"Holding on to anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else; you are the one getting burned. " -Buddha
Few people fully realize the huge impact the ability to forgive can have on their happiness, nor do most people think of this as a skill that they need to teach and practice with their children. But important it is: forgiving people tend to be happier, healthier, and more empathetic (and like the Buddha, more serene, agreeable, and spiritual).
The inability to forgive, on the other hand, tends to make us into those people—we all know a few—who can't seem to stop plotting revenge or ruminating about how they've been wronged. Researchers find unforgiving people tend to be hateful, angry, and hostile—which also makes them anxious, depressed, and neurotic. So unless we are okay with our children embodying those qualities, we need to teach them how and why to forgive others.
Part of going through life with other human beings means sometimes experiencing hurt and betrayal, injury and loss. Childhood can be particularly fraught with meanness and bullying. Children don't emerge into the world with perfect social competence, and as we are learning to become kinder and better people, we inevitably make mistakes. One of the most difficult but important lessons we can teach our children is that when we hold a grudge—for something large and seemingly justified, or for something small but irksome—we continue to injure ourselves.
Preoccupation with a transgression or hostility towards another can actually make us physically sick. And when we hold onto negative emotions like anger, bitterness, and hatred, we all but eliminate the possibility that we will experience a positive emotion in that moment, because we can't experience joy when we are expressing resentment, or gratitude when harboring anger.
How to Forgive
We teach forgiveness when we forgive others ourselves because our children learn from what we model. We also need to teach our children directly how to forgive. But forgiving other people is challenging. It is not about forgetting, as the adage would have us believe, but about letting go, about choosing positive emotions over negative ones.
Research shows that forgiveness training raises the self-esteem and hope of people who've been hurt and lowers their anxiety. Here are some exercises adapted from Sonja Lyubormirsky's book The How of Happiness: A Scientific Approach to Getting the Life You Want, to teach kids (and ourselves!) how to forgive.
1. Tell family stories about times when you've hurt others. During dinner, for example, take turns reflecting on a time when you each were forgiven. Recall a time when you hurt someone else, either intentionally or accidentally. Then discuss whether or not you feel forgiven for the offense. If you feel you've been forgiven, here are some questions to discuss:
- How do you know you've been forgiven?
- Why do you think the person forgave you?
- Do you think the person you hurt felt better or worse after they forgave you?
- How did you feel after you were forgiven?
- What is your relationship like with the person now?
- Did this experience make you more or less likely to repeat the hurtful behavior?
- What did you learn from the whole ordeal?
If you do not feel that you've been forgiven, talk about how you might ask for forgiveness (see this Greater Good article for help with this).
2. Role-play empathy and forgiveness. Pick a family member to be the forgiver in this exercise, and ask them to describe a particular person that they blame for something hurtful. Then, stand in the offender's shoes: Why might he have done what he did? What emotions might he have been feeling? Encourage the forgiver to see the broadest picture possible and to give the offender the benefit of the doubt—to imagine the lots of different things that the offender might have been going through. Remind everyone that practicing empathy is not the same as excusing bad behavior, but that it is simply a technique for letting go of anger. Finally, role-play forgiving. What would you say to the offender? What emotions are you feeling as you do the role-play? Try on the facial expressions that you think that you might have when expressing forgiveness. What does your body feel like when you're feeling or expressing forgiveness?
3. Write a forgiveness letter. Help kids write about a time they were hurt in a letter that they may or may not ever send to the person who hurt them. Have them illustrate how they were affected by it at the time and the hurtful or negative feelings they are still experiencing. They can state what they wish the offender had done instead. Have them end this forgiveness letter with an explicit statement of forgiveness, understanding, and even empathy if they can muster it. For example: "I imagine that you didn't realize that what you said would make me cry, and so I forgive you for hurting my feelings."
Forgiving is tough business. It takes courage and resolve to let go of negative feelings when we've been wronged. Fortunately it gets easier with practice&mdash:especially if we start with the small stuff and get in the habit early on—and it makes us stronger and better people.
PLEASE HELP ME write more about forgiveness. Please comment on the blog or send me an email with (1) your story about a time you forgave or were forgiven, (2) a time you helped your child forgive or apologize, or (3) an unresolved offense you'd like help forgiving.
To read more on forgiveness and apology, see these articles in Greater Good magazine:
Truth + Reconciliation (PDF)
Archbishop Desmond Tutu explains how forgiveness allowed South Africans to imagine a new beginning for their country.
The New Science of Forgiveness (PDF)
Leading forgiveness researcher Everett L. Worthington, Jr. discusses the health and social benefits of forgiveness.
The Choice to Forgive (PDF)
Fred Luskin shares his research-tested method for helping people give up their grudges.
Making Peace through Apology (PDF)
Apology expert Aaron Lazare explains why some apologies encourage forgiveness and reconciliation and others only make things worse.
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