Life is an adventure in forgiveness. — Norman Cousins
When the stock market plummeted in 2003 and I lost a third of my savings, I had a very hard time getting over the fact that I didn’t see it coming. Some young part of myself still believed I should be all powerful and all knowing.
We believe we’re responsible and “should” be able to foresee the future and solve all problems. It’s a form of magical thinking many of us have developed as a result of growing up in troubled families where we had to take on too much emotional, circumstantial, or even financial responsibility at a young age.
This magical thinking is, of course, a lie, one that gets in the way of accepting our mistakes, learning from them, and moving on. One that has us lashing ourselves over and over with unreasonable, even ludicrous, expectations.
Believe You Know What's Going to Happen?
I was thinking about this recently while I was reading an interview in Gallup Management Journal with economist Dennis Jacobe, who was asked why people didn’t see the recent economic downturn coming. He replied,
“There is a principle in behavioral economics called ‘overconfidence’ that involves believing you will know what will happen in the future to a greater extent than is justified by available information. I think ‘overconfidence’ dominated people’s perceptions during recent years. Nobody believed that housing prices could plummet. Everyone thought that the Fed and the Treasury could contain the financial fall-out from the mortgage finance debacle. No one seemed to think you could shatter trust in the modern financial system. All of these almost universally held beliefs turned out to be wrong. . . . Economists were just as guilty of over-confidence as everybody else.”
Wow, I thought, if people who do this for a living can make such a big mistake, it makes sense that we who are focused on other things and trained in completely different fields didn’t have a clue. All of a sudden, I felt my heart soften toward myself. Greater minds than mine messed up as well, so why should I believe that I should do better than they?
The Relief of Forgiveness
I felt the relief of forgiveness as I stopped beating myself up for my now seven-year-old mistake. I saw myself through the eyes of compassion, a perfectly imperfect human being doing the best she could with what she knew at the time.
Of course, often we do have a part to play in what’s occurred. Maybe we spent money like a drunken sailor, counting on our houses to continue to go up in value. Or we got complacent in our business, content to do what we’ve always done rather than pushing ourselves to stay cutting edge. Or we refused to keep up with the times in terms of technology and now we’re left behind.
Or perhaps we are where we are due, at least in part, to other people’s mistakes, and we’re angry and resentful— how dare he run up that debt without me even knowing?
How could they have run the company into the ground and left me stranded? Why didn’t he pull the plug on the stocks sooner? He was in charge, not me!
It’s important to mine regrets for the lessons they hold because it’s impossible to truly forgive without learning for the future so you can trust yourself not to repeat your mistake. From what you’ve learned, you then create a boundary: I won’t let that happen again. Only after doing that is it possible to forgive yourself and anyone else.
Forgiveness is a Miraculous Mystery
Much has been written lately about the power of forgiveness to bring us a sense of closure and peace of mind. In some ways, forgiveness is a miraculous mystery. You never know exactly when or how it will arrive, as the story about my lost savings proves. Reading an article seven years after the fact was the thing that allowed me finally to forgive myself for my dot-com bust.
Forcing forgiveness before we are ready only creates a brittle, fake resolution that exists in our heads, not our hearts. I knew I shouldn’t beat myself up about the money. But I kept doing it.
Forgiveness Practice Helps Create Acceptance & Closure
Spiritual teachers say that, while we can’t force forgiveness, we can open our hearts to the desire to forgive and be forgiven through certain practices that help us recognize that we are all imperfect and all deserving of the mercy of forgiveness.
In Vipassana Buddhism, for instance, there’s a meditation in which you ask for forgiveness and offer forgiveness both to others and to yourself. The practice I include here is by Stephen Levine. Do it when you’re ready, knowing it will help create acceptance and closure.
Bring into your heart the image of someone for whom you feel much resentment. Take a moment to feel that person right there in the center of your chest.
And in your heart, say to that person, “ For anything you may have done that caused me pain, anything you did either intentionally or unintentionally, through your thoughts, words, or actions, I forgive you.”
Slowly allow that person to settle into your heart. No force, just opening to them at your own pace. Say to them, “I forgive you.” Gently, gently open to them. If it hurts, let it hurt. Begin to relax their on grip of your resentment, to let go of that incr edible anger. Say to them, “I forgive you.” And allow them to be forgiven.
Now bring into your heart the image of someone you wish to ask for forgiveness. Say to them, “For anything I may have done that caused you pain, my thoughts, my actions, my words, I ask for your forgiveness. For all those words that were said out of forgetfulness or fear or confusion, I ask your forgiveness.” Don’t allow any resentment you may hold for yourself to block your reception of that forgiveness. Let your heart soften to it. Allow yourself to be forgiven. Open to the possibility of forgiveness. Holding them in your heart, say to them, “For whatever I may have done that caused you pain, I ask your forgiveness.”
Now bring an image of yourself into your heart, floating at the center of your chest. Bring yourself into your heart, and using your own first name, say to yourself, “For all that you have done in forgetfulness and fear and confusion, for all the words and thoughts and actions that may have caused pain to anyone, I forgive you.”
Open to the possibility of self-forgiveness. Let go of all the bitterness, the hardness, the judgment of yourself. Make room in your heart for yourself. Say “I forgive you” to you.
©2009, 2014. All rights reserved.
Reprinted with permission of the publisher, Conari Press,
an imprint of Red Wheel/Weiser, LLC. www.redwheelweiser.com.
How to Survive Change...You Didn't Ask For: Bounce Back, Find Calm in Chaos, and Reinvent Yourself
by M.J. Ryan.
In How to Survive Change...You Didn't Ask For, M.J. Ryan provides strategies to retain your brain and optimize your response to change, step-by-step: by first accepting the new reality, then expanding your options, and finally, taking effective action. She offers cutting-edge tools for becoming calmer, less fearful, and more flexible, creative, and resourceful in your thinking. This is a paperback edition of Adaptability, first published in hardcover in 2009.
About the Author
M.J. Ryan is one of the creators of the New York Times bestselling Random Acts of Kindness and the author of The Happiness Makeover, and Attitudes of Gratitude, among other titles. Altogether, there are 1.75 million copies of her titles in print. She is part of Professional Thinking Partners (PTP), an asset-focused consultancy whose expertise is in maximizing thinking and learning individually and in groups. She specializes in coaching high performance executives, entrepreneurs, and leadership teams around the world. A member of the International Coaching Federation, she is a contributing editor to Health.com and Good Housekeeping and has appeared on The Today Show, CNN, and hundreds of radio programs. Visit the author at www.mj-ryan.com
Watch a video: Letting Go of the Torturing Mind (with M. J. Ryan)