A PROVEN Prescription for Health and Happiness
Reviewed August 11, 2007.
HarperSanFrancisco, San Francisco, 2002. 240 pages.
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,
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 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.
The second component in forming a grievance is blaming the offender for how you feel.
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.
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.
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.
I love his solution—create a new story where you are the hero, rather than the victim.
What a refreshing outlook this book provides. Dr. Luskin promises,
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.
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,
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 thee 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.
Doesn’t this sound beautiful?
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.”
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!
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.