Many years ago I remember watching Oprah (or as I like to call her mama O) talking about the power of forgiveness and that when you forgive someone you are not doing it for them, rather you are doing it for you. I recall hearing her recount a story of seeing this person she was mad at walking down the street and when she noticed how happy this person was, just the sight of her in all her glorified happiness made Oprah even more incensed. She thought to herself, how can this person be so happy, when I am so mad at her. Then she had that quintessential light bulb Oprah moment- when she realized… the only person who is suffering from her anger, is her.
That other person could care less and it was then she realized that carrying all that anger around for another person does nothing accept harm the person who is harboring it. And yet, so many of us do just that. We walk around for months and maybe even years bottling up this anger and allowing it to permeate every last one of our vessels and cells. We allow this anger to fester and wreak havoc on us– while the person this anger is directed at- they suffer none of our anger’s ill consequences. At 41 years old I finally get this, and I am trying to absorb it and remember to not just understand it as an abstract concept but to fully integrate it into my life, and in doing so change the trajectory of my relationships with others.
So, I took the plunge and wrote a very long and elaborate letter to several people I had been arguing with and did something that felt both liberating and terrifying. I asked them for their forgiveness. I just put my heart and all my feelings out there– unsure if they would be reciprocated or even acknowledged. And while not everyone to whom I sent this letter responded, rather than feel slighted by their decision not to make amends I finally feel free. I feel free of the resentment, the anxiety and the pressure to clear this up and I finally figured it out- asking for their forgiveness has nothing to do with them but everything to do with me. Whether or not they accept my apology is inconsequential– but in taking the first step to apologize- I am clearing my own heart and head and admittedly feeling somewhat lighter and less tied down by all that negative baggage.
Of course forgiving others and/or asking for forgiveness is not always such an easy task so I asked Tamar Chansky, Ph.D., psychologist and author of several books including Freeing Yourself from Anxiety: Four Simple Steps to Overcome Worry and Create the Life You Want (DaCapo), for her take on the power of forgiveness. According to Ms. Chansky Conflicts and misunderstandings weigh heavily on us. They make us anxious– we keep repeating the scene in our minds, convincing ourselves of our right to be angry, or the other person’s mistakes, and this rehearsal makes us tense, stressed, irritable, it may interfere with our sleep. We feel on edge wondering: what will we do when we see that person? We feel vulnerable and caught off guard.
Ms. Chansky offers these 5 steps to embrace the power of forgiveness.
#1 Shift the Mindset: From Retaliation to Resolution
What is the antidote? Shift your mindset. Take the first step yourself. Often in a situation, there’s not just one bad guy, really there are no bad guys: shift your thinking out of that zero sum game to seeing conflicts as opportunities to resolve, improve and potentially even strengthen a relationship.
It is hard to apologize when we are thinking that the other person played into this “on purpose.” Step into the other person’s shoes. Ask yourself– why do you think they acted the way they did? How is this about them and what is going on in their lives, rather than about you? The more that we see each other’s humanity and vulnerability, it’s easy to do the right thing.
#3 Do First Things, Second
In my book I talk about the benefits of “doing first things second.” If you can be willing to apologize first (something that may feel hard or premature) then you find that the communication and working though of the misunderstanding can flow from there. Apologizing opens up the bottleneck.
By taking the first step yourself (and you have to forgive yourself first in order to ask forgiveness of another)– you are paving the faster way to that resolution. So rather than seeing apologizing as something you’re losing or giving to another– it’s really something that you are also giving to yourself, peace of mind to say: I’m putting this in perspective, rather than letting this grow in my mind as a bigger and bigger roadblock, I’m finding the way out of the bottleneck myself.
It feels good to take action too, rather than waiting passively (and sometimes fearfully) for the other person to bring it up. So often what do you find? That the other person welcomes the fact that you are willing to apologize, take that first step, and then THEY apologize too.
#4 Keep it Sincere, But Keep It Small
Remember too– what are you apologizing for? If you understand that you are not apologizing for being a terrible human being (something that any of us would find hard to do), but rather, you’re apologizing for the misunderstanding, for not being thoughtful, for hurting a person in that situation. The more that we can understand that the situation is not an all or none, life-threatening moment, the more willing we are to step forward with our generosity and say– “I don’t want things to be like this between us. I want to work things out. I’m sorry, can we work this through together?”
#5 Don’t keep it a secret
If apologizing is hard to do– say that. That may turn what feels impossible into an action plan. Imagine saying: “This is really hard for me. I find it hard to apologize, but I don’t want this conflict between us.” The other person will appreciate your honesty and may come and meet you half way.