This month, Greater Good features videos of a presentation by Fred Luskin, a pioneer in the science and practice of forgiveness. In his talk, Luskin discusses why forgiveness can be so hard to practice and explains his research-tested “nine steps to forgiveness” that have helped thousands of people worldwide give up their grudges, from Northern Ireland to Sierra Leone to communities across the U.S. Here, he sheds light on what it takes to be ready to forgive.
I’ve been teaching forgiveness for more than a decade, and the simple definition of forgiveness that I work with now is that it’s the ability to make peace with the word “no.”
People have come to me with a whole host of problems, and the essence of all of them is: I didn’t get something I wanted. I got “no.” I wanted my partner to be faithful; they weren’t faithful. I got “no.” I wanted somebody to tell the truth; they told a lie. I got “no.” I wanted to be loved as a child; I wasn‘t loved in a way that I felt good about. I got “no.”
It’s so important to be able to understand the universal experience of this—of objecting to the way life is and trying to substitute the way you want it to be, then getting upset when your substitution doesn’t take.
The essence of forgiveness is being resilient when things don’t go the way you want—to be at peace with “no,” be at peace with what is, be at peace with the vulnerability inherent in human life. Then you have to move forward and live your life without prejudice.
It’s the absence of prejudice that informs forgiveness. You realize that nobody owes you, that you don’t have to take the hurt you suffered and pay it forward to someone else. Just because your last partner was unkind to you doesn’t mean you always have to give your new partner the third degree. With an open heart, you move forward and accept what is, without prejudice.
You don’t just accept it because life sucks and there’s nothing you can do about it—though that may be true—but you accept it in a way that leaves you willing to give the next moment a chance.
The resolution of grief
But before you can forgive, you have to grieve.
At the most basic level, forgiveness is on a continuum with grief. The way I understand it now is that when you’re offended or hurt or violated, the natural response is to grieve. All of those problems can be seen as a loss—whether we lose affection or a human being or a dream—and when we lose something, human beings have a natural reintegration process, which we call grief. Then forgiveness is the resolution of grief.
But the challenges we have with grief are twofold: Some people never grieve, and some people grieve for too long.
A deep human being feels pain and allows oneself to suffer because that’s part of the human experience. Without acknowledging that you’ve been wounded and you’ve lost something, you don’t gain the benefit of the experience—of acknowledging that you’ve been hurt and mistreated, but also of healing. And so there is a power that comes from the experience.
But a deep human being also lets go of their suffering—they don’t maintain it forever, don’t create their personality around it, and don’t use it as a weapon. You don’t cling to the negative part of the experience so that you can have something to hold accountable for your failures.
In my experience, I’ve identified three steps of grief that are essential before someone can start to forgive.
Steps to forgiveness
The first step is to fully acknowledge the harm done, whether by you or somebody else, and to own the fact that you’ve lost something—that you didn’t get something you wanted, and it hurts. In a therapeutic context, that could be painful work. Sometimes its take therapeutic work before somebody’s ready to forgive because they’ve suppressed a bad experience or been in denial about it, and it may take effort to get them to acknowledge the harm or its consequences.
The second step of the grief process is to experience the feelings normally associated with the negative experience. It’s not enough just to have someone say, “Hey, I was beaten for 12 years and I want to get over it” if they’ve never been miserable about their suffering. They’re going to have to be miserable before they let it go. I’ve never met anyone who suffered real loss and didn’t suffer at some level. You experience a range of emotions—you’re sad, you’re scared. But when you forgive, you understand that there are other options besides continued suffering. You’re not letting go of the event—that’s immutable. But you can transform the emotional response to it.
The third and final step is that what you’re grieving can’t be a secret. I try not to let people forgive stuff that they haven’t shared with others because there’s such good research on resilience showing that people who go through harmful experiences and don’t tell anybody have much worse consequences than people who do tell others. The human connection is central to healing.
That said, the people who tell everybody about their grievance have the second worst outcomes. The resilience research shows that what you need for a healthy response to difficulty is to share your problem with a few select, caring people over time. You don’t spill your guts to everybody, and you don’t spill your guts to nobody. For people who don’t have trusted confidants, I have suggested that they go to a therapist or enroll in a 12-step program—something to make sure they’re not holding any shame.
If you proceed through these steps, you can reach a point with your grief where you’re ready to forgive. But it takes time. I once had a woman come into a workshop of mine, very early in my experience teaching forgiveness, and say, “I need to forgive the fact that somebody murdered my son.” I didn’t know what to say. I hadn’t done work with families of murder victims yet, and so the only thing I could ask was, “When did it happen?” And she replied, “A month ago.” I said, “Go home. This is not what you need now. Come back in two years. Come back after you’ve done the unimaginably hard work of grieving that loss, then forgive it.”