Strangely enough, I became an expert researcher and teacher on forgiveness because I was miserable. I was bitter and unhappy, and even my wife was getting tired of hearing me moan and groan.
A couple of years earlier I had been deeply betrayed by a very close friend and I still did not know how to cope. I complained to anyone who would listen, and I felt like a victim, until one day my wife said something that made me to stop and rethink my attitude. She said that she still loved me, but didn’t like me as much since I had become a bitter man full of self-pity.
She is the most patient person I know, and even she had run out of patience with me.
The secret of relationships: They cause pain.
Interestingly enough, I was already a marriage and family therapist at the time. I was trained to help others manage anger, frustration and loss, but I couldn’t manage my own.
In all my years of therapeutic training, I realized, no one had ever mentioned forgiveness. No one had ever enunciated the simple truth about relationships: You might get hurt. At times you’ll be disappointed, possibly even mistreated. Since we cannot, and don’t wish to avoid relationships altogether, how can we gain the skills to cope with their ups and downs? By forgiving.
Start by looking outside yourself
I realized my therapeutic training had not prepared me for the difficult task of forgiving. I was so wrapped up in my own self-pity that hadn’t even thought of the possibility of forgiving my former friend until I saw how my wife was affected.
My training as a therapist had focused on each individual’s pain. My wound, my terrible mother, my hostile ex-spouse, my alcoholic excesses … But I began to realize, in reality my pain isn’t so unique. Maybe focusing on this trauma as uniquely mine had become more of a problem than the betrayal itself!
The key to forgiveness: Empathy
Buddhists are right when they say suffering is everywhere, and at the heart of everything human. My real problem was not that I had been horribly wronged, but rather that I lacked compassion and understanding.
Something in me changed. Not overnight and not necessarily easily. In some small way I got over myself. That moment of compassion and care for my wife triggered more empathy. I saw that I had caused as well as received pain. Through this glimmer of compassion, I saw that my therapeutic training had been inadequate. Suffering is everywhere; loss is omnipresent.
The result of my new thinking was essentially this: If we do not learn to let past wounds go, we keep ourselves from fully functioning in the present and future.
Letting go of the pain
The little glimpse of compassion also opened me to the flip-side of suffering: gratitude or appreciation. The flip-side of dwelling on loss and wounds is being thankful for what we have. My obsession with my friend’s behavior caused me to miss so much beauty, so much love and opportunity surrounding me; I was blinded by hurt.
Helping myself, helping others
I got over the betrayal and moved on. I made peace with my friend and even resumed a relationship with him.
Soon afterward, I was a Ph.D. student at Stanford, finishing my degree in counseling psychology, when I had to choose a dissertation topic. I thought of my travails with forgiveness and thought, if it was so difficult for me, it had to be a challenge for others, as well. I wanted to see if science could establish my hunch that forgiveness would be as life-changing and healing for others as it had in my own experience.
Almost 20 years later, the results are consistent. Forgiveness researchers like myself have shown over and over that forgiveness is good for one’s body, mind and relationships. What's more, forgiveness can be taught and practiced just like any other skill. It just takes some interest, time and effort.
Fred Luskin, Ph.D., is the Director of the Stanford Forgiveness Project, where he teaches workshops on forgiveness and serves as a Senior Consultant in Health Promotion and a Professor at the Institute of Transpersonal Psychology. He is also the author of the book Forgive for Good. Find out more about his groundbreaking research here.