we blame someone for our troubles, we remain stuck in the past and extend the pain. Unfortunately, we are unaware of how much we limit our chances of healing when we blame someone else…. Blame hypotheses are usually guaranteed to make us hurt and hurt and hurt until we change them.
The beguiling thing about the blame game is that at first you may feel better. You may feel short-term relief because the hurt you feel is someone else’s responsibility. Over the long run, however, the good feelings fade and you are left feeling helpless and vulnerable. Only you can take the steps that will allow you to ultimately feel better.
I like the author’s practical tone. When someone has clearly (to our way of thinking, anyway) wronged us, we feel we have a right to be angry. But he doesn’t make right or wrong the issue. He points out that blaming isn’t good for us.
When we blame another person for how we feel, we grant them the power to regulate our emotions. In all likelihood, this power will not be used wisely, and we will continue to suffer. The number of people who give power over to those who did not care about them is shockingly high.
Feeling bad every time we think of the person who has hurt us becomes a habit and leads us to feel like the victim of someone more powerful. We feel helpless because we are constantly reminded both in mind and body of how bad we feel. When we blame this normal protective response on the offender, we make a mistake. This mistake takes the keys to our release out of our hands and puts them in someone else’s hands.
Holding people accountable for their actions is not the same as blaming them for how you feel. It is justified to hold wayward spouses to their commitment to pay child support. It is justified to expect a hit-and-run driver to spend time in jail. What leads to unnecessary suffering is making your spouse responsible for your continued suffering or your inability to enter into another relationship. What does not help you is holding that hit-and-run driver responsible for your ongoing depression or the unwillingness you might feel to take risks ever again.
The third step that crystallizes a grievance is creating a grievance story.
Mistreatment often ends up as a story of victimization, a story told over and over. Whether we tell it to ourselves or to others, the constant retelling offers scant relief or hope.
Grievance stories describe the painful things you have endured but not healed from. You will know these stories because telling them makes you mad or hurt all over again. You know it’s a grievance story when you feel a flutter in your stomach, a tightening in your chest, or sweat forming in your palms. Grievance stories are the stories you tell when you explain to a friend why your life has not worked out the way you hoped. They are the ones you tell to make sense of why you are unhappy or angry.
Unfortunately, a grievance story is counterproductive.
We suffer if we tell the grievance story repeatedly to others or ourselves. Even though it is the third and final step of the grievance process, the grievance story often signals the onset of future difficulties. The grievance story is our tale of helplessness and frustration based on taking something too personally and blaming someone else for how we feel. The grievance story seems true every time we tell it because familiar stress chemicals course through our body. However, telling a grievance story too often is dangerous to both confidence and mood. It is also a health risk since high blood pressure can become a factor when thinking about a grievance story too often.
I love his solution—create a new story where you are the hero, rather than the victim.
We begin the process of creating a new story by taking care every time we talk about the unresolved painful things that have happened to us. When you hear yourself talking about a past hurt, stop for a moment to see if you are telling a grievance story. If so, pause and take a deep breath. Your grievance story, which seems so comforting and familiar, is your enemy. That grievance story, more than what hurt you, has imprisoned you. It keeps you in the past. It alienates your friends and family and reminds you and others that you are a victim. Once we change our grievance story, we are on the road to healing.
What a refreshing outlook this book provides. Dr. Luskin promises,
I will teach you how to forgive. I will teach through the experience of forgiveness to tell a different story. You will see that you have the choice to amend your story so you no longer highlight the wrong done or the hurt you have suffered. You will learn to tell your story so your problems become challenges to overcome, not simply grievances on which to dwell. By the end of this book, your story will show you as the conquering hero capable of overcoming difficult obstacles. Your story will be that of a hero who succeeded on a journey of forgiveness.
Before getting to the process of forgiveness, Dr. Luskin talks about why we create grievances in some situations, but not in others. He states that the underpinning of the grievance process is found in “unenforceable rules.” Unenforceable rules are rules we have for other people’s behavior that we can’t possibly enforce. He uses the metaphor of a police officer whose car doesn’t work sitting and fuming in his car, writing tickets.
Often when trying to enforce unenforceable rules we write mental tickets to "punish" the one who has acted wrongly. Unfortunately, if our rule is unenforceable, the only person we end up hurting with our ticket is ourselves. We clog up our minds with these tickets. We become frustrated because things do not go the way we want. We become angry because something wrong is happening. We feel helpless because we cannot make things right.
I am convinced that when you try to enforce something over which you have no control, you create a problem for yourself. That problem gets in your way as you try to figure out what is the best thing to do. It is much harder to know what to do when you are angry, frustrated, and helpless. Making a good decision is tough when you are constantly writing tickets and there is no one to give them to.
We know we are trying to enforce an unenforceable rule if anything, except a very recent grievous loss or illness, causes us a good deal of emotional distress. When facing the recent death of someone we love or the loss of one’s home or the news of a major illness, it is natural to feel overwhelmed and not be able to think clearly. However, after a short period of time we must confront the problem of enforcing a rule we cannot enforce.
An unenforceable rule is one where you do not have control over whether your rule is enforced or not. An unenforceable rule is one where you do not have the power to make things come out the way you want. When you try to enforce one of your unenforceable rules, you become angry, bitter, despondent, and helpless. Trying to force something you cannot control is an exercise in frustration. Trying to force a spouse to love you or a business partner to be fair or a parent to treat each sibling fairly is unenforceable.
The second half of the book shows how we can transform a grievance and learn to forgive. Dr. Luskin says,
Forgiveness is the feeling of peace that emerges as you take your hurt less personally, take responsibility for how you feel, and become a hero instead of a victim in the story you tell. Forgiveness is the experience of peacefulness in the present moment. Forgiveness does not change the past, but it changes the present. Forgiveness means that even though you are wounded you choose to hurt and suffer less. Forgiveness is for you and no one else. You can forgive and rejoin a relationship or forgive and never speak to the person again.
He has some practical steps to help you:
--take a hurt less personally
--take responsibility for how you feel
--become a hero instead of a victim in the story you tell.
His techniques about taking a hurt less personally resonate well with the things I learned in Steven Stosny’s You Don’t Have To Take It Anymore.
Many of us are renting more space to rehashing our grievances than focusing on gratitude, love, or appreciation of nature. My central message here is when you bring more positive experiences into your life, your hurts will diminish in importance. In fact, this is the first step to taking responsibility for how you feel and beginning to forgive. If I rent out more and more space in my mind to appreciating my children or the loveliness of a rainy day, there is as a result less space and time for dwelling on the hurts.
Doesn’t this sound beautiful?
Forgiveness is the practice of extending your moments of peacefulness. Forgiveness is deciding what plays on your TV screen. Forgiveness is the power that comes from knowing a past injustice does not have to hurt today. When we have good experiences, such as moments of beauty or love, then for those moments we have forgiven those who have hurt us. Forgiveness is the choice to extend those moments to the rest of our life. Forgiveness is available anytime. It is completely under your control. It does not rely on the actions of others; it is a choice you alone can make.
He gives us some valuable techniques for refocusing our attention. He also explains some ways to challenge our own unenforceable rules. After all, “It is easier to change your thinking than to get unenforceable rules to be obeyed.”
When you find an unenforceable rule, the goal is to return to the desire and get rid of the demand. I urge each of you to fervently hope things go the way you want. At the same time, remind yourself that it is foolish to demand things go a certain way when you do not have the power to make it happen.
To heal, forgiveness is important. I am convinced that the frustration you feel enforcing unenforceable rules is the biggest threat to your motivation to succeed. Most of us give up more readily when we demand something we cannot have than when we make plans to optimize our chances to get what we want. When we hope for a caring parent, we leave room for having to make other plans. When we demand a caring parent, there is little room to maneuver.
I love his idea of changing your story from the story of a victim to the story of a hero. Maybe it’s because I’m a writer. What story would be at all interesting without the hero facing some difficulties? So now the hurts are actually obstacles that make you shine!
A victim is one who often feels helpless to respond to painful circumstances or to control thoughts and feelings. A hero has worked hard to overcome adversity and refuses to be beaten by difficult life events. Forgiveness is the journey of moving from telling the story as a victim to telling the story as a hero. Forgiveness means that your story changes so that you and not the grievance are in control.
The biggest drawback to telling grievance stories is they keep us connected in a powerless way with people who have hurt us. When we mull over our past wounds and hurts, we remind ourselves of a part of our life that did not work. Reconnecting with our positive intention reminds us of our goals and enables us to move forward.
In any grievance story, someone does not get what he or she wants. Unacknowledged is that behind each painful situation is a positive intention. Once found and reclaimed, the positive intention alters the grievance story. The story is no longer just about the person and or situation that caused pain but about the goal that was not quite reached. Suddenly, instead of just recycling pain, the grievance story becomes a vehicle for learning how to change to attain that goal. The grievance story becomes a part of the positive intention story.
You will discover as you tell your positive intention story that you feel better. One reason is that you are closer to telling a balanced story. This is because each of us has many experiences. Negative ones are not more important than positive ones. A grievance freezes a hurtful experience into an unchangeable solid. Then it rents too much space in our mind and leads to feelings of helplessness. The truth is that wounds hurt, but they do not have to be crippling.
Each of us can forgive those who have hurt us. When we put our grievances into the perspective of challenges to our goals, we are giving an accurate account. Everything that hurts us is a challenge to our happiness. It is a challenge to be happy in this world. Wounds can cripple the happiness only of those who do not know how to cope and forgive. Finding our positive intention helps us connect with the big picture. Telling a positive intention story reminds everyone who hears us that we are a hero and not a victim. We deserve the best, and forgiveness helps us find it.
The author says, “From the first to the last page, my goal is to make forgiveness practical.” He achieves that goal beautifully. This book has brought me much farther along in my journey to recovering peace and joy. Thank you so much, Dr. Luskin.