Forgiveness is Not What You Think – Learn It

Objectives

  • Forgiveness does not have to be that difficult. You are simply making a choice of not letting a situation or someone you dislike ruin your day.
  • It specifically is part of the “input” aspect of dealing with anger.
  • Anger is present in everyone’s life every day.
  • There are different ways of accessing forgiveness. It doesn’t have to be an insurmountable obstacle. “Flipping the switch” is an abbreviated version of it.
  • Don’t let anger run you.

Forgiveness is a big word and a loaded one for most of us. There are many situations that seem (or are) unforgiveable. But ongoing anger, which reflects a hyper-activated threat response, is deadly when it is sustained. The essence of the reaction is feeling trapped – by anything, including pain. The depth of your frustration is indescribable and is the driving force keeping you in The Abyss.

It is more useful to reframe forgiveness as just one aspect of “anger processing,” which is a multi-pronged approach to lower your stress chemistry. Forgiveness specifically addresses input into your nervous system that sends out messages of danger creates a heightened state of alert. Holding onto the past is a major reason your body will remain in this state, and eventually it breaks down. The focus of processing anger is bringing your body’s physiology back into a state of feeling safe.

Genealogy of anger

The sequence of becoming angry is:

  • Circumstance or person who has wronged you (real or perceived)
  • Blame
  • Victim
  • Anger

Anger is so powerful that no one ever wants to let it go. Becoming aware of this universal unwillingness to move on is a critical first step. Being a victim is a strong role, and it helps you feel safe, whether you are or not. You are never going to wake up one day and feel that you want to give it up. You must keep making ongoing choices to “let go.”

 

 

Then the next step is being aware when you are in a victim role. There are many disguises. Unfortunately, this hyper-vigilant neurochemical state (anger) shuts down the rational frontal cortex of your brain, and your glial cells (support system for neurons) throw off inflammatory markers, which sensitize your nervous system. This cascade of events blocks access to being open, having insight, treatment, and healing.

You simply have to decide whether you want to remain in this role or move on. There is no magic or shortcuts. It is an ongoing intellectual choice of, “I don’t want to continue being a victim.” One term for this decision is, “flipping the switch.” It might be considered an abbreviated version of forgiveness and is accessible quickly.

Levels of forgiveness

At its most basic level forgiveness is simply “cutting the cord” and “letting go.” This is different than “acceptance” and “suppressing.” It is an intellectual decision you make every time your attention lands on an upsetting spot. That is it and all that is necessary to free yourself from the past. You have definitively altered the input.

A deeper level of forgiveness would be seeing the situation through the other party’s eyes and have some understanding of where he or she is coming from. This allows you “let go” a little more deeply.

Developing compassion for the other person is what a lot of people consider forgiveness. You realize that there is a high chance that they are suffering and the reason they acted badly. But it may be essentially impossible to achieve, especially if there is ongoing abuse. It is not necessary to reach this level to effectively process anger.

Processing anger is a skill you’ll use daily. It is a powerful statement to you and the world that you are going to live your life on your terms, and no one person or situation is going to take that away from you. It is the tipping point of healing in that you cannot create the necessary shift in your brain to move on without letting go of the past.

Methods of changing the input

There are various ways of accessing forgiveness and not letting the past interfere with your day. I learned many of these following concepts from Dr. Fred Luskin, who is a friend of mine and author of Forgive for Good1. Some suggestions include:

  • Understand how detrimental it is to hold on to the past and not live in the present. Dr. Luskin calls this scenario “renting too much space in your mind.”
  • Just “let go.” Is this person or situation worth disrupting your day and peace of mind? Use the “5 – 3 – 2” strategy to minimize any damage caused by anger and maximize your capacity to enjoy your life.
  • Reframe the situation. Make a choice not to view yourself as a victim and look at challenges as opportunities. “Never waste a crisis.”
  • Cultivate awareness—just being aware of your anger can dissolve it. Especially when you realize that it exists only within you.
  • Identify your grievance stories—Dr. Luskin also makes the observation that if you tell the same story more than three times where you are the victim, you have a “grievance story.”
    • This is particularly relevant when suffering from chroni pain when it really was someone else’s fault. How long do you want that person or employer to run your life? They are not worth your time.
  • “The unenforceable rules”—There are many situations and people in life that you wish would be different, but you have no control or say. It is fine to want a better scenario, but when that wish turns into a mental demand, it is problematic. Spending time being upset about things you have no control over is a complete waste of time.
  • Have compassion—I mention this gingerly because this step is difficult and not mandatory to move on. Most people, including me, can’t achieve this without professional help.
  • Please just don’t read this list. Processing anger requires daily practice and many approaches. Forgiveness is an important aspect of it.

Essentially every person I have seen truly heal has learned to recognize and process his or her anger. Although you can somewhat improve without dealing with it, the real breakthroughs won’t happen without letting go. Each person will learn these skills at their own pace. It is powerful and we have observed that letting go of anger is the “shortcut to healing.”

Recap

Anger is so powerful and necessary that you will never want to give it up. Besides, you can’t control it. Life keeps coming at us and you’ll have the opportunity to practice dealing with it daily.

You can choose what you want to input into your nervous system, and you can also what you want to hang onto. Forgiveness is one of the tools that allows you to “let go” and move on. But every time you think about the situation or person who wronged you, your nervous system will fire up.

Realize that forgiveness is just one of the tools of anger processing that may not be relevant to a given situation or you can’t access it. Putting it into context of being only one of the approaches helps you to use it quickly and efficiently. Maybe it lasts for only a few minutes. That’s fine. You can do it again, and again, and again.

Questions and considerations

  1. If you are this far into the course, you have realized that you are angry. Everyone is and it is particularly intense when trapped by your thoughts and/or physical pain. However, some people still are not connected to it or are not aware of the magnitude of its impact. Consider how connected or not you are to your anger.
  2. Review the disguises of anger. We may not want to present an angry front to others or ourselves. We are incredibly skilled at disguising it. What might be your set of disguises?
  3. Many people have a long history with the word, “forgiveness.” You might feel badly because you can’t or won’t let of anger. No one really can. This is a massive end-of-the-line survival reaction that you have no control over. Understand, your way of “letting go” may be completely different than your concept of forgiveness.
  4. The strategies mentioned above are methods to forgive. As you can see, there are many variations. This word is not as concrete as you might think. Find out what works best for you.

References

  1. Luskin, Dr. Fred. Forgive for Good. Harper One, New York, 2003.