Forgiveness may be easy for some, but definitely, it is hard for me. Yet at some point not long ago I understood that past attachments do not allow me to pursue my passions. Passion often comes during the action, by focusing on the action and enjoying it. Having the focus invested in some past events and things that could be, distracts me, makes me a negative person and diminishes my creative abilities. To forgive I needed to use several techniques, some of which will be addressing in other articles. With this article I also suggest reading here, here, here, and here. This post roughly follows my personal dilemmas, so it is build as a sort of research questions and answers.
Why is it hard to forgive?
If you ever played the “prisoner’s dilemma” game, you learn a simple algorithm of survival. First, give trust, but if your trust was once broken do not ever trust again. This survival skill can be implemented by remembering who can be trusted and why. Since the memory in this particular case should be very strong, it is enhanced by a strong negative emotion. In fact, both the memory and the emotion involved are so strong, that we have a hard time letting go when the situation changes.
Why should we forgive after all?
The negative feelings we hold generate stress. Stress is bad for us. Many diseases are common for people with hypertension, including depression, heart disease, stroke, and cancer. Reducing stress is a good goal to pursue. Having fewer stressors, we can increase the level of challenge we can face and achieve harder tasks.
Additionally, forgiveness increases our ability to adapt. Thousands of years ago things did not change much, and once someone or something offended you the threat was there for a lifetime. Today the world is changing so fast, that most offenses are irrelevant for our decision making almost immediately afterward. Having cognitive biases based on past offenses and stereotypes can hurt decision-making abilities and performance results.
There is even some weight to the invested resentment, which can be felt in the guts, that makes us less active and more fearful.
Emotions of hate, resentment, and rage are also seen by other people. They do not attract the kind of people we usually want around us, reinforcing emotional downwards spiral. Resentful people feed each other’s negativity causing further frustration and pain.
So forgiveness is often a necessary requirement for a long, happy and successful life.
What is involved in forgiveness?
OK, so suppose we want to forgive. What exactly it requires from us?
First of all, forgiveness is “letting go” of the negative feeling. Instead of having a story that affects us we end up with a narrative we can tell, but does not generate a trauma. In classical psychology, the process is called desensitization, and I may describe it in some other article. In a nutshell, it is a visualization of the harmful scenario in a safe environment.
The process of desensitization is not an exact science. Occasionally it may be easy, but it may also be hard, and it may produce unexpected results.
One of the assumptions involved in forgiveness is safety. If the negative feeling is still relevant and instrumental for our survival, maybe it is best to wait with forgiveness.
Trying to forgive is also a different perspective into our own sole. Even if we fail to forgive, a better understanding of our own motives is a strong positive effect.
It is important to understand that we forgive for our own benefit. This is not something we do for anyone else because he deserves it. The other person may have asked for forgiveness or may have shown no remorse: the forgiveness is a process we do by ourselves and for ourselves.
Are there any negative side-effects?
Anyone with some medical background immediately looks for side-effects, while people without such background are more than happy to ignore any such possibility. In fact, misplaced forgiveness can hurt you in some subtle ways.
During the desensitization experience, we may modify our memories, including the creation of false memories. While these false memories may protect us from the resentment, they may make us less believable witnesses and more vulnerable to other threats, such as frauds.
The original experience might have triggered not only negative, but also positive and helpful experiences. By removing the original trigger, we may find that some of our positive patterns get less effective. As a result, some suppressed thoughts and behaviors may resurface.
The original offense may be important for our identity. Removing the relevant emotions may de-personify us, cause disassociation between our current and previous self.
Again, if a medicine has known and rare side effects, it does not mean we should avoid it.
Who practices deliberate forgiveness?
Apparently many effective leaders practice deliberate forgiveness. They concentrate on the present, demonstrate compassion and non-attachment and respond intentionally. All these characteristics are desired side-effects of forgiveness, natural or deliberate. Choosing a role model such as Dalai Lama may be an overkill: there are many regular people who forgive and continue with their life.
How do I check the success?
Simply tell the stories that used to offend you and see if you still feel anything.
There should be some surge of positive feelings and general reduction of stress.
The ultimate test is a dialogue with the offending party. Even an imaginary dialogue.
Does it cause you to clinch? If so, maybe there are additional things you need to forgive.