The Value of Forgiveness

Episode 9 June 11, 2023 00:35:25
The Value of Forgiveness
Pathways to Heart
The Value of Forgiveness

Jun 11 2023 | 00:35:25


Hosted By

John Elfers, Ph.D. Tara Pipia Adam Neal, M.A. Sofia University

Show Notes

This podcast is a discussion with Dr. Fred Luskin on the meaning, purpose and value of forgiveness. Dr Luskin founded and currently serves as Director of the Stanford University Forgiveness Projects.  For 10 years he created and taught the Happiness class based on Positive Psychology class, as well as co-founded the Life Works and Wellness Education programs at Stanford School of Medicine.  He is on faculty for the Stanford School of Business Executive Education program where he teaches a series on Mindfulness and Happiness to business executives from all over the world. He is interviewed by Dr. John Elfers.

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Episode Transcript

John Elfers (00:03): So welcome Dr. Luskin, and thank you for sharing your experience with us on this important topic of forgiveness. And I just wanted to open up by inviting you to share what is it that drew you to this topic? How did you get to forgiveness? Dr. Fred Luskin (00:18): You know, John, it's both simple, direct and broad. For many, many, many years, I had an interest in spirituality. I became a yoga teacher way back in the day, started a meditation practice like 40 years ago. And even owned a hippie vegetarian restaurant in Santa Cruz, you know, back in the eighties. So I just have a long whatever in like eastern spirituality. So that's been a driver of what the heck I'm doing in this world. And the forgiveness piece came in part because I had been really badly hurt and didn't know how to forgive. So I had to dig myself out of that. And that was, that was awful. It was painful anyway, and I needed a dissertation topic when I was getting my doctorate at Stanford. I wanted to do something that was an intervention study, but on a spiritual quality. And I wanted to show at some level that this new ay, hippie dippy stuff was actually true. And if it wasn't true, then that was good to know too. You know, if meditation didn't make a difference, if being compassionate and kind didn't have any impact, well, it would be nice to know that these religions are full of garbage. But my belief system was that they were good and that they needed real research to affirm the, physical, emotional benefits of their practice. John Elfers (02:30): Yeah. Thank you. So I had a suspicion that there was some you know, personal connection here with this topic. So given that, can you share a little bit about what you've learned about models of forgiveness based on your personal experience of forgiveness and, and your academic experience and research and study? Dr. Fred Luskin (02:57): I mean, there are religious models of forgiveness. You know, you do so because God wants you to, or that, you know, Jesus tells you to forgive everyone. And most religions have some place in there to foreswear grudges. You know, there's kind of secular models. You forgive because it's good for your mental health and you forgive for its benefit on you as a material being. I'm also enamored with the science of it, you know, the sheer understanding of its impact. What are some of the correlates of it, and are there like mediating factors? You know, I like the science of it. My own belief between the religious and the secular is that distinction doesn't matter very much that there is religious coping and there is secular coping, and I'm not sure that they are as different as people think. I was involved in a study, a friend of mine who is a forgiveness researcher in a Lutheran college in Iowa. He did a forgiveness research project where he taught my forgiveness teaching and compared it to a Christian forgiveness teaching. Did a randomized trial with students and found that at the end result, they both worked kind of equally well. The students preferred mine because it was simpler that they didn't have to deal with metaphysics, but the end result was if you practiced and you worked at it, you could forgive. John Elfers (05:12): Oh, that's interesting that there was not that distinction. You know, I hear a lot about the role of forgiveness as being something as truly transformative for a person that can be all the processes that someone goes through. Can you say anything about that? In what way is forgiveness really transformative for a person? Dr. Fred Luskin (05:39): Well, you go from victim to something else, and that's a major transformation. So unforgiveness tends to be a kind of stance of helplessness, of low efficacy. I can't move past this or somebody else, or my past is responsible for my current suffering. Those are very low efficacy positions, which lead to blame and blame leads to health problems. So, when you give that up and you say, Hey, even though I may have been wounded, I'm not necessarily a victim. I'm somebody who has learned to cope with life. That's a huge transformation. And it can spread to other things, you know, where Oh, okay. So I don't have to wait, identify as a helpless recipient of life. I can identify as someone who learned to cope with life. Secondly, it can transform relationships. So if you're married or you have long-standing relationships, every relationship comes with difficulties. John Elfers (06:58): <Laugh>, <laugh>, yes. Right? Yes. Dr. Fred Luskin (07:02): So if you want to have low efficacy in relationship, then don't forgive. You know what I'm saying? And so it's an important quality for moving ahead with one's life and being able to like without prejudice, handle what life has given to us and be able to have hope for the future because we can cope with our life. Those are powerful statements that forgiveness opens us up to. John Elfers (07:51): Yeah. It does seem that transformation is one of coming from a place of being in a victim stance or being stuck to one of much more empowerment. Yeah, a lot more taking control and that being associated probably with many gains in mental health. One of the things, I hear a question a lot, it's something that kind of runs through my mind at times is the distinction between true forgiveness and not condoning the behavior that precipitated the insult or all that, is there a dance? Is there, what is that dance between, being able to forgive someone but also not condoning the behavior? Because I think there can be some confusion there. Dr. Fred Luskin (08:49): I mean, whether we condone behavior or not, it really doesn't matter as much as we think cause things happen, and our opinion about them is less important than we like to give a credence to. I mean, so, but the true definition of forgiveness does not include condoning. What it does say is that something happened that I don't believe was the right thing to happen. Now, that my opinion is out about it, I don't have to attend so strongly to that opinion, and I can figure out how I move on both from the consequences of the event and the consequences of my opinion. So, you can judge 1990, but who cares? You know what I mean? It's like, it's 30 years ago, you can judge your parents, but it doesn't really mean that much. It's just at some level wasted space in your current experience, throwing your opinion around about all these things that happened in the past. But forgiveness says no, at that time I thought it was wrong, and maybe it, whether it was cruel or maybe it was just something I didn't want to deal with, and all that is part of my first response, which is it's not what I wanted. Then I have to move on from that because at some level, any maturity is recognizing that life has things you don't want and don't like, and you have to deal with them. And constantly saying that I don't want and don't like them, doesn't really mean very much. John Elfers (10:39): Yeah. It does seem like, it's easy to get in these thought loops of blaming and pointing the finger, and I think over time what can happen. I know, at least in some of my experiences of getting to a point of realizing that my inability to forgive isn't changing the situation. It isn't hurting the other person. I'm the one who's suffering. I'm the one who, who I'm in these thought loops. I'm continuing to blame, you know, someone else. And so there can be, I guess I'm assuming, is there kind of some major release or something with that comes with, realizing that I'm the one that's suffering and part of forgiving is letting go of that process? Dr. Fred Luskin (11:30): The metaphor that we came up with was like if you or somebody else is in a bad situation about something that happened, the metaphor was like either your group and their group, or you and another person, you went to a multiplex and you watched different movies, and then you come out of the multiplex and argue about whose movie was right. And people can spend decades arguing about whose movie is right, but we see different movies and we're constantly trying to convince people that our movie is the right one. So it's a very disempowering place. Dr. Fred Luskin (12:20): It's a conviction that the story I'm telling myself, the pictures that I have are the only ones, and that they don't require any movement on my part to grow past my original impression. And that's simply bad living. I mean, if you want to have an optimal life, that's not the way to do it. What we have suggested over the years is to say certain things happen that may be outside of my ability to cope with that may be outside of my picture of how my life should have unfolded. And it may be really challenging for me to normalize that and make it part of my identity, but that's my work. And so having an opinion about being wrong is kind of trivial. I mean, after, I'm not saying you get there in like two weeks, but if something bad really happened after a while, you have to absorb that and move on from the limitation of thinking that this simply being wrong in my book is sufficient. It's a beginning place. It's not an ending place. So you know, just because they didn't watch the same movie. Well that's a, you know, there's a lot of movies out there. John Elfers (14:05): Yeah. I love that analogy. That's great. You know, it sounds like the process of forgiveness is one, it is a process, right? And it can be transformative. It may take a while, and in that space between whatever happens and the forgiveness itself, there's a lot of growth that's happening there. You know, I hear you say, using the word coping, like I have to be able to maybe cope in some other way. I have to learn to surrender to let go of whatever baggage I'm holding onto. Yeah. It seems like implicit just in that process of forgiveness, that there's a lot tremendous growth and changing when people, Dr. Fred Luskin (14:55): People pick it up, when they get tired of suffering and recognize that they're contributing to the suffering by not being willing to move on. And what the the biggest spur is, I don't wanto to be stuck in my own like juice forever. Mm-Hmm. Dr. Fred Luskin (15:16): You, go for a while thinking that I can change the world. Then you realize you can't. Then you get stuck in a while in self-pity, and then you realize that doesn't work. And then you may stay angry for a while and then you realize that doesn't work. And after a while you realize some people realize that I have to find some other way to deal with this because this ain't working for me. Dr. Fred Luskin (15:44): And that's when more people than anything choose to look at forgiveness. The researchers suggest that there's both decisional forgiveness and emotional forgiveness. So, you make a decision to let it go, and then it takes a while before the heart and the mind they get the memo, but it starts with a decision John Elfers (16:09): <Laugh>. Yeah. I love, yeah, that makes sense. Okay. So the distinction, I love the distinction between decisional and then emotional. I imagine the emotional of course is Yeah. Is much harder. As you know, in our intimate relationships, we feel insulted or something, and then we hold a little grudge for a while, and at some point, we have to let go. We've realized maybe our close intimate relationship is suffering because I can't let go of that supposed insult that, or what I interpreted as an insult. And so I'm stuck. There's that stuckness that happens. That, that makes sense. I love those metaphors. I have a question about how do you characterize the distinction between forgiveness of self and forgiveness of others? Is there, is there a difference? Wha are the dynamics there? Dr. Fred Luskin (17:12): The biggest difference is that you can influence yourself. So the truth about forgiving others is that you had no control over their behavior. Dr. Fred Luskin (17:30): And you have no control to force them to do anything now that they don't choose to do. John Elfers (17:36): Right. Dr. Fred Luskin (17:38): So there's a humility and let's say a serenity prayer approach when you're forgiving others or the past or something because it happened without your approval. The distinction between that and forgiving oneself is you can change Dr. Fred Luskin (18:04): You can make amends for what you've done, you can apologize and you can grow. So forgiveness of self generally requires some action before we, like the forgiveness of releasing negativity when it comes to self doesn't mean very much. It's not that important. What's important to forgiveness of self is like, have I really admitted the harm I've done? Have I made amends where I can? Dr. Fred Luskin (18:42): Have I apologized to myself or others and have I done things so that I won't do it again? If those conditions are met, then there's no reason any longer to be upset with oneself. John Elfers (18:59): Yeah. Dr. Fred Luskin (19:00): Because you, it's like you broke a bottle of something and you cleaned it up. The problem is with other people, you can't force them to clean up their mess. John Elfers (19:11): Right? Yeah. So in situations say, I can really appreciate the importance of making amends for what one has done in the past. If I'm in a situation where I can't really go back, say, it was a long time ago, I've been holding onto this, the people, are not available to do that. Is there value in, as part of my reflective work of, you know, admitting to myself what I did, but then also having a pay it forward attitude to where Dr. Fred Luskin (19:50): Yes. Absolutely. John Elfers (19:51): You know? Dr. Fred Luskin (19:52): Yeah. John, you are so right. John Elfers (19:55): Mm-Hmm. <affirmative>, Dr. Fred Luskin (19:58): Yes. I remember once a woman came into one of my classes years ago and was saying that she was a bad parent, but that her kids will not forgive her like she was probably in her late fifties and her kids were growing and they simply, they didn't have that much contact with her because they weren't in a forgiving mood. And she was wondering, what do I do with this? And I said, well, you know, if you've told your children, you're sorry. If you've asked them what you can do to make it right, if inside of you, you really acknowledge that you were in the wrong, it's not like there was extenuating circumstances or the moon wasn't in the right phase or any other nonsense but you did wrong. And you tell them that and then they don't let you off the hook. And I said, you're done, but you still may owe the world something. So if your kids won't let you back into their lives volunteer once a week, get a local elementary school and spend an hour there and read to somebody else's kids, like that's the restitution That is helpful. John Elfers (21:28): Yeah. That's part of the transformation, right. That's a great example because I can't really influence say, what my kids are gonna do, whether they forgive me or not, that's really theirwork. But yeah, I like the fact that there's some really concrete things, you know, that a person can do to really facilitate their own forgiveness. That it's not limited by, you know, past circumstances, very active in the present. I can become a new person. I can let go of that old stuff and keep beating myself up. Yeah. I think whatever I'm forgiving myself for is probably something I've been beating myself up for a while, so Okay. Time to let that go and then it opens up an opportunity for something else to come flowing in. The way Dr. Fred Luskin (22:23): I look at it is with self-forgiveness, it's important to clean up our messes. And that's, that's a critical skill. You don't wanna leave this life leaving behind a lot of hurt and woundedness if you don't, if you don't have to. John Elfers (22:45): Yeah. I, you know, I'm really reminded of the 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous. They really, very early on in the process, there's there's two steps. One of fearless moral inventory. Those are some strong words, you know, to do a fearless moral inventory of my true past grievances. And then the next one, or soon thereafter is one of, you know, making amends to those people and how important that process is in the transformation of forgiveness. People in, you know, that I've known in Alcoholics Anonymous, maybe come in with a lot of shame for what they have done. Shame is a very much an emotion that goes along with a lot of the history ofsubstance use. So that's a great example of that. Yeah. Dr. Fred Luskin (23:38): Is an absolutely pointless emotion. It's do something, John Elfers (23:45): Yes. Dr. Fred Luskin (23:46): Help somebody make the world a better place. Shame is, I'm going to say it's self-indulgent. Dr. Fred Luskin (23:55): It's, it's wrong directional. If you've done harm, do good. John Elfers (24:02): Yes. Dr. Fred Luskin (24:04): Admit you are wrong. Learn to let other people be wrong. Develop more pro-social skills. Shames are dead end. John Elfers (24:18): Yeah. And it's, but it's such a prevalent emotion at the same time. It's amazing. Yeah. How many, how easy it is to get stuck in those cycles and a kind of self-perpetuating shame. Now I am curious, what does the research show in terms of the correlation between forgiveness and other aspects of mental health or wellbeing? Are there is the literature very supportive on that? What does it say? Dr. Fred Luskin (24:51): It's very related to gratitude, that more grateful people forgive. That that's one of the findings. It tends to be easier as you get older that people become a little more forgiving, even though older people are more bi-modal than younger people. Say you have a larger group of older people who are, Hey, what can I do about the past? I'm going to be dead soon. But you have another group of old people who say, Hey, you've messed with me enough in this life. Nobody eves with me again. So they coalesce around their bitterness. But on the whole, forgiveness is easier as you get older. It's one of the key contributors to a successful marriage. John Elfers (25:53): Oh, really? Dr. Fred Luskin (25:54): Interesting. There are only a handful of traits that relate to long, successful, intimate partnership and forgiveness is in their top five or top 10. Because you can't be in a long relationship without both people annoying the heck out of each other. Right. And doing some really stupid things in a long path. And if you can't forgive, you can't do this. John Elfers (26:24): Yeah. Right. I can see, Holding grudges for a long time. I can see that being pretty disastrous. And that's sort of, is consistent with what I understand of, some of the research on what predicts divorce in a marriage attitudes of, , resentment and not being able to let go, if that makes sense. What about comp? It's Dr. Fred Luskin (26:55): More, but it's, it's not just not being let go. It's the affirmative quality of forgiving that is a lubricant for successful relationships. And the people who have successful relationships tend to talk about and agree, we learn to forgive each other. John Elfers (27:21): And what, what do you mean by affirming forum? How would you define that? What would be an example? Dr. Fred Luskin (27:27): When, when I speak to healthy long-term couples and I talk about forgiveness, they look at each other and go, yeah, John Elfers (27:35): <Laugh>. Ah, okay. Dr. Fred Luskin (27:37): You know, we had to do that, that's separate from the research. But they learned that if they wanted to make it last 30, 40, 50 years, they were going to have to forgive. John Elfers (27:50): Right. Yeah. Otherwise, I would imagine the accumulated baggage of not forgiving would start to get pretty heavy pretty quickly. Dr. Fred Luskin (28:00): Yeah, it does. It does. And it, it distorts perception because once you have a grievance mentality, then you see life through that grievance and it becomes distorted because then you lose sight of the good, the grievance starts clouding it out. And that's one of the reasons it's such a death knell to relationship. John Elfers (28:31): Is there an association with more compassion in relationships that the a relationship between forgiveness and compassion? Dr. Fred Luskin (28:44): I don't know that, what I do know is it's not helpful to tell somebody to have compassion for somebody that hurt them. Dr. Fred Luskin (28:56): What is helpful is to teach people to have compassion for themselves as a wounded person. John Elfers (29:03): Ah, Dr. Fred Luskin (29:05): But if, if you tell too often, if you tell somebody, well, you know, your dad, he beats you, but he was beaten himself. It works with some people, but on the large scale, it's not that effective. But it's easier to say, well then have gentleness towards your human experience of suffering. And a lot of us suffer at the hands of other people. So there's compassion for that, that that's more facilitative than the other. John Elfers (29:40): Yeah, that makes sense. Thank you. I'm wondering what you would suggest for someone who wanted to engage in some kind of forgiveness practice. Are there steps, are there recommendations? For, well, Dr. Fred Luskin (29:56): I've written the bestselling self-help book, unforgiveness <laugh>. I mean, I'm just letting you know my books have sold about a quarter of a million copies. But Forgive for Good details a seven-step process. If somebody if you looked me up on the web, there's lots of YouTube videos of me speaking about the nine or seven steps to forgiveness. There's two or three empirically validated forgiveness processes. I have one of them. Bob Emright has one of them from the University of Wisconsin. And there's another one from old Dominion University, I think. And that's it. There are, we've there's three of us over the years who have empirically validated our process of forgiveness through research. John Elfers (31:00): Yeah. Okay. Well, we will refer our listeners to your book and I'll make sure that those are available. We can mention those at the end. Sure. Well, is there anything else you want to say about this whole subject? I mean, I think it's very important. We don't hear enough about it. Maybe. I don't know. So I think it's worth reinforcing and, and putting in front of people. Is there anything in closing you want to say to our listeners about forgiveness? Dr. Fred Luskin (31:35): The, the two things that are most important, not most important, but are important to me when I remind people, is one, forgiveness is a learnable skill. It's not esoteric. You don't have to be religious. You don't have to believe in anything outside of your own efficacy. So it's a teachable and learnable skill that's, that's critical. The other is, it's related to improved physical and emotional wellbeing. So people who are more forgiving tend to be healthier. People who give up their grudges show improvements in physical and emotional wellbeing. Unforgiveness is a real drain on the system. John Elfers (32:26): Yeah. I would imagine it's very toxic over time to, to be holding on to all that baggage or stuff not letting, not being able to let go. Yeah. And Dr. Fred Luskin (32:37): It's stress. It's very stressful holding a grudge. John Elfers (32:41): Yeah. Yeah. It takes a lot of psychic energy. So I'm assuming that in your, in your books, you go through some of the processes then that people can, can go through. So yeah, we will, Dr. Fred Luskin (32:53): That's what Forgive for Good and Forgive for Love are they're self-help books on how to do this. John Elfers (33:00): Great. All right, Dr. Luskin. Well let me just take a moment to thank you for sharing your wisdom, your experience, personal, professional, academic with us, and and wish you well. Dr. Fred Luskin (33:14): Thank you, John

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