Chapter Eight

Mastering the Art of Forgiveness

Our Intentions & Expectations

By Dr. Robert Leichtman

An old formula for achievement states that success results from preparation meeting opportunities. While this idea has much value, many fail to understand what it means to be prepared. This effort involves seeking adequate knowledge and skill to prepare us for an opportunity. 

However, there is another aspect of preparation that is often neglected. We also need to be prepared at the psychological level. This means we must adjust our expectations and intentions to incorporate significant changes in our mindset. Unfortunately, this adjustment is rarely adequate. 

For instance, when we decide to forgive someone for significant injuries, we are often unprepared for the resistance in us that does not want us to forgive. For instance, a part of us may believe we are the innocent victim of malice, and we should be receiving apologies rather than giving forgiveness.

If we are sincere about our efforts to forgive or anything else, we need to begin with the larger purpose and value of what we intend to accomplish. This cannot happen if we allow our wounded feelings and deep sadness to guide us. Instead, we could think about how desirable it would be to have a life free of grievances. We might learn to cope with old wounds and insults without our usual resentment and grief. The key to this change is carefully reshaping our thoughts, feelings, and priorities to support our goals. This step requires us to rethink our intentions and expectations.

Our subconscious autopilot

The average person tends to follow the patterns of their well-established routines. These traditional beliefs and attitudes usually determine our basic mood and focus of concern. In effect, this group of habits becomes the equivalent of our autopilot that quickly takes over our mindset and behavior to produce another ordinary day for ourselves.

Without significant new plans and priorities, our old and familiar habits will remain in control. If something unusual or stressful occurs, our automatic emotional reactions will likely determine our response. Depending on our mood and disposition, we will respond with irritation. A genuinely creative response is rare, and little innovation or growth is involved in our actions.

Imposing self-control on our thoughts 

Our subconscious is a vast reservoir of memories and beliefs. Its contents and qualities will provide constant feedback that influences our mood, mindset, and usual response to our daily experiences. We must be selective in what attracts our attention, or our minds will become confused by distractions. If we frequently allow fantasies or old, painful memories to grab our attention, we must learn to restrain this fascination.    

One way to begin this new mastery of our focus of attention is to examine more closely what we are doing to ourselves when we keep revisiting memories of frustration and disappointment. Unpleasant events are bad enough the first time we live through them. Remembering and reliving them is unlikely to improve the experience. Instead, we are adding to our misery by creating another layer of anxiety or grief that will anchor us more firmly in these dark experiences. Or worse, we are using these memories to reinforce our conviction that life is unfair, and we are victims. This judgment is neither an accurate insight nor a helpful conclusion. It merely strengthens the power of our distress! 

We can glean valuable insights from our past experiences, but we need to search for them more appropriately. This requires a new set of intentions and expectations. Instead of expecting to recall our moments of frustration, we might intend to look for ways to prevent any recurrence of these situations or how a better response might have reduced the damage we experienced. Or we might examine how our surge of anger or helplessness at the time magnified the emotional turmoil we experienced. We might question why we so quickly accept the judgments of others when they were  so unfair and wrong. Why did we allow ourselves to be invalidated by those who have no respect for us? 

If we harness the power of intelligent expectations and intentions, we can relaunch our review of past experiences more thoughtfully. We can stop reinjuring ourselves by reliving our emotional distress. Instead, we can focus on the meaning and relevance of our experiences. Our new intention will be to review old memories only to seek fresh insights about them and add to our capacity for tolerance and confidence.  

This transformation of how we process our experiences is not an easy task to perform. It requires serious thought about the meaning and goals of our life instead of obsessing over our feelings and merely trying to survive our day. There are many rewards for us if we do this correctly. 

Beginning to take charge

When most of us begin the new day, we engage in the standard ritual of getting up, bathing, dressing, and eating breakfast. This routine usually omits the psychological equivalent of getting up from a sleepy state, washing off any tendency to be discouraged or annoyed, putting on a cheerful mood, and consuming constructive expectations.

Unless we intervene, our tendencies to worry, be discouraged, or nurse grievances will prepare us for a repeat performance of yesterday and again contaminate our stream of thought. Recycling old fears, doubts, and disappointments can lead to a downward spiral in our mood and expectations. Our pessimism will recognize more disappointing situations. Our anxiety will expect more disturbances. Our resentments will begin planning for more complications. These trends, once started, will not stop on their own until they run their course, or we decide to cancel them.

Fortunately, we can assert our authority and impose a new and more constructive order. We can do this by concentrating on healthy intentions and expectations for our day. This practice begins by disconnecting our autopilot and taking more control of our life. For example, we can intend to make the new day worthwhile and successful. We can also expect to have friendly and cordial relationships with people. If others remain grumpy, we can decide not to allow them to take away our cheerfulness and optimism despite their bad example. 

The secret to making these changes 

If we allow our automatic reactions and habits to take control, our annoyances and frustrations will often displace more constructive alternatives. As a result, we will likely set our mental compass to avoid what we do not want instead of pursuing what is desirable and worthwhile. 

In this way, wrong motives can easily sneak into our thinking and bring mischief into our lives. For example, we might briefly dream of vengeance about our enemies, failure for our competitors, and control of our adversaries. These quick desires will activate the dark side of our character and create a stressful environment for our whole being. 

We can do better than this, but it must be more than merely wishing we could improve. We must shift to imposing new constructive intentions and expectations on ourselves and our day. Establishing this habit is a matter of constant monitoring of our mindset. We must practice catching ourselves slipping back into our old attitudes and countering this regression by returning to our new standards.

The two major controlling levers we must use to change our primary mindset are our intentions and habitual expectations. These two factors control how we can organize ourselves and our behavior. More specifically, we need to begin our day, intending it to be successful and expecting it to be productive despite aggravating factors. 

 

Preparing for challenging conditions and people

One of the essential principles of preserving our sanity is that we must not allow other people and outer situations to determine our mood or outlook. If we are going to be upset, angry, or worried, it should be because we are responding to our values and understanding, not the neuroses or confusion of others.

We can learn to prepare for circumstances that are going to be difficult instead of expecting to be annoyed and disappointed. We also can quietly adjust to the fact that we will be around dysfunctional people and poor conditions. Acceptance of our less-than-ideal situation means we will allow certain people to continue to be demanding, critical, or needy, but we will not be shocked or disgusted about it. They are the ones who have the problem, and we will not join them in their dysfunctional attitudes and behavior. Like bad weather, there is no point in grumbling about it. Instead, we need to maturely adjust to unpleasant facts and spare ourselves the distress we would create by a poor reaction to these annoyances. In other words, never let anyone take away your joy and tranquility!

Sometimes the distressful situation is not some annoying person but a long-lasting physical or emotional problem in us that we must endure. In these situations, our challenge is to refuse to allow these difficulties to become the centerpiece of our life. Instead, we need to base our identity and intentions on our strengths and opportunities. This will enable us to approach our life situation confidently.  

There are a few who will consider this advice unnatural and unhealthy. These individuals are used to placing every wounded feeling and worry at the very center of their life. They seem to be ready to give control to their departments of anxiety and despair. For some, it is almost as if they want agitation, confusion, and drama to be a necessary part of their life to avoid a more settled and productive lifestyle.

But why shouldn’t we be eager to take control away from our departments of confusion and irritability? Wouldn’t we be more likely to thrive if we stopped surrendering to chaos? Instead we can be motivated by our best intentions and expectations about the day. 

Setting better boundaries 

Imposing limits on how we think and feel is a matter of setting good boundaries, i. e., limitations on our concerns and duties. Most discussions about boundaries protect us from others who try to control us and make too many demands. But this is a small part of boundary-making. We also need to place boundaries on ourselves!

Boundaries are crucial when we need to limit our departments of laziness, pettiness, cringing, and other dysfunctional habits. It may well be that we will be around difficult people most days, and we must cope with delays and disappointments. However, we do not have to presume these events will devastate us, leaving us exhausted and distressed. These old dark expectations are born of our departments of gloom, fear, and hostility. Nasty people and bad events do not have to disturb us unless we let them upset us. We are not always the victims we think we are. Sometimes we volunteer to be annoyed.

The big secret behind these changes is to combine our common sense with our self-discipline to impose our authority on ourselves. The key to preserving our dignity and well-being in times of struggle lies in controlling our automatic emotional reactions. We need to restrain our habits of annoyance and discouragement. This transition to a better style of response begins with intentions and expectations that favor calmness and self-control instead of habitual resenting and attacking what we dislike.  

The blame game  

Perhaps the most destructive way to focus our intentions and expectations is to fall into the rabbit hole of the blame game. Many find it irresistible to accuse other people and external conditions as the cause of most of their distress and various limitations. 

What is often conveniently overlooked is that the distress we are experiencing could be due to our deficiency of skill and knowledge, our lack of effort, or perhaps, our assumption of special rights we do not have. Blaming something is the emotional bandage we often apply to deflect attention from our unmet responsibilities and immature behavior. If we cling to this angry judgment, we are also preserving the self-deception that protects us from discovering the astonishing truth about ourselves that we are the primary cause of much of our distress.  

Of course, none of this happens unless we frequently remember our preferred narrative about important events. We may have permanently embalmed our enemies in anger and contempt so they cannot escape our wrath. Naturally, this action cures everything except our emotional wounds, damage to our self-esteem, and the steady stream of suffering

The blame game can wear us down to a bloody stump if we do not give up some of this conflict. Chronic anger darkens our whole character leaving holes in our capacity for peace, joy, and tolerance. Steady recriminations can congeal into bitterness and become embedded in the body as inflammation and tumors. The price we pay for excessive anger can eventually exceed any alleged benefit from the brief exhilaration of feeling righteous indignation. 

Shifting our focus  

Because we are a work in progress, we often need to review how we define ourselves. Recent events may have provided good reasons to modify who we are and our direction in life. However, this redefinition process must not revolve around our wounds and painful experiences. It is always time to appreciate that letting go of some resentments and mistakes is wise. Our peace and dignity are worth more than “getting even” with our adversaries.

Why should we hold our well-being hostage to the unlikely event that others could suddenly apologize and be nice to us? Like the accountants who tell their clients to write off old, uncollectable bills, we need to write off old uncollectable emotional debts owed to us.

The world is more extensive than where our resentments want to take us. Get used to it! Extract the lessons from these bad experiences and move on to more fulfilling activities. 

Conclusion

We can take back a significant slice of our life when we decide to make better choices than our autopilot for responding to our daily experiences. We do not need to continue assuming every day will include more nasty events, delays, and interference. These are expectations that have fallen under the control of our departments of gloom, fear, and hostility. We can do better by organizing ourselves to be motivated by constructive intentions and aspirations. We can structure our day by planning to make the best of whatever we experience. 

All these changes can make a massive difference in the quality of our life and long-term outcomes. We only need to use our human skills and knowledge more effectively by applying more common sense thinking and less feeling about our choices. This means we must think for ourselves instead of allowing our habitual fears and frustrations to take us wherever they want. We are endowed with the power to determine our intentions and expectations. Through these, we can honor our highest good each day.

Summary  

Our habitual beliefs and feelings determine our focus of concerns and become the equivalent of an autopilot that can control our mindset and behavior. Unless we consciously set specific intentions and expectations, this autopilot in us will take over.  

The two major controlling levers we must use to change our mindset and behavior are our intentions and habitual expectations. These two factors control how we can organize ourselves and our behavior. More specifically, we need to disconnect our autopilot and begin our day with intentions to be successful and expectations to be productive despite aggravating factors.

Having healthy expectations and intentions means we must not allow others to set the tone of our mood and outlook. We can refuse to make our difficulties the centerpiece of our life as we intend to make the best of our current conditions and circumstances. 

We also need to place boundaries on ourselves to limit the influence of our departments of laziness, pettiness, cringing, and other dysfunctional parts. Once we know about them, we can refuse to allow them to affect us. After all, they are the ones with the problem. Let them be upset about their dysfunctions while we remain detached from their nonsense.

While others may owe us some form of apology or compensation for their damage, these debts are often uncollectable. We should write them off just as we would for uncollectable monetary obligations. This exchange is often the price we pay to reestablish our confidence and cheerfulness. 

EXERCISES

  1. Much of what happens to us depends on what we expect to experience. We owe it to ourselves to expect to have the wit and strength to meet every event and situation we encounter with skill, courage, and confidence. Our optimism can help clear much unneeded negativity from our path ahead.
  2. Do we know how often our mental autopilot takes over how we react to daily events? Do we understand that some of these responses are unnecessarily gloomy or hostile? Is it time to review these automatic responses and make revisions?
  3. Do we understand how often we automatically follow the beliefs and habits of others? While we may admire these individuals for all the right reasons, must we also accept all their beliefs and practices? Is it time to appreciate that we need to think for ourselves and clearly define our values and intentions instead of mimicking others? 

Think on these things

Written by Dr. Robert Leichtman