Mastering the Art of Forgiveness
Wrong Interpretations of our experiences
By Dr. Robert Leichtman
The work of forgiveness can be exceptionally difficult when we have strong reasons to be angry about specific people and situations. Our unresolved grievances often generate recurring moods of anxiety, depression, and resentment which will quickly rebuff our direct efforts to forgive. These are the times when we need to reexamine why we have allowed old and current injuries to have this powerful impact on our lives.
Many are not ready to question their judgment about the harm that has occurred. The outrage that they have for those who injured them blinds them from recognizing how their persistent reaction to old events also injures them. While all attention is tends to be focused on harmful people and toxic situations, many fail to recognize how continuing our grief, rage, and righteous indignation is also injurious. This is a second level of injury we create for ourselves, and it is often worse than what others have done to us.
The burden we impose on ourselves
Unresolved grievances can cause recurring feelings of depression and resentment even when we do not consciously think about them. This is because our dark memories lie low in our subconscious like bottom-feeding fish that continue to stir up our darkest emotions and urges. We might not notice how they weigh down our daily outlook and mood, but they add a layer of apathy over how we see our opportunities and suppress our ability to find joy in living.
Many will deny that such burdens affect them any longer. They make this claim because they can calmly discuss old events and how they no longer are bothered by them. Most seem unaware of how their deep subconscious grievances still undermine their mindset, limit their enthusiasm, and restrain their creativity.
The initial questions we must answer
Suppose our initial rush of grief, anxiety, or anger about what happened to us caused us to inflate our judgments. Would it be helpful to reexamine those beliefs? What if we were mistaken about some of our accusations? Have we forgotten that, after the arguments began, we responded with as much malice as we had received? Or have we neglected how others tried to reason with us while we refused to listen or talk? Are we blaming others or society to avoid the possibility that we weren’t acting maturely? These are hard questions to ask ourselves and can be even more painful to answer.
Before we launch into a lengthy process of forgiveness for significant old grievances, we must check for two crucial points. First, have we contributed to this conflict in some manner? Do we keep our resentments alive and fresh by reliving painful memories and resurrecting our angry accusations?
Are we unresponsive when others try to apologize or discuss what has upset us?
Second, do we have the right priorities? Are we making too much of being offended and not enough of our ability to enjoy life and thrive? Do we tend to retreat into bitterness and cynicism after agonizing about our difficulties? Are we giving our energy to nursing our grievances instead of trying to restore our confidence and friendly outlook? We need to decide which direction is more important to us.
The temptation to make the wrong interpretation
There is nothing like failure, loss, and rejection to darken our mood and turn us into hostile and cynical individuals. Disappointment and anger can easily distort our perceptions and blind us to the truth. This duo can entice us to embrace self-serving interpretations that provide false comfort for our genuine hurts. Life will appear dark because we have shut out the light and turned off our healthy curiosity.
Perhaps we resented those who, from their perspective, were only trying to prevent us from making huge mistakes and missing great opportunities. Maybe individuals important to us could never approve of our choice of career or spouse, but why would we allow this disapproval to have such a powerful and enduring impact on us? Could it be that we also doubted our decisions?
Why do we allow one big disaster to define the rest of our life? Have we used up all our opportunities in just one colossal defeat? Are there no new choices open to us? Are we unfairly restricting ourselves to low expectations?
The importance of being fair and realistic
Defeating our anger will not be possible until we assign the fault to the correct party or parties. It can be foolish to assume that most of the problems in our life are due to external conditions and exceptionally nasty people. We must consider the possibility that we have been unfair in some of our judgments. Perhaps we accuse others of intolerance when our ideas or behavior are genuinely offensive to them. Others may disapprove of our ideas and beliefs because our style seems arrogant and insensitive to them.
Whatever our faults are, we must not allow them to bury us in continual frustration. Real problems that are not resolved will follow us wherever we go, even to new employment or marriages. Our responsibility is to find a way through our difficulties instead of constantly seeking to escape them by blaming them on others and society.
Look for the signs that can guide us
Life is full of signposts that direct us to success and fulfillment or warn us of impending disappointment and failure. Other signs will warn of tempting distractions. We rarely have no warning of impending trouble. The problem is that we often fail to recognize these hints, or we do see them but choose to ignore them.
These signs are, of course, not displayed in an accessible form that anyone can see. They more often manifest as simple nudges or clues in gestures, casual remarks, tone, and other subtle warning signs. Many signals occur as disappointments when events we expected never happen and in different types of losses scattered throughout our experiences.
When we fail to respond to the message in these events, they will be repeated with greater frequency and intensity. For example, the rudeness and indifference in ourselves that we fail to recognize or restrain will sabotage our future. Our lack of skill or knowledge will repel more substantial opportunities. The shyness and insecurity we display will cause additional frustration. Retreating to do what is easy instead of right will eventually cause us more grief. In these ways, life can become a near-constant battle. We must recognize when we have contributed to this struggle, either by our failure to act or how we behave.
Will we be stuck in our past or learn from it and move on?
We are designed to expand our awareness and grow our skills and knowledge. The difficulty is that our disappointment or anger can cause us to become blinded by our frustrations. Our thinking becomes distorted, our judgment clouded, and we begin to see our situation mainly through the lens of our annoyance and discouragement.
At this point, the big road sign that everyone needs to see is the one that alerts to the fact that perpetual frustration lies in one direction and progress lies in the opposite. If our continual agitation about past events consumes us, we will become stuck on what disturbs us instead of the path away from it.
Focusing on the hellacious aspects of our life diverts our attention and concerns from pursuing possible solutions. We will be tempted to assume that only changes in our external situation can bring the relief we seek. These assumptions will render invisible all the signs that instruct us to make changes in ourselves!
The signs that we, not just others, need to change
Several lines of self-inquiry can reveal fresh insights about our situation. Many of these questions may be embarrassing but helpful.
- Are we a victim of our weakness or poor understanding? Is our problem being too sensitive or demanding? Are we so lacking in tolerance that we set ourselves up to be disappointed? Is it time to stop blaming others for our failures?
- Are we unable to admit that we have been wrong? Is our ego so sensitive that we cannot confess we made some mistakes in our judgment? Do we want to continue to live with the irritation these errors prolong?
- Are we taking most criticism personally when our critics did not intend it this way? Are we unable to recognize when we are being advised on how to improve our performance? Do we automatically assume anyone daring to criticize us is a deadly enemy?
- Are we blind to how much we project our contempt and disgust on innocent people who don’t deserve it? Do we automatically judge people and events before we get to know them? Are we listening to our prejudices instead of actual experiences?
- Do we assume those who don’t think or look like us are inferior? Can we not conceive that good people come in all sizes, colors, and backgrounds and not just those who look like us?
- Do we make sweeping judgments based on minimal exposure to people and situations, or do we wait for more extensive knowledge? Is leaping to conclusions our favorite exercise?
- Do we consider a lack of extensive education automatically indicates an ignorant person? Do we understand that common sense and good judgment come from experience rather than academic training?
- Can we tolerate being outside our zone of comfort and familiarity? Are we finished exploring our world because we assume we already know everything we need to know?
- Have we decided that our life has been so miserable that we will now go on strike and be distrustful and uncooperative until life treats us better? Do we understand how our cynicism and aloofness repel people and sabotage our health and welfare?
- Suppose we restrict our interests to familiar and comfortable ideas. If we do, we will limit ourselves to the few answers we already possess when we tackle all new opportunities and problems. Don’t we need to continue exploring new mental territory? Maybe we need to start looking for some of those signs we missed along the way.
Are we obsessed with our struggles or their relief?
The role of the oppressed victim is always popular in our modern society. Our fellow sufferers usually welcome long discussions of our mutual struggles and sacrifices. But as rewarding as this practice often is to our ego, it is a temptation we must learn to resist. We should understand that there is no merit in suffering or talking about it! It is the overcoming of suffering that has enduring value.
This statement will undoubtedly offend the perpetually wounded, but it is valid. We must understand the difference between staring at the darkness and complaining about it versus searching for the light. Pain and suffering can be quite genuine and overwhelming. However, those obsessed with their pain can completely miss the light and love of our higher self that is our primary source of relief. We must reawaken our capacity to search for this support.
Enduring relief from conflict is often found within us
To prevent being overwhelmed by our wounds and losses, we are all given the gift of learning from our experiences. Instead of examining what is wrong with our life, we can search for what works or doesn’t work to create enduring success and fulfillment. As we revise and remodel our core interests and expectations, we can develop a new and healthier direction in our life.
We can, for instance, recognize that every experience of rudeness teaches us the importance of being treated with consideration and kindness. Every time we have been deceived or cheated will teach us more about the value of integrity and how the cost of being honest is worth it. Every mistake we make can also be a teaching moment in which we can recognize where we might be more successful next time if we modify our style, methods, and pace. Every disaster can inform us how to rescue something important from these events before we begin again.
Failure is never an actual failure unless we repeat the practice with the same expectations, beliefs, and methods. We must recognize that the path to success is paved with partial failures and many disappointments. We need to realize that our distress and disgust are invisible signs that tell us in painful language DON’T DO THIS AGAIN! The greater the disaster, the more forceful the message, and the more we can learn from it.
Our victory over much distress and discomfort begins as we recognize better answers, solutions, and methods. This new knowledge includes more practical perspectives, attitudes, and beliefs. It can mean more flexibility, imagination, trust, faith, and cooperation. Even before we change anything physically, we can realize that we have access to an innate intelligent life force and spiritual core that will guide and support us.
These insights begin the reversal of our disgust, apathy, and helplessness. If we can embrace these possibilities, emotional and physical changes will quickly follow.
Those who choose to lead a cautious and defensive life will limit their opportunities. Being perpetually on guard for deception, threats, and risks will lead to a bland life that will be devoid of much growth or fulfillment. Those who are more curious and willing to explore will have more fun and success.
Life is full of wisdom and good experiences if we will only rise above our discouragement, fear, and apathy to embrace it. We are allowed to go for all the redemptive discoveries and creative developments we can work into a lifetime. It all depends on our perspective and our eagerness to explore.
To be fully alive and responsive to our human and spiritual potentials is to be receptive to learning experiences—not merely restricted to safe and easy choices. Go forth and evolve!
- Forgiveness for major injuries is difficult because we often edit out how we participated in causing and sustaining some of these problems. We need to be honest about how we respond to significant traumas.
- Beware of our automatic tendency to view our angry response to perceived threats and acts as an entirely justified when it was nothing like that.
- Being overwhelmed by fear and anger is not a crime, but when it adds to our state of injury and confusion, it becomes another problem in addition to our injury. We need to unpack our reasoning about this to achieve understanding and forgiveness for ourselves and others.
- We need to watch for the signals that we are not the innocent victim we may have assumed. These signals include a troubled conscience, signs that we project a false narrative about the injustice we experienced, and partial amnesia about our contribution to the disasters.
- Becoming fixated on our suffering as a victim of injustice can blind us to the way out of our distress. The obsession with our wounds can prevent us from seeking and finding solutions for ourselves. We must understand that we will find most of these solutions by thoughtful introspection about our defensiveness and self-absorption.
- 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.
- 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?
- 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
Chapter Seventeen Mastering the Art of Forgiveness WHAT TO DO WHEN FORGIVENESS SEEMS TOO DIFFICULT By Dr. Robert Leichtman Listen to this course The work