10/05/2012 11:43 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

How To Forgive Anyone -- And the Health Benefits of Forgiveness

By Harriet Brown

What, exactly, does it take to move past a lifetime of hurts? Harriet Brown goes on a mission to discover the true meaning of forgiveness.

Fred Luskin wants me to forgive my mother. And, while I'm at it, my father, my third-grade teacher, my passive-aggressive coworker, the woman who cut me off on the highway, and the guys in Washington who've made such a mess of things. Not for their sake, but for mine: Luskin is convinced I'll be less anxious, more upbeat, and healthier if I do.

After studying forgiveness for close to 20 years, he should know. A lean wolfhound of a man with a mop of bushy hair parted down the middle, Luskin holds a PhD in counseling and health psychology from Stanford University, where he is the cofounder and director of the Stanford Forgiveness Project. He's a pioneer in the burgeoning forgiveness field, and it appears he's onto something. Study after study has found that forgiving is good for the body as well as the soul. It can lower blood pressure and heart rate and reduce levels of depression, anxiety, and anger. People who forgive generally have more and better relationships with others, feel happier and more hopeful, and score higher on just about every measure of psychological well-being.

The trouble is, most of us don't know how to do it. There's no playbook for forgiveness, no manual for getting past betrayals, disappointments, and hurts. This is where Luskin comes in. He's the master of forgiveness how-to. He believes forgiveness is a trainable skill that everyone can -- and should -- learn.

And this is why, on a sunny Friday morning, I'm seated at a conference room table at the Ackerman Institute for the Family, a therapy-training facility on Manhattan's Upper East Side. A dozen other women are with me, mostly therapists looking to broaden their skills, though a few of us have come for personal reasons. My main motivation is a painful relationship with my mother, who has a history of erratic behavior and lashing out at me (and others). Despite my many efforts at reconciliation, we've been estranged for most of my adult life. I'm here to find out if forgiveness could change our dynamic.

Luskin, dressed in khakis and docksiders, looks like he's ready to sail down the Hudson, not lead a workshop. He has no laptop, no briefcase, no handouts or notes, not even a copy of his book, "Forgive for Good." He slouches at the head of the table and talks in a low, patient voice, his hands occasionally smoothing his hair. He tells us that despite what we may have heard about forgiveness "journeys," there are really only two steps in the process: grieving and letting go. Grieving, after you have been wronged, means letting yourself feel the anger, hurt, and trauma in all its original pain -- but not indefinitely. "After about two years, most people have had plenty of time to process," Luskin explains. "Then they're ready to move on."

Not moving on -- hanging on to resentment and rage -- is tantamount to having an existential tantrum, according to Luskin. "We think the world owes us," he says. "But it doesn't. Babies die when they're born. Women are raped. Whole ethnic groups are wiped out. There's no such thing as fair. The guy who loses a parking space to a more aggressive driver thinks, "I want that parking space." A mother whose child has been murdered thinks, "I want my child to be alive." Either way, that's sometimes just not how it works."

A ripple of shock runs through the room. How can anyone compare losing a parking space to losing a child? "It's better not to get caught up in content," Luskin says. By content he means each person's individual story, the source of her anger or hurt.

No matter what the offense, he continues, the process of forgiveness is the same: You let go of anger and hurt by being mindful and focusing on gratitude and kindness. Again, the ripple runs around the table. That's it? A little mindful meditation and all is forgiven? Luskin smiles wryly. "Forgiveness concepts are simple," he says. "It's the execution that's hard."

Twenty-six years ago, when psychologist Robert Enright, PhD, first got interested in forgiveness, his colleagues thought he'd lost his mind. "They said, 'How can a scientist study something so fluffy?'" he recalls. Enright, who's now a professor of educational psychology at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, takes something of a philosophical approach to his subject. He sees forgiveness as a moral imperative first (turn the other cheek because it's the right thing to do) and a practical matter second (and, oh yes, doing so will probably make your life better). "The decision to forgive touches you to your very core, to who you are as a human being," he says. "It involves your sense of self-esteem, your personal worth, the worth of the person who's hurt you, and your relationship with that person and the larger world."

Much of Enright's research has focused on people who forgive the seemingly unforgiveable -- people like Marianne Rosen, 52, who volunteered for one of Enright's earliest studies at UW–Madison in the early 1990s. Rosen's father began sexually and emotionally abusing her when she was 5 years old, and by the time she was in her late 20s, she'd resigned herself to living with rage, hurt, and fear for the rest of her life. Enright wondered if forgiveness could help in such an extreme case: "The literature at the time basically said, 'There's very little the psychological sciences can do for someone so gravely wounded.'"

The study Rosen volunteered for compared incest survivors who were offered forgiveness training with those who weren't. For more than a year, Rosen met weekly with Suzanne Freedman, PhD, then a graduate student of Enright's, now an associate professor of educational psychology at the University of Northern Iowa. The goal of the meetings was to allow Rosen to relive her pain and experience her grief in a safe place; somewhere along the way, Rosen made an intellectual decision to forgive her father, who had committed suicide when she was 11. "The work enabled me to see that he was not able to break the chain of abuse," she says. "And I got to a point where I actually wanted to see him. So I went to Chicago and found where he was buried, and put a pebble on top of his headstone. I remember just sobbing and finally feeling there was some kind of resolution." After years of feeling simmering resentment toward her father, she says, "I just wasn't angry anymore."

Like Rosen, the other participants in Enright's study made surprising emotional progress. Those who had gone through the forgiveness training felt less anxiety and depression, and more hope and higher self-esteem, than those who hadn't. A year later, the gains still held. The study had changed the participants' lives.

But how? Researchers are now using functional magnetic resonance imaging to see if the answer lies within the brain. A team at the University of Pisa in Italy asked people to imagine forgiving someone and then observed changes in cerebral blood flow, which signaled the parts of the brain that became more active. They found that several regions "lit up," especially areas that regulate emotional responses, moral judgments, perceptions of physical pain, and decision making. By creating this kind of neural map, researchers hope to learn more about how forgiveness works on both a physical and a psychological level.

Kathleen Lawler-Row, PhD, a psychology professor at East Carolina University, is one of several researchers exploring the relationship between forgiveness and health -- physical, emotional, and spiritual. She thinks the effects of forgiveness go beyond lowering blood pressure and improving sleep. Once you forgive someone for something very painful, "you never experience life the same way again," she says. "You're more flexible, less black-and-white in your expectations of how life or other people will be. If there's one thing that characterizes people who have experienced forgiveness, it's that kind of larger perspective: I can't predict what life will hand me, but I'm going to respond to it in this way."

Like Luskin, Enright, and others, Lawler-Row believes that forgiveness is at heart a choice, one that any of us can make at any time, no matter the "content" we're wrestling with. How do we do it? Maybe the choice depends in part on how we define the idea. Forgiveness doesn't mean rationalizing or condoning abuse. And forgiveness doesn't mean a sudden case of amnesia. Marianne Rosen knows exactly what her father did and what he was capable of. She can't forget that, but she can change the story of her future. "Forgiving enabled me to realize I could create my own path," she says. "I wasn't just plopped down on this cruddy path I had to walk the rest of my life. I was in control."

For the rest of the morning, Luskin takes those of us in the workshop through some basic mindfulness exercises. We practice abdominal breathing. Through guided visualizations, we're asked to picture someone we love and imagine our hearts opening. I think of my mother-in-law, Vivian, one of the "other mothers" I've sought in my life, who died four years ago. I'm astonished to feel tears on my cheeks and warmth spreading through my body. I also feel calmer, which apparently is the idea. But it's not long before my mind leaps back to my anger at my own mother.

"When you think about a wrong someone did to you, your fight-or-flight system is aroused," explains Luskin. "Your heart beats faster, your blood pressure goes up, you feel hurt and mad. But you could be sitting here feeling how good it is to be alive on such a beautiful day. You won't always be alive, you know. So doesn't it make more sense to appreciate this moment, this now?"

It's all I can do not to roll my eyes, and looking around the table, I see I'm not the only one. I want to say: "Yes, but I don't know how to do that! I'm stuck in all these feelings! And my mother really, really hurt me!" Luskin ignores our agitation and asks us to make lists of things we've thought, felt, and done in response to whatever our forgiveness issue is. Therapy, I write. Medication. Talking to my mother. Talking to my father. Talking to other people about my mother. Not talking to my mother. Arguing with my mother. Reading books about mother-daughter relationships.

Then Luskin asks us to put a star by anything that hasn't been helpful. Every item on my list gets a star.

"Does anything on your list solve the problem?" he asks the room. A unanimous "No." "So is your response a skillful, healing way to deal with a life problem?" he says. "And if not, how do you find a better one?"

We stare at Luskin. "This is very simple stuff," he tells us for the dozenth time. "Simple but not easy. If I could boil it down to one sentence—"

He pauses, and a blonde woman sitting at the end of the table pipes up, "Don't worry, be happy!"

Everyone but Luskin laughs. "That's pretty much it," he says. "Don't worry, be happy."

I'm reminded of my first sailing lesson, alone in a Sunfish while a friend called instructions from another boat. "Get closer to the wind!" he kept shouting, to my bafflement. The wind was all around. How could I get closer?

I understand that forgiveness is for me, not my mother; that I'm the one most hurt by my anger and frustration. And I want to let go of those feelings, I really do. I want to "be happy," as Luskin would say. But we've been at this for hours and I don't have even the vaguest idea of how to do it.

At the afternoon break, I snag Luskin for a few minutes to pose a question: It's one thing to forgive something that's happened, that's over and done. But what if the person who hurt you in the past keeps hurting you over and over, in the present? He interrupts before I get the last words out. "It's not happening now, this second," he says in an offhand way. "So try again."

I take a breath, unclench my jaw, and pose a different question: "How can you keep yourself safe with a difficult person?" In response, Luskin smiles -- the first genuine smile I've seen from him all day. "That's the right question," he says, beaming. "That gets rid of the blame and the enemy." And keeps the focus where it belongs, on me. "You can probably answer that question yourself," he says.

My answer, I tell him, is to keep my distance from my mother, talking to her maybe once or twice a year. He nods encouragingly. "Now, can you do that with an open heart?" he asks.

I sit back in my chair and consider -- deeply, seriously, honestly -- what that would mean: No more bitching about my mother. No more whining to friends for sympathy. No more self-pity. Thinking of my mother with as much compassion as I can muster, but not necessarily getting any closer to her. Accepting our relationship as it is rather than wishing it were different.

Forgiveness, I begin to see, is not about pretending you don't feel angry or hurt. It's about responding out of kindness rather than rage. It's about letting yourself feel the full spectrum of emotions -- grief and anger and hurt, but also kindness and compassion. Even toward someone who's hurt you deeply.

So that's how Bud Welch, whose daughter, Julie, died in the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, can honestly say he wishes Timothy McVeigh had not been put to death. It explains how grieving mother Pearlie Burgess could stand up in a Syracuse, New York, courtroom last spring and forgive the man convicted of killing her daughter. And how Marianne Rosen can wish she could have lunch with her father.

I'm a long way off from that kind of forgiveness, but I'm starting to get a sense of the possibilities. I'm not ready to let go of my "content," and I don't at the moment want a closer relationship with my mother. But as we file out of the conference room, I decide on a first step -- because I understand, now, that forgiveness requires a decision. You have to invite it. As I walk down Lexington Avenue in the glorious late-afternoon light, I take a deep breath and let it out slowly. I picture my mother and imagine my heart opening.