How to forgive, forget and, live a freer life
What does it take to let go of prejudices, pressures or personal loss? How do you break free of bitterness for better things? And would you rather risk all, or rest on your laurels? Well if you haven't yet, start now, because forgiving those who hurt you and freeing yourself from fears or flawed feelings, can leave you healthier, happier. What you need to do is learn how to forgive, move on and grow on.
But first, how do you learn to forgive? Dr Fred Luskin, a Senior Consultant in Health Promotion at Stanford University and a Professor at the Institute of Transpersonal Psychology, is the go-to man for that. Dr Luskin is globally acclaimed for his work as the Director of the Stanford Forgiveness Projects--an ongoing series of workshops and research projects that investigate the effectiveness of his forgiveness methods on a variety of populations. According to Dr Luskin, very few people actually choose to forgive when people hurt them, because “no one has taught us how to forgive”.
Scarred by emotions
Learning to forgive does not occur naturally, acknowledges Teresa Jacob*, a 30-something media strategist and trained Bharatanatyam dancer in Mumbai. Jacob has always been super successful. Till she learnt that love can be color blind. Jacob was in a five-year relationship with a colleague. They belonged to the same community but her boyfriend's mother, a retired school headmistress, considered Jacob 'inferior' to her son--because Jacob is from a sub-caste in her community and because the prospective mother-in-law felt her skin tone showed her “loose character”.
Teresa Jacob, you see, has flawless mocha-coloured skin. Never mind that her boyfriend too has a nutbrown skintone. The rejection and the harsh words, plunged Jacob into depression. “I couldn't work, I had crying bouts, I was plagued by self-doubt,” she admits. But she fought her way back to feeling whole again, yoga and meditation helped the healing. She broke up with the boyfriend. And she forgave him. “I was bitter about him, his family. Then I realised that was doing me more harm,” she explains. Today, she works as a consultant, and runs her own dance company. “I don't have the time to brood or feel bitter,” says Jacob. And she hopes she will meet a special someone, someday.
Redefine yourself, your life
Dr Vijay Nagaswami, Chennai-based psychiatrist, author, relationship counsellor and columnist, meets many people like Jacob who tell him they are happier after 'moving on', be it in terms of forgiving a partner, coming to grips with a painful reality, or giving up a stressful job to follow a true passion. “You 'let go' to enhance the quality of your own life. The process is as important as the outcome, since the introspection you engage in, gives you more insight into yourself. And these insights usher in a process of healing,” stresses Dr Nagaswami.
Break free of fears
In the case of Saleela Kappan in Bangalore, choosing risk over resting on her laurels, proved immensely rewarding. Though she hails from a highly conservative community, where women wear traditional garb, Kappan opts to not cover her head, and wears tasteful sarees, or signature Westerns. She lives life on her own terms in a country where a single and successful woman is even now viewed at with both suspicion and pity. Saleela, in her late 30s, runs her own company, RED Communications, a PR (public relations) consultancy in Bangalore. “I have always chosen challenge over comfort,” she admits.
A former client-turned-friend had assured her he would invest in her company. “But after I drew up the necessary paperwork (for starting a partnership), he changed his mind. So I started off with almost no investment,” recalls Kappan. That first step was agonizing, to leave a steady, paying job, not knowing what the future held. “But it has changed my life. Many former clients approached me for their PR needs, numerous friends referred clients to me... it was like the Universe was trying to help me,” says Kappan. Seven years on, every day is a learning experience--both good and bad. “Irrespective of what happens, if you feel it is right in your heart, go ahead and do it,” she adds.
Forgive to feel healthier
The stress and the soul searching Jacob and Kappan went through led them to heal themselves, in body, mind and spirit. Because researchers now know that moving on can positively impact your health and happiness. An article in Harvard Womens' Health Watch in 2005 noted that forgiveness reduces stress, improves heart health, helps you build stronger relationships, reduces pain and anxiety, and increases happiness.
What's more, you can learn to forgive
Dr Fred Luskin's Forgiveness Project teaches people how to forgive. Here is a simplified version of his program:
1. Make a commitment to yourself to do what you have to do to feel better. Forgiveness is for you and no one else.
2. Forgiveness does not necessarily mean reconciliation with the person that hurt you, or condoning their action. Forgiveness can be defined as taking the life experience less personally, and changing your grievance story.
3. Get the right perspective on what is happening. Recognize that your primary distress is coming from the hurt feelings, thoughts and physical upset you are suffering now, not what offended you or hurt you. Forgiveness helps to heal those hurt feelings.
4. At the moment you feel upset, practice a simple stress management technique to soothe your body’s flight or fight response.
5. Give up expecting things from other people that they do not choose to give you. Remind yourself that you can hope for health, love, peace and prosperity and work hard to get them.
6. Put your energy into looking for another way to get your positive goals met than through the experience that has hurt you. Don't mentally replay your hurt, seek out new ways to get what you want.
7. Look for the love, beauty and kindness around you. Forgiveness is about personal power.
8. Amend your grievance story to remind you of the heroic choice to forgive.
* name changed
Note: This the unedited, original version of my article published in the June 2014 issue of Prevention India