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Forgive for good
Ever wish you could move past anger or stress, but negative feelings seem to overwhelm you? BeWell talks with Fred Luskin, Ph.D., head of the Stanford University Forgiveness Projects. Dr. Luskin explains how positive expression is a skill that can be developed and practiced every day, so that you can write your own, happier story marked by forgiveness and hope.
Are there physical or emotional benefits of letting go of a grudge?
Yes. I don’t think people realize the damage they do by repeating the same negative thought over and over again. When those thoughts are released, it frees up a lot of life force and life will. Letting go is a good stress reliever because if you are mad, it puts a physical stress on your body. If you don’t like someone, if you are mad at your boyfriend or your boss, and you have the same upsetting thought 40 times a day, then 40 times a day your body is getting a jolt of adrenaline — which has a wearing-down effect on the organs of your body.
When we think of forgiveness, we generally think it is something we do for the other person. Is there a flaw in that reasoning?
Forgiveness is something you can do for someone else. But, more often, you can do it for your own well-being. Forgiveness can be used to heal a fractured relationship, but the flaw in this reasoning is thinking people will not always agree that they did something that needs to be forgiven.
In your book, you talk about paying attention to what channel we are on. Could you explain why this is important?
We forget how much choice we have in what we pay attention to. If we only pay attention to what is not going well, that is what becomes important. We can choose to think about positive things to create balance. For example, if you only watch the news, you will think the world is a horrible place. If you decide to watch only comedies, you would think the world is full of laughter. In my book, I use a movie theater analogy. At a movie theater, a drama, tragedy, comedy and love story are all playing simultaneously. On the same day, at the same time, audiences in those theaters are tuned in to different channels. When you go to the movies, you choose which channel you want to watch. The same is true with your life. You hold the remote.
Every life has negative experiences. Do we have any control over how these experiences affect us?
Choosing your story is central to the forgiveness solution. You can shift around the way you hold and construct your narrative (the story you tell). I remind people: Don’t lie; don’t minimize the pain. But don’t harp! After you have grieved, try to change your story from a victim story to a hero story. Construct a story that reflects the way you want your life to move forward, not linger in the past. The kind of story you tell will determine how you remember it and in what way it affects your life.
What has surprised you the most over the course of your career?
There have been two surprises. The first is the ubiquitousness of how many people feel hurt, and how often they get hurt. I have been surprised by the amount of pain and horror in the world. The second is that within that hurt, people still have a remarkable capability to heal. Within this deep and terrible suffering, we have an ability to recover, make peace and move on.
What simple exercise could our readers put into practice today?
When you encounter a stressful experience, do something very simple such as taking a couple of slow deep breaths to quiet your body and shift your attention off of the stressful experience. In this way, whatever the negative experience is, the physical over arousal won’t become a habit. This practice alone won’t eliminate the stress, but it will keep it from etching a groove in your mind and body that will never go away.
Interview conducted by Julie Croteau and edited by Lane McKenna.