Author Archives: Psychotherapy Networker

Frederic Luskin on the Power of Forgiveness

By Ryan Howes

A new calendar inspires many to turn over a new leaf. For some of us, this may mean learning to turn the other cheek. In recent years, the biological benefits of forgiveness have been widely publicized: lower blood pressure and cholesterol, better sleep, and an improved immune system. Psychologically, people who forgive show lower levels of depression, anxiety, and anger, enjoy better relationships, and report higher levels of optimism and happiness. Sounds great, so why is forgiveness so damn difficult?

Frederic Luskin has some interesting thoughts on that subject. As director of the Stanford Forgiveness Project, he’s studied forgiveness for the past 20 years. He authored Forgive for Good: A Proven Prescription for Health and Happiness and has shared his wisdom with survivors in Northern Ireland, as well as those at Ground Zero in Manhattan.

Since he’s an expert on the psychology of forgiveness and on therapeutic pathways to achieving it, we thought the beginning of the year might be an especially good time to hear from him.

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RH: How did you become interested in forgiveness?

Luskin: In addition to the pain of being badly hurt by a close friend without having any idea how to deal with it, I needed to find a dissertation topic when I was graduating from Stanford. This was before there was a lot of research about forgiveness. I thought what I learned about getting over my own wounding might have a broader application, and it just seemed like a good opportunity to bring more psychological understanding to something that’s traditionally been such a spiritual concept.

RH: I’m reminded of the Alexander Pope quote: “To err is human; to forgive, divine.” Do we equate forgiveness with spirituality or God more than we do other virtues?

Luskin: I think so, because it’s so difficult. The human tendency is to deliver payback for any hurt that’s been experienced.

RH: The “divine” part of that statement suggests that it requires supernatural strength to forgive.

Luskin: I don’t believe that. I think it takes something more than the essential selfishness that most of us operate out of, but I don’t think it’s divine to understand that you don’t want somebody else to suffer just because you’ve suffered.

RH: As you’ve seen, it’s terribly difficult for a lot of people.

Luskin: That’s part of the reason why the research that we did is so important. Making a connection between enhancing one’s health and forgiveness gives people additional motivation to do something that they might not do otherwise. People may not worry about whether they’re going to heaven, but at least forgiveness reduces their blood pressure and their chance of having a heart attack.

RH: Your work calls into question several beliefs about forgiveness. I’ll toss out a few true-or-false statements here: “Forgiveness means forgetting.”

Luskin: That’s false. It’s actually remembering differently. While lack of forgiveness is remembering something with an edge or a grudge or a sense of injustice, forgiveness means remembering it more benignly, with compassion. It involves some purpose of moving ahead, rather than just being stuck in the past.

RH: “Forgiveness requires repentance from the other.”

Luskin: The fact is that you can forgive someone who’s dead. So it can’t require that.

RH: Isn’t it easier to forgive when the other person is repentant?

Luskin: Certainly, if somebody is really apologetic and takes responsibility—“My bad. I really hurt you. No excuses.” Then forgiveness is easier. It’s not just bad because you got hurt, but I did something wrong.

When someone says, “I’m sorry because you’re hurt,” well, that can make the person who’s been injured feel at fault because they were hurt.

That’s an offensive kind of apology. It’s different when you say: “Boy, I did wrong, independently of whether or not you got hurt. I also see how that wrong has impacted you, and I’m sorry for that.”

So there are two steps—“I did wrong, and that wrong hurt you.” Then the next step is, “Since it’s my responsibility, what can I do to make it better for you?” That’s a true apology, and that makes a real difference.

RH: Is that because it validates the feelings of the victim?

Luskin: Always.

RH: It says, yes, it really was your fault, I don’t have to blame myself or take some of that responsibility. You’re taking it.

Luskin: Well, you still have responsibility for living your life and moving on, but at least that person has said that they’re a significant contributor to the distress and the tears.

RH: Another belief: “Forgiveness is a one-time thing.”

Luskin: No. It’s a process we do over and over. Sometimes you’re reminded of painful situations when you least expect it. Sometimes the person comes back into your life, or you’re just remembering what they did and you have to go through it again.

RH: One final statement: “Forgiveness means everything returns to the way things were.”

Luskin: Sometimes it returns to the way it was, but sometimes you can’t go back. After all, how can you go back if someone close to you has been murdered? Nevertheless, if somebody makes a mistake and they say they’re sorry and ask forgiveness, you can go back to the same type of relationship that you had.

RH: I heard a talk at which you said: “Forgiveness is the experiencing of being at peace right now, no matter what happened five minutes or five years ago.” How is peace related to forgiveness?

Luskin: What is forgiveness except the experience of peace around your own life? It’s acknowledging that you’re OK. Forgiveness is all about people’s perception of their life. If I feel bad, that’s my experience. Just because bad things happen doesn’t mean that I have to behave badly. Understanding that can make a huge difference for many people.

RH: Why do you think we have such a tendency to perpetuate the bad?

Luskin: Part of that is the way our neurology is wired to look for things that are wrong in order to keep us safe. Part of it is the way many cultures foster revenge, retribution, payback, and total self-absorption.

RH: I’ve noticed that victimhood can make people feel like they’re in a position of power, one that they’re reluctant to give up.

Luskin: But feeling resentful and victimized is a highly limited form of power. The price you pay is feeling perpetually uncomfortable and off center. We get angry when life isn’t working; we don’t get angry when life is working.

If you see people who are angry or who are nursing a long-standing grudge, it’s probably because their life isn’t working, and they don’t know what else to do. The whole task of forgiveness comes down to redirecting energy from a preoccupation with helpless resentment to finding a better way to live one’s life.

Ryan Howes, Ph.D., is a psychologist, writer, musician, and clinical professor at Fuller Graduate School of Psychology in Pasadena, California. He blogs “In Therapy” for Psychology Today. Contact: rhowes@mindspring.com; website: www.ryanhowes.net.

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Rick Hanson on Working With the Brain for Lasting Change

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John ODonohue

By Rich Simon By now, it’s a standard joke that most New Year’s resolutions made with great earnestness on January 1—often having to do with losing the weight we gained since last New Year’s—are usually history by January 2. Still, for therapists at least, it’s a natural impulse as the new year begins to reflect a bit on our lives, our relationships, and perhaps even the future of our profession. Read more

What Causes Borderline Personality Disorder?

By Jared DeFife

Do childhood trauma and a chaotic family environment cause adult borderline personality disorder (BPD)? Common clinical wisdom says yes, but new results are leading some researchers to insist that it’s more complicated than that.

Investigators from the Minnesota Twin Family Study, first begun in 1983, collected data about childhood abuse and adult personality from 1,382 pairs of same-sex twins, followed over time from ages 11 to 24. By examining differences in abuse exposure and genetic overlap (whether the twins were identical and thus had the same DNA, or fraternal, and thus had only about 50 percent genetic overlap), the authors, led by Marina Bornovalova of the University of South Florida, concluded that childhood abuse in itself isn’t a direct cause of adult BPD traits. But since childhood abuse is seen so frequently in individuals with BPD (some studies suggest in as much as 90 percent of cases) why the overlap? According to the study, common genetic factors contribute to both childhood abuse and BPD.

The researchers suggest two possible genetically influenced reasons for the connection between childhood abuse and adult BPD. In the first model, called “passive genetic mediation,” children not only inherit genes from their parents, but are raised in an environment that’s an expression of the parents’ own genetic influences. In this model, children inherit genetic tendencies toward aggression, impulsivity, and emotional dysregulation from their parents and are raised by parents who are themselves aggressive, impulsive, and dysregulated. Abuse and BPD are thus different manifestations of the same emotionally dysregulating factors.

In a second, more controversial scenario, known as “evocative genetic mediation,” children who inherit difficult genetic temperaments from their parents tend to behave as moody or impulsive children. Emotionally intense and difficult to raise, these children strain their parents’ own genetically limited coping resources, contributing to parenting failures characterized by childhood abuse and neglect.

If the second scenario sounds like blaming the victim, the authors are quick to point out that their results “don’t support the idea that [childhood abuse] is inevitable, justified, or without harm.” However, their work raises possibly provocative questions about the causes and effects of childhood abuse and adult borderline personality disorder, once again putting science at odds with facile, politically correct perspectives on complex psychological phenomena.

Resources

What Causes Borderline Personality Disorder? Journal of Abnormal Psychology, doi: 10.1037/a0028328.

Rich Simon

By Rich Simon You might think that there’s a world of difference between reaching an outstanding level of performance in skilled activities like performing surgery, being a musician, playing chess or becoming a champion basketball player, on the one hand, and achieving psychological change on the other. But while we’re all familiar with the idea that mastering complex skills requires hours, days, weeks, years of practice, including regularly facing our Read more

Psychotherapy's Mark Twain

By Rich Simon Who of us couldn’t use some more inspiration, an occasional reminder of truths that get obscured in day-to-day life, or maybe even some telling observations that make us laugh out loud? That’s why so many therapists have made attending the Networker Symposium an annual ritual. Read more

Dan Siegel on the Clinical Applications of Neuroscience

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Rich Simon

By Rich Simon If you’re like a lot of psychotherapists today, face-to-face professional gatherings may not be your cup of tea. After all, why bother with the hassle of travel, reshuffling your appointment book, and all the other petty inconveniences of conference-going, when you can stay home seated in your comfy chair Read more

Today’s Wisdom: NP0029 – Session 6

Do you or your client need insight into the process of choice and judgement? Join Daniel Kahneman as he provides groundbreaking insight and helps therapists recognize the role of systematic biases in human cognition.

After the session, please let us know what you think. If you ever have any technical questions or issues, please feel free to email support@psychotherapynetworker.org.

Welcome to Men and Intimacy: Overcoming “Commitment Phobia”. In this series, leading innovators in the field will delve into the latest research on gender differences and discuss practical ways to make therapy more inviting and helpful for male clients.

In this first session with couples and family specialist Pat Love, you’ll discover how to work with men in therapy by appealing to their logical side with fact-based, practical approaches. You’ll learn how applying brain science to gender differences can open up resistant male clients, and help opposite-sex partners better understand each other’s world.

Learn how to get through to resistant male clients by avoiding the potential pitfalls of therapeutic neutrality. Renowned family therapist Terry Real, the founder of the Relational Life Institute, explores how to deal with male clients by highlighting the negative consequences of their resistance, and challenging them to change their behavior by “joining through the truth.”

Discover why men avoid emotional confrontations because of their inherent fear of shame. David Wexler, who specializes in the treatment of relationships in conflict, describes how to develop a therapeutic relationship based on straightforward guidance and “guy talk,” rather than ambiguous “therapy-speak.”

Explore the poorly understood world of male sexuality by challenging some of the pervasive myths about men and their “nonrelational” attitude toward sex. Esther Perel, author of Mating in Captivity and specialist in sexuality and couples relationships, ascribes practical tools for helping men examine their own sexual blueprint.

Learn how to open men up to intimacy through a mind/body/heart approach. Psychologist and qigong teacher Patrick Dougherty teaches how to connect therapeutically with men and to challenge them to find the value of and capacity for intimate relationships.

Discover the different ways men and woman experience depression, with psychologist and co-director of the Cambridge Center for Gender Relations, Holly Sweet. Learn how to use a more task-oriented, coaching approach to work with men who are unwilling to ask for help with their depression, accept medications, or express vulnerable emotions.

After the session, please let us know what you think. If you ever have any technical questions or issues, please feel free to email support@psychotherapynetworker.org.