I Was A Therapist Who Couldn't Forgive. Here's How I Learned
I became a forgiveness researcher and teacher because I was miserable. I was bitter and unhappy and even my wife was getting tired of hearing me moan and groan.
A couple of years before, I had been deeply betrayed by a very close friend and I still didn't know how to cope. I complained to anyone who would listen about how badly I had been treated. I told my story of unkindness and unfairness over and over. I criticized my friend relentlessly and felt like a victim.
And then my wife said something that unmasked me and caused me to stop. She said that she still loved me but didn’t like me as much. She hadn’t intended to spend her time with a bitter man full of self-pity. She was the most patient person I know and she had run out of patience for me.
Interestingly enough, I was already a marriage and family therapist. I was trained to help others manage anger and frustration and loss, but I couldn’t manage my own.
In all my years of therapeutic training, in all the workshops I had attended, no one had ever mentioned a word about forgiveness. No one had ever said the simple truths about relationship: You are going to be hurt. You are going to be disappointed. You are going to be mistreated and you are going to suffer. This is true for everyone and this true is for you. And since it is true you need to have skills to cope.
After seeing the fallen face of my wife and hearing her disappointment, I started to look at things differently. I didn't want my suffering to cause her pain. Why couldn’t I let go of this betrayal? Why hadn’t I learned a better way of dealing with my suffering? Why couldn’t I forgive my friend and move on? Why did I like to dwell upon my loss?
I realized that my therapeutic training had ill prepared me for the difficult task of forgiving, something that I hadn't even realized should have been a priority until I saw that my wife was affected.
I’m sure she had been affected for many months but I didn’t see it. I was so wrapped up in me. In part that was a result of my own self-absorption and also the result of my therapeutic training. My therapeutic training had focused on the unique story of each individual’s pain. My wound … my terrible mother … my hostile ex-spouse … my alcoholic excesses. My betrayal … my loss of friendship … my disappointment …
Well, maybe in reality my pain isn’t so unique. Maybe thinking my pain was unique was more of a problem than the betrayal I was dealing with. Maybe the Buddhists were right and suffering is everywhere and at the heart of everything human. Maybe my real problem was that I lacked compassion and understanding.
I clearly lacked skills in how to deal with a wound that I felt was undeserved and reflective of someone else’s selfishness. A wound that hurt me to the core and literally scared me out of any sense that the world was a safe and just place to live.
Something in me changed. Not overnight and not easily. In some small way I got over myself. That moment of compassion and care for my wife triggered more such moments.
I saw that I caused as well as received relationship pain. Through this glimmer of compassion, I started to understand that my therapeutic training had been inadequate; suffering was everywhere, loss was omnipresent, and generally all pain was a matter not if but when.
The result of my new thinking was: Each of us needs to let our wounds go so we can deal successfully with what's on our plate today. The little glimpse of compassion also opened me to the flip side of suffering, what we call gratitude. The flip side of dwelling on loss and wounds is being thankful for what we have.
My absorption in my friend’s behavior had caused me to miss so much beauty, so much love and so much opportunity. I came to see that my obsession on him was not his fault.
I literally had to teach myself to appreciate the normal things I had taken for granted. Like the local supermarket where I could buy food from around the world. Like an education and a job and a home and safe schools for my children. Like my wife who had stood by me though endless iterations of complaint and self-pity.
I got over the betrayal and I moved on. I made peace with my friend and resumed a relationship with him. A few years later I was a Ph.D. student at Stanford University finishing my degree in Counseling Psychology when I had to choose a dissertation topic. I thought of my travails with forgiveness and figured if it was so hard for me it had to be hard for others.
I wanted to see if what had helped me could help others. I wanted to see if science could establish that forgiveness was as good for others as it had been for me. Research in this topic was in its infancy and I had a chance to help launch a field of study. I did, and almost 20 years later, the results stay the same.
Forgiveness researchers like myself have shown over and over that forgiveness is good for one’s body, one’s mind and one’s relationships. And forgiveness can be taught and practiced just like any other skill. It just takes some interest, some time and some education.