Mark writes on a variety of topics (including relationships), stating on his site that “I write about big ideas and give life advice that doesn’t suck. Some people say I’m an idiot. Other people say I saved their life.”
That statement alone makes me want to read more!
Anyways, we’re on his list and received his latest email which had a link to an article he wrote on forgiveness. Since we often get comments and emails from folks expressing their struggles with forgiveness – forgiving their spouse and/or forgiving themselves – I thought I’d share an article from a person who has a little different perspective on how to forgive.
One word of caution…Mark often uses colorful language, so be prepared for an F-bomb or two.
How to Forgive Someone
Forgiveness can be tricky as it’s emotional in nature. It’s easy to say to yourself something like, “I should forgive Dad for missing my graduation because he was too drunk to remember it was June,” but when the rubber hits the road—i.e., when it actually comes time to feel the relinquishing of that anger and judgment, it feels impossible.
Below I’ve put together a five-step process for fostering more forgiveness in your relationships. Since the cool thing to do these days is create an acronym out of the first letter for each step to help you remember them, I’ve created five steps that spell out “SUE ME” when put in order. That way the next time you tell someone, “Fuck you, so sue me,” you can be reminded that you should probably be forgiving someone (or yourself).
The five steps of SUE ME are:
Separate the action from the person
Understand their motivation
Mark your boundaries
Let’s take them one by one.
1. Separate the action from the person
There’s a saying called Hanlon’s Razor that I like which says, “Never attribute to malice what can be attributed to stupidity.”
We all succumb to behaviors that are not reflective of who we actually are. Hell, just last week, I ate an entire pint of ice cream by myself and proceeded to hate myself for the next six hours. Does that mean I am the person who eats an entire pint of ice cream out of pure gluttony? No, it’s just an action that I wasn’t particularly proud of. It didn’t align with my values or the person I aspire to be. But it happened. So I forgave myself and moved on.
This separation of the action from the person is crucial to reaching any sort of closure with anyone in your life. Everyone—and I mean absolutely everyone—does bad things in their life. But very few people in this world are bad people.
In Christianity, this is often described as, “Love the sinner, hate the sin.” Many other religions have their own versions of this concept. Most religions are built around some central tenet of unconditional forgiveness. And that forgiveness begins in separating the action from the person.
From a secular point of view, if you study enough psychology, you discover that there’s not really such a thing as a “self” anyway. It’s this imagined construct, a mental target that is always moving, changing, and evolving. In that sense, any “bad person” is constantly moving, changing and evolving—or at least has the potential to. Therefore, it’s this focus on the potential for change or evolution—the possibility for new beliefs and actions—that is at the core of forgiveness.
2. Understand their motivation
As a general rule, people who do hurtful things do so because they are hurt themselves. Few people in this world are sadists. Most people who appear to take some sort of pleasure in hurting you or others are most likely compensating for the pain that they feel. Often times, fucked up belief systems have cornered them into doing some heinous shit, and they are some combination of too dumb/scared/insecure to question those beliefs.
“As a general rule, people who do hurtful things do so because they are hurt themselves.”
But whatever this person has done, look for some explanation of their motivation beyond “they are a piece of shit.” Some examples:
A woman who cheats on her husband does it because she feels lonely and ignored and the cheating was merely a cry for attention to know someone cared.
The man who cheats on his taxes does so because he’s terrified he won’t be able to provide for his family.
The dude who stole your phone feels justified as he’s grown up in poverty and been screwed over by a corrupt system repeatedly throughout his life.
Whether these reasons are true or not is beside the point. The point is that no one thinks they’re being evil. Everyone feels justified in what they are doing—otherwise they wouldn’t do it!
Also, you might say, “Okay, but feeling lonely and ignored doesn’t give you permission to break the trust of your marriage.” You’re right, it doesn’t. But we separated the action from the person, remember? These are not excuses. They are simply explanations. And before you can forgive someone, it helps to understand why they did what they did.
Because without understanding someone’s motivation, it’s impossible to empathize with them. And when it comes down to it, forgiveness is ultimately a form of empathy.
Now the hard part: you gotta empathize with the fucking person. Empathy is a whole skill unto itself. Empathy means you take whatever pain motivated that person and you imagine that you have that same pain yourself.
You imagine the confusion and horror of seeing your workplace shut down and lay everybody off. You visualize that pain and stress of struggling with an addiction. You challenge yourself to feel whatever adversity you can imagine they’ve gone through and then pretend you’ve gone through it yourself.
It’s hard to do. But it’s arguably one of the most important of all human skills. Our empathy is one of the only things that separates us from animals. It’s what gives us a foothold into morality. It’s what fills life with a sense of meaning.
If you really want to boil it down, empathy is forgiveness and vice-versa. If forgiveness is the ability to see the person as a multi-faceted and complex human being, empathizing with them is what gets you there. When you no longer see the wrong action as the totality of their character and merely one small resultant part of their character, you’ve reached a state of forgiveness.
4. Mark your boundary
Once you’ve empathized with the person and decided that, no, maybe they’re not a moldy shit tumor after all, it’s time to ask yourself what role you want them to have in your life, if any at all.
The difficulty of this largely depends on your relationship with the person. If it’s a stranger, it’s usually quite easy, just tell them to fuck off. If it’s a friend, it can be a bit harder. If it’s family, it’s really hard. And if it’s you who’s the moldy shit cancer, then it’s literally impossible.
I’ve written a lot about boundaries over the years, but here’s the quick and dirty version:
Set rules. Define which behaviors you will and will not accept.
Decide on consequences. If someone breaks one of your rules, what are the consequences?
Communicate the above calmly and compassionately.
What’s important about boundaries is not necessarily the result. Some people will respect your boundaries, some will not. What is important is that boundaries give you a clear sense how to manage each situation with this individual, no matter what happens.
So this might look something like: “Look mom, I forgive you for abandoning me to marry a trucker. It has taken me years of therapy to understand that you were addicted to milk thistle and had intense insecurities around handlebar moustaches. But I also want you to know that while I forgive you, that doesn’t give you a right to be a part of my life. I’m happy to talk to you, but for now I don’t want to include you in any family activities. I ask that you please respect that, otherwise I will have to cut off contact.”
Boom. Nailed it.
5. Eliminate Emotional Attachment
The final step of forgiveness is to let go of the emotional attachment that you’ve developed around hating this person’s guts for so long. Let the hatred and anger wash away, let the visions of revenge and misfortune die. It’s not helping anyone, least of all yourself.
Yes, the emotions will still rise in you around this person, but simply let them go. There’s an old Native American fable that says that inside us all we have two wolves battling for our attention. One wolf is our love. The other is our fear. And whichever wolf we feed will grow stronger and begin to dominate the other one. Feed the loving wolf. Yes, that one there, with the fluffy pink fur. She enjoys steak… and the limbs of small children. There you go, good girl.
How to Forgive Yourself
But what if the awful person you can’t seem to forgive is yourself? We all do things in our lives that we come to regret, that we wish we could take back, and that we harbor shame and guilt for ever doing.
The process is actually totally the same. Sue me, motherfuckers. Separate the action from the person—I did an awful thing but I’m not an awful person. Understand my motivation—what was the insecurity or ignorance that drove me to do this thing?
Empathize. Okay, this is honestly probably the hardest part of forgiving yourself—not only getting at your true motivations, but really, how much stuff do you blame yourself for that was not your fault?
When we’re children, we have a propensity to internalize and blame ourselves for all of the fucked up and awful things that happen to us. We then grow up and carry around that shame and guilt, often without realizing it. It can take years of therapy and inner work to finally undo it.
But once you do, the process is no different. Because next you must empathize. Many of us struggle to empathize with ourselves—or rather, have compassion for ourselves. Here’s one cute trick: that thing you’re mad at yourself for, pretend your best friend did it. What would you say to them if they were upset about it? Would you judge them? Criticize them? Berate them? Probably not. You’d probably have compassion and sympathy. What would you say to them? Now, try saying that to yourself.
Make boundaries – in this case, make rules for yourself, i.e., “The next time I’m drinking, I will not call my ex,” or, “When I become a parent, I will never do what was done to me.” Regrets are only regrets if you haven’t learned something from them. Take your pain and create rules from it.
And finally, eliminate the emotional attachment. Hating on yourself is tiresome and overrated. There are so many better things to do with your energy. Let it go and instead of obsessing on the vision of who you were, focus on the vision of who you could be.
Then take a step towards that. Then another. Then another. Then don’t ever look back.