The Road to Forgiveness by Sheila Heen in Real Simple Magazine, May 2004

Your best friend betrayed your confidence. Your significant other cheated. Your coworker took all the credit or ducked the blame. Your sister disputed your parents’ will. Being hurt by someone you trust is among the most painful of human experiences. That pain can linger for quite some time, but how long it lasts is up to you. It all depends upon whether you can forgive. Forgive? THEM? You mean in this lifetime? We laugh ruefully, and the reasons we don’t want to forgive spring quickly to mind: “They don’t deserve it.” “They haven’t apologized.” “I’m not about to let them off the hook. Besides, I can’t forget what they did, so that means I’M off the hook on the forgiveness front, right?” Wrong. Although you may often think of forgiveness as something you do for others, it’s actually something that’s critical to do for yourself. You have two choices: You can forgive, which will positively affect your own happiness, well-being, and future relationships. Or…you can let the hurt and anger inflicted on you continue to dominate your life. It’s YOUR choice. Really. But let’s be honest. Forgiveness is a truly complicated, difficult, and messy process. It’s at the core of some of the most vexing of human challenges – reconciling families, or criminals and victims. There’s probably nothing more ludicrous than a five-step plan for forgiveness. Finding a way to let go of the anger, the disappointment, or the shame – to open your palm and let those feelings run out through your fingers – takes more than simply opening fingers one through five. But when I was reflecting on my own struggles with this issue and talking with others about what has helped them forgive, similar advice came up consistently. So at the risk of being simplistic (forgive me), I offer…five building blocks for forgiveness. 1. Assess the personal cost of not forgiving. A wrongful act brings with it outrage over the pain that has been unfairly imposed on you by the perp formerly known as your friend. The beauty of outrage is that it gives you a pedestal from which you can point the finger and assess the damage that’s been inflicted on you. You’re the victim. She’s the villain. She owes you. End of story. But by refusing to forgive, you pay a price. Research by Robert Enright, a professor of educational psychology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and the author of “Forgiveness Is a Choice,” reveals that holding on to anger can weaken

the body’s immune system and lead to depression, heart attack, cancer, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and other serious medical conditions. Stewing over old hurts drains your energy, your enthusiasm, and your ability to engage fully in life. In contrast, other studies have found that forgiveness can boost your self-esteem and make a positive change in your attitude. Some cardiac patients who received forgiveness education even had improved heart functioning. So instead of asking, “How could they do this to me?” maybe you should be asking “How can I continue to do this to myself?” Refusing to let go of hurt can also take a toll on other relationships. You bore your (remaining) friends to death with the thousandth dramatic retelling of your oppressor’s character flaws or your latest plot for revenge. You may also become distant from those you really care about, have difficulty maintaining emotional intimacy, and be reluctant to trust again. Perhaps most important, by holding a grudge, you cede control over your life and your happiness to the person who wronged you. You allow toxic thoughts and feelings to dominate today, and tomorrow as well. Doc Childre, coauthor of “The HeartMath Solution” refers to this as letting other people live “rent-free” in your head, while they continue to hurt you each time you think about what they did. But as long as you are wrapped up in playing the victim, you miss the opportunity to take back control by leaving them and their ability to hurt you behind. 2. Choose to start forgiving, even if you’re not sure you can finish. Perhaps the hardest part about embarking on the path to forgiveness is that the destination can seem so far away, you think you’ll never get there. But think of it as driving at night. Sure, it’s dark, you can’t see your destination, and your headlights illuminate only the next few yards ahead. Yet you take the leap of faith and embark on that journey, knowing that you’ll eventually find your way, one mile at a time. The choice to start on the journey to forgiveness is just that – a decision, fueled by faith, to move toward something that’s out of sight. Forgiveness means turning on the headlights and starting down the road. 3. Work to forgive yourself first. If you’re having trouble forgiving someone, it may be because you also need to forgive yourself – for trusting the wrong person, or for the way you reacted when things got ugly. My friend Shawna, 30, recently realized that beneath her inability to forgive her ex was the fact that she needed to forgive herself for putting up with his bad behavior for so long. The anger, disappointment,

and shame we feel toward ourselves sometimes eats away at our ability to love and accept ourselves. And while it can be easy to cut someone else out of your life, you can never walk away from you. By acknowledging that you make mistakes, too, you can recognize your own limitations and love yourself anyway. 4. Cultivate compassion for the person who hurt you. Now, let’s not be Pollyannaish – this often seems like too much to ask. Thinking in any sort of positive light about someone who has hurt or betrayed you will be a struggle, especially at first. But the truth of the matter is that, given where your antagonists are in their lives, and the emotions and issues they have, they may not be able to make different choices. They may not be ready to commit to a real relationship, treat a colleague as a friend rather than a competitor, or be gracious rather than grabby. They may not be ready to give up the alcohol, the gossiping, or the greed because of their own discomfort with themselves. This realization helped Shawna start forgiving her ex, instead of thinking of him as the black-hatted villain who had carelessly stomped on her heart, she began to perceive him as a more complicated human being. “I saw that he’s grappling with some genuinely painful family issues, so he may not be ready or able to change those patterns in his own relationships, “she says. If you can eventually tell a sympathetic story about what the other person is struggling with, you’re in the homestretch. 5. Draw lessons that redeem the experience. Most people I’ve asked say that what helped them forgive was replacing the toxic thoughts with something positive they could take from the experience. When they tell the story now of that episode in their lives, they describe their own contributions to the problems or missed signals they now watch for, or they express pride that they made it through the pain to find happiness on the other side. As Shawna learned, it’s easiest to feel forgiveness from the security of having landed in a better place, professionally or personally. So start heading toward that better place, rather than dillydallying in this cesspool of sadness and anger. Are we there yet? Probably not. That’s why I think one of the silliest answers you can give to “Will you forgive me?” is “Yes, I forgive you.” It just doesn’t happen instantaneously. A more honest answer? “Yes, I’m going to forgive you. I’ll keep you posted.” The funny thing about finally arriving at a place called FORGIVEN is that it sneaks up on you when you’re speeding along, paying attention to what’s good in your life. Then one day you think back on “the incident,” and it no longer has the emotional charge it once did. You find you’ve forgotten to update the emotional ledger you were keeping of slights committed and apologies

owed. In fact, you can’t quite recall all the details of what was once marked there with an indelible Sharpie. Congratulations – you’ve arrived. Until then, give it time. It can take weeks, months, even years, to get over feeling disappointed, hurt, and angry, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. But every step brings you closer to freedom and your own happiness.