Monday, October 22, 2007

How to Forgive

After years of discussing hurt and forgiveness, some things have come into focus. There are four elements necessary for healthy forgiveness:

1. Express the Emotion - Whatever the crime/injustice/violation/slight, the forgiver needs to fully express how it made him feel. Anger, sadness and fear are common responses. By the way, it is ideal if the victim is able to express her emotions to her perpetrator, but not essential.

2. Rebuild Security - In order to forgive, the forgiver needs to feel a reasonable amount of assurance that the violation won't recur. Let's say you step on my toe. In order for me to rebuild security, I'm going to need some verbal commitment from you that you'll try not to step on my toe again, or I need to decide to keep my feet away from yours, etc. Some mechanism needs to be in place to let me know I'm safe again.

3. Understand - The forgiver needs to develop some framework to understand why the violation happened in the first place. Why was my toe stepped on? We're on a crowded train? You're a clumsy dancer? You hate me? Oh, you're drunk, I understand. The brain will search for this reason and can't stop (or forgive) until it has one.

4. Let Go - This is making a conscious decision to drop the grudge and resentment. It's the hardest step for most people. Holding a grudge is a powerful thing - you can get someone to suck up to you for years by lording his misbehavior over him. Letting go means stepping down from the nobility of victimhood, becoming an equal again, and promising not to point back to her infraction every time you're losing an argument. Letting go is not forgetting - most of us can't choose what we remember. It's choosing to return to a place of equal power.

Research shows forgiveness greatly benefits the physical health of the forgiver. Seems that holding a grudge is bad for you.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Feelings 101

It's typical for therapists to ask about feelings. It's also typical for clients to dislike being asked. The truth is, many problems can't be resolved with a shift in thoughts and behaviors alone. Most of the time in order to grow we have to work through feelings.

While it's hip to talk about feelings in our Oprah society, we're not all good at it. A common trick is share a thought masquerading as a feeling. Starting a sentence with "I feel...." doesn't mean you're experiencing or communicating your feelings. I see people do this all the time. Take this couple:

Spouse 1: "I feel that you broke the garbage disposal."
Spouse 2: "I feel like you didn't look at it closely because you don't care."
Spouse 1: "Well, I'm just telling you how I feel."

Not feelings. In fact, any time "I feel..." is followed by "that" or "you" or "like", we're not talking about emotions. Most of the time, those are thoughts, beliefs, or judgements. No, you don't feel that NASA should pursue a mission to Mars. You believe it. It's your opinion. It's a thought, not a feeling.

Feelings can be broken down to some combination or degree of sad, mad, glad or afraid (some experts might also throw in shock, love and/or envy). That's it. Degrees of sad might range from bummed out to devastated, while anger might range from annoyed to enraged. Sometimes feelings combine, creating frustration (sad + mad), bittersweet (sad + glad), etc.

And what makes these feelings, rather than thoughts? Feelings can be felt, actually physically experienced. It might take a little practice, but a simple way to get in touch with real feelings is to become aware of the physical sensations you have in your body. When people experience emotion, their body tends to feel a certain way, unique for everyone. When people are sad they may feel a weight in the chest and shoulders. People feeling angry might report an expansive, explosive sensation in their chest and arms. Fear tends to be a weight in the stomach. Joy is often a light, energized feeling throughout the body. But again, it can be different for anybody.