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Revenge, Chocolate or Forgiveness?

September 24, 2010

Anger and thoughts of delicious retaliation, show that your brain (when scanned)  lights up in a similar pattern to someone eating chocolate. Long before neuro-imaging, we understood, “Revenge is a dish best served cold.” Neuroscientists have also demonstrated that we’re all hard-wired for both justice and revenge. If that’s all there were to human nature, “World War IV,” to quote Albert Einstein, “will be fought with sticks and stones.” Moving from the world stage to the personal relationship is the universal experience of being hurt by (or hurting) someone you love.   Then what? Revenge is a short-term strategy, unsuited for salvaging your relationship.

Forgiveness is the better long-term strategy, for the sake of your relationship as well as for your own health (ongoing anger equals ongoing stress). It’s rare that spouses, partners or family members who’ve hurt each other have a 100-0% split on the right and wrong of an injury. Yet people often mount competitive defenses instead of offering apologies. Feeling wronged results in a particular distortion: When you’re convinced of the rightness of your position, you’re far better at counting the stones that have hit you than the stones you’ve launched. I advise people to stop counting stones, and realize that in order to get a fair hearing, you’re going to have to give one.  What most of us want is a true apology.

If you’ve done harm there are key steps to take to earn forgiveness.

•Admit how you’re wrong (even though it’s not 100%). This “easier said than done” principle depends upon your ability for perspective taking, and your willingness to acknowledge the validity of your partner’s position.

•Show remorse. It’s the difference between showing that you feel sorry, and the pro-forma words of a sham apology, “I’m sorry you felt that way,” which is tantamount to saying, “Too bad you’re so sensitive.”

•Acknowledge the harmful, idiosyncratic and sometimes irreversible consequences your loved one has endured.

•Relate empathically over time, in deeds that are meaningful to the other.

If you’re the injured party, there are also responsibilities in accepting an apology. After all, remember that staying angry feels good (like eating chocolate). Staying hurt and angry allows you to remain in power, in control in your relationship. Now you have the leverage of not receiving.  Being willing to receive again is a conscious decision, an over-ride to feelings of mistrust and hurt. What goes into this decision?

•Your willingness to accept partial responsibility, whether to a misunderstanding, or to a more complex pattern of negative relating.

•Your ability to identify specific changes, whether small or large, that you need to claim from your family member in order to heal and to trust again.

•Your recognition that forgiveness isn’t a by-product of moral superiority (“I’m a better person, so I’ll forgive you”), but the result of an ongoing process between people.

Finally, it’s important to accept your humanity.  While anger is a natural expression of feeling unfairly treated and wronged, it’s not good to remain in the chronic fight or flight state that anger and thoughts of revenge evoke. Forgiveness is a choice. You won’t forget. There is no Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind that allows you to erase memory. But you can forgive–yourself and each other for what was done to you, by you, and for what you didn’t know, but now have learned.

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