Ep. 97 – The Science (& Skills) of Forgiveness

Today we’re going to touch on a touchy subject – forgiveness. 

No one gets through life without mistakes. The tally of those mistakes doesn’t create your character; that comes from how you recognize the mistakes you made and release the mistakes of others. 

This episode will explore how forgiveness can help free your mind – *your* mind. That’s the only tool any of us have within reach. It’s so easy to want to focus on what was said or done to you, but real freedom through forgiveness comes from changing how you interact with the past. 

The Bottom Line on Top of this episode is that in order to heal a wound, you need to stop touching it. 

Let me also start with a couple of clarifications. Forgiveness isn’t an eraser. It doesn’t remove previous pain, confusion, or impact. 

Forgiving people is for you. It’s a true and tangible action taken to relieve the burden, stress, and weight of carrying all that cognitive baggage around. 

Forgiveness also doesn’t require you to understand, accept, or forget what was said or done. 

I want to pause and point to the past tense of that statement. Forgiveness is a tool that is for something that has already occurred; it’s extremely difficult to forgive and release when the action is still ongoing. 

Let’s skip over to science for a moment and look at the neuroanatomy behind some emotions. 

We have an emotional processing center in our brain and there’s an area in that called the nucleus accumbens. This is often referred to as the “reward center” because it gets activated by pleasurable things and when it’s activated it contributes neurons along the happiness pathway. The opposite is also true when our brain registers emotional pain. 

On an average day, our happiness activity bounces back and forth in a pretty moderate way. Yay for yummy food, not-so-yay for running late in traffic. 

But when we experience emotional distress, what imprints on your brain depends on two things: one, how harmful you perceive the action to be; and two, how you decide to respond.

Forgiveness is not about saying that someone shouldn’t be held accountable for their actions. It’s about those actions not defining who you are long-term. Freedom through forgiveness helps even the ugliest moments in life become lessons for future benefit to yourself or to others and it enables suffering to become a source of stamina and strength vs. simply becoming scar tissue.

Professor Robert Enright is a psychologist and he’s been studying forgiveness science (yes, that’s a field) for nearly four decades at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He believes emotional skills can be developed like physical skills and that forgiveness skills can have a powerful, positive effect on both the brain and body. 

He created what is known as the Enright Model of Forgiveness, which lays out the steps to help you get there. An important distinction he makes is that forgiveness is not a quick skill that can be used as an instant salve for your wounded soul. 

When you’ve been treated unjustly, he says, you need time to process that-to be angry, sad, and confused. Waiting too long, however, leads to resentment and that affects our decision making – which makes sense. As the old saying goes, once burned, twice shy. 

But what about when you’re the one needing to offer a mea culpa? Episode 18 looked at seven words that can change your life, with “I’m sorry” being two of them. 

Of the many regrets people carry in their core, it’s often failures in human kindness – things we said or did – that leave deep marks. 

As you prepare to offer an apology, consider two things: The first is starting with an apology to yourself, acknowledging what you said or did (or didn’t do) and the impact that was left as a result. Owning your part becomes the foundation of being able to offer the words to someone else. 

The second part is in the offering itself by giving a chance for the apology to be accepted. It’s an offer because the receiving is up to the other person. Put forward the words – no matter how awkward – and look to see if there is the option to heal, for you and, hopefully, for the other person as well. 

But why even make the awkward effort? Because unspoken words, especially those of an apology, carry a great weight. There’s a quote from American author Zora Neale Hurston which says: “There is no agony like bearing an untold story inside you.”

And that’s what “I’m sorry” offers – a chance to have a gentler end to the story – or at least another chapter. It’s not trying to rewrite what already happened; it’s simply owning the impact and offering a token of your better self. 

Pay attention to who came to mind as you listened to these ideas of forgiving and being forgiven. One of the truths of life is that we will all have plenty of opportunities to use our forgiveness skills as well as to offer apologies. 

It’s the human part of this human life. And the best place to practice the art (and science) of forgiveness is with yourself. 

Your brain is hungry. Give it some intellectual snacks in the
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I'm Kristin

I left my corporate work and dove further into how to navigate this noisy, digital, exhausted world. The result is a methodology centered on communications, productivity, and culture that blends theory with practice and helps people better enjoy the life they worked so hard to get.