On July 12, 1986, Officer Steven McDonald questioned a group of teenagers suspected of stealing bikes in Central Park. During the interaction, 15-year-old Shavod Jones shot McDonald three times. 1
Sadly, one of the bullets severed McDonald’s spinal cord leaving him paralyzed from the neck down and in need of a respirator to breathe.
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McDonald lost nearly all of his independence and began the long journey of learning how to rely on others. Unsurprisingly, McDonald was overcome by anger, bitterness, and hatred.
At the time of the shooting, McDonald had been married for eight months, and his 23-year-old wife was three months pregnant with their first child.
When his son was born six months later, he knew he needed to let go of the destructive thoughts and emotions that had taken over his life. Instead, he wanted to focus on being a loving husband and father.
McDonald held a press conference with his wife, announcing that he had forgiven the young man who tried to kill him. Soon after, McDonald began writing Jones in prison.
At first, Jones did not write back, but the two eventually became friends.
In the end, Jones apologized, and when he did, McDonald shared that he dreamed of traveling the country with Jones to share what the experience taught them.
If you’re in awe at this point in the story, you’re not alone. For many, attaining this level of forgiveness and acceptance might seem impossible or pointless. But that’s not true.
Studies show that forgiveness can improve both your mental and physical health. 2 And with the right approach, many people can learn how to forgive. In fact, McDonald’s display of forgiveness happens more than you might expect. 3 4
So if you’re still pissed at the restaurant that overcooked your steak last decade, this article is for you. My goal is to share some ideas on forgiveness that have helped me. And with any luck, they can help you as well.
Many people associate forgiveness with weakness. And for the longest time, I did too. I think that’s because forgiveness is often misunderstood.
Most of us have our first experience with forgiveness when we are young. Perhaps your brother stole your favorite toy, or your sister put glue in your hair.
When these things happened, your parents likely asked you to ‘forgive’ and expected you to play together as if nothing happened. And I think this “play together as if nothing happened part” causes the problem.
Many believe forgiveness means letting the other person off the hook and being okay with what they did. Additionally, we tend to think forgiving someone means keeping that person in our lives as if nothing happened. But that’s an unrealistic expectation, especially as we age.
As you mature, so does the severity of grievances you encounter. Stolen Hot Wheels evolve into marital affairs, dishonest business partners, and acts of violence. In these cases, accepting the behavior and keeping the offender in your life feels like a weak and powerless thing to do—and in many cases, it is.
Thankfully, forgiveness has nothing to do with the other person. If you forgive someone, that doesn’t mean you approve of their behavior or openly welcome them back into your life.
As you saw with Steven McDonald, forgiveness is the process of letting go of destructive thoughts and emotions that can take over your life.
Your mind has a limited capacity for attention. Therefore, you can only give your full attention to one thing at a time.
When you focus on being angry or resentful, you lose your ability to focus on the positive things in life. And sadly, people can spend a lifetime stuck in this trap.
For example, some people never trust again after being cheated on. As a result, they miss the opportunity to have a loving and meaningful relationship with someone else. In Steven McDonald’s case, his anger toward Jones affected how he treated his family.
Ultimately, forgiveness works because it creates space in your mind. By letting go of destructive thoughts and emotions, you make it possible to focus on things that improve your life.
Knowing that forgiveness is good for you doesn’t make it easy. That’s because forgiveness is largely emotional in nature. Logically, forgiveness makes sense. Emotionally, forgiveness can feel like the mental equivalent of climbing Mount Everest.
Thankfully, the following six ideas can help you learn how to forgive.
To forgive, you have to feel harmed. And to feel harmed, you have to believe that something is harmful. But just because something feels harmful doesn’t make it true. Let me explain.
What you consider harmful is personal because it’s based on your beliefs.
For example, one woman might be upset that her husband had lunch with a female colleague. Another woman might not. In this case, the same scenario has different outcomes because the women have different beliefs.
In short, something only becomes harmful when you decide it is.
Knowing this, the first step in forgiveness is often evaluating if you have a valid reason to feel harmed. The following three questions can help.
1. Is it true? Many people feel harmed before they check the facts. For instance, I once dated a girl who believed I was dating another woman. She held that belief because she saw a picture of me online from a past relationship. As a result, she felt harmed and unnecessarily ended the relationship.
In the end, before you decide to feel harmed, check the facts.
2. Are you being reasonable? At times we hold ourselves and others to unreasonable standards. For example, a parent might expect their child to get all A’s.
When you do this, you set an unattainable bar. As a result, nothing meets your expectations, which makes everything feel harmful.
To prevent this problem, remind yourself that nobody is perfect. Then consider if your expectations take that fact into account.
3. Do your beliefs help you build the type of life you want to live? Sometimes we hold onto beliefs that no longer serve us.
For instance, suppose you had an ultra-conservative mother who led you to believe it’s immoral for married women to interact with other men. Then assume that you’re married to a modern-day woman who is an attorney.
If you hold onto the belief that married women should not interact with other men, you’ll feel harmed every time she goes to work. As a result, you make it nearly impossible to have a happy marriage.
To prevent this problem, ask if your beliefs lead you away from the life you want. If so, then it’s likely time to re-evaluate your beliefs.
There’s a big difference between making an honest mistake and being intentionally malicious. And it helps to consider this when trying to forgive someone.
For example, maybe a friend offended you while trying to be funny. Or perhaps a coworker entered the wrong date into their calendar and missed a deadline at work.
When these things happen, remind yourself that humans make mistakes. Doing so can make the offense feel less harmful.
Also, remember it won’t be long before you inevitably make a similar mistake. When you do, you’ll hope others are equally understanding.
When you empathize with someone, you work to understand what they are thinking and feeling. Doing so can help you understand their behavior.
For example, maybe your teenage daughter was rude at dinner after having her heart broken. Or perhaps your husband forgot your anniversary after losing his job. In either case, you would envision yourself in their position, imagine how they felt, and aim to understand how that experience motivated their behavior.
This exercise helps you separate the person from the behavior, which helps you see that few people are inherently bad. More often, good people occasionally do bad things.
Being rude amid heartbreak doesn’t make your daughter a terrible person. And forgetting your anniversary during a layoff doesn’t mean your husband has no redeeming qualities as a spouse.
If you’re struggling to empathize, you’re not alone. Many people have a hard time being empathetic—especially when they don’t like the person they’re trying to forgive. Knowing this, here are two ideas that can help.
1. Focus on similarities, not differences. It’s easy to stereotype and let the “us vs. them” narrative run wild. When you do, you drive a wedge between yourself and the person you’re trying to forgive, making it nearly impossible to empathize with them.
To prevent this problem, look for similarities. For example, maybe the guy who broke into your car was an unemployed father trying to feed his kids. And if you were in his situation, you might also do things you weren’t proud of to feed your children.
2. Take note of how they respond. Most decent people feel terrible when they screw up and make some attempt to right their wrongs. They might apologize, work overtime to correct their mistake, or learn from the experience and become a better person in the process.
If you notice these behaviors, let that be a reminder that the person you’re dealing with is likely a good person who made a bad decision.
People won’t always realize they’re harming you. And until you tell them, nothing will change.
For example, maybe you don’t like how your boyfriend treats you when he’s around his friends. Or perhaps your boss continually takes credit for your work.
When you find yourself in this position, it’s your job to speak up. To do that, tell the other person how you feel and what you hope will change moving forward. The more clear, direct, and calm you can be, the better.
These heart-to-heart conversations often resolve the problem, help you feel better, and make forgiving easier.
At times people will refuse to change their harmful behavior. For instance, maybe your wife continues to be unfaithful. Or perhaps your brother keeps showing up to family events high. When this happens, it helps to distance yourself from that person by setting boundaries.
Boundaries are effective because they establish guidelines. When well-defined, boundaries do two things.
Here are three examples of effective boundaries.
It’s important to remember that setting a boundary doesn’t mean you have to remove someone from your life forever. It might. But more often than not, a boundary says, you are welcome in my life if you abide by these rules.
In the end, setting boundaries can help you forgive for two reasons.
Sometimes, what happens to you will be so harmful that forgiveness will feel impossible. For example, maybe your child was killed by a drunk driver. Perhaps you were sexually abused. Or maybe you live in a country ravaged by war.
Sadly, these traumatic experiences will likely stay with you for the rest of your life. Losing a child, for example, is not something you get over.
While these experiences will always be challenging, they don’t have to define the rest of your life. In other words, there’s value in learning how to both manage your pain and move your life forward in a positive direction.
That’s because feeling angry and resentful for the rest of your life won’t change the past. And hanging on to these emotions will only make the rest of your life less enjoyable.
This is incredibly hard to do, and I’m not trying to make light of your situation. But finding the rose in a bed of thorns will benefit yourself and others.
I hope you never find yourself in this position, but if you do, here are two ideas that can help refocus your attention on the positive.
1. Let your pain fuel positive change. On May 3, 1980, Candice Lightner’s 13-year-old daughter was hit and killed by a drunk driver. Four days later, Lighter founded Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD).
Today, MADD receives more than $40 million in annual funding and estimates that they have cut incidents of drunk driving in half.
None of these efforts will bring back Lightner’s daughter. That said, her ability to take positive action despite her pain undoubtedly improved her life and the lives of others.
2. Reframe your experience. Google conducted a thought experiment with 12,000 people called the eraser test. The participants, who had all experienced a significant traumatic event, were given the following instructions.
Surprisingly, 99.99% of people said no. Even the person who conducted the test, Mo Gawdat, said he would not erase the death of his 21-year-old son—an event which inspired him to create the non-profit One Billion Happy. 5
Gawdat concluded that most of our qualities and strengths are the result of difficult moments, not easy ones. And for the most part, people like whom their struggles have helped them become.
So if you’re currently struggling, keep the eraser test in mind. It might not feel like it at the moment, but there’s a 99.99% chance you’ll be proud of whom your trauma will help you become.
Often the hardest person to forgive is yourself. If you’ve dropped the ball or hurt a loved one, it can be difficult to let yourself off the hook. But forgiving yourself is just as important as forgiving others. Until you do, it won’t be easy to focus on moving your life forward in a positive direction.
Thankfully, the process of forgiving yourself is the same as forgiving others. Here’s a quick recap with a personal twist.
1. Ask if you’ve actually caused harm. Is what you’re thinking true? Are you being reasonable? Are your beliefs helpful? If not, there’s likely no reason to forgive yourself in the first place.
2. Consider your intention. Did you purposely cause harm? If not, remember that no one is perfect, and cut yourself some slack.
3. Empathize. Are you going through a hard time? Have you done something you’re not proud of? If so, commit to learning from your mistake. Then, do better moving forward.
4. Speak up, set boundaries, and refocus. If you’re not proud of your behavior, change it. Define the problem, describe what you won’t allow yourself to do, and refocus on making a positive change. Here’s an example.
Assume you’re angry with yourself for not having a stable career. In that case, you might limit yourself to playing 30 minutes of video games per day and use the time you save to learn valuable skills that will build your career.
If you’ve experienced something traumatic, there’s a good chance the memory of that event will continually resurface for the rest of your life.
Unfortunately, people often believe forgiveness will take away their pain. But that’s not a realistic outcome.
What pops into your mind is primarily out of your control. And typically, the more you resist thoughts or emotions, the stronger they become.
Here’s how you can overcome this problem.
Here are three ways you could take the ideas in the article too far.
1. You use your intentions as an excuse for poor behavior. Intentions can help explain your position, but they’re not a never-ending get-out-of-jail-free card.
Ultimately, your character is defined by your actions, not your intentions. You can’t continually drop the ball and expect your intentions to always right your wrongs.
If you find yourself in this position, it’s your responsibility to choose better actions.
2. You forget the lesson. It’s important to remember that forgiveness does not mean forgetting what happened. That’s because most things worth forgiving teach a lesson.
For example, if you get taken advantage of in business, you’ll want to prevent that from happening again.
3. You downplay what happened. If you forgive someone, that doesn’t mean you have to ignore the seriousness of their offense. In other words, you can forgive and stand your ground.
For instance, you may need to forgive an employee and let them go. Or you might forgive a customer while taking legal action.
Here are the key takeaways from his article.
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