Forgiveness: Setting Yourself Free

Forgiving those who have hurt us is something we know we probably should do, but few of us are eager to actually put into practice. When someone has hurt us refusing to forgive someone can seem like one of the only ways to get retribution. There is something extremely gratifying in knowing that forgiveness is ours to withhold.

Too often, we see forgiveness solely as an undeserved kindness we extend to an oppressor. But forgiveness is also a gift we give ourselves—a gift that provides considerable physical and psychological benefits to the giver.

Yes, it can be satisfying to clutch our resentments close to our heart, to replay the injustices done to us over and over. But often, the offending party is oblivious to our anger or underestimates the full extent of it. Meanwhile, we become fixated with the wrongs done to us. The constant rehashing of these wrongs in our minds results in our own torment, but does nothing to punish the injuring party.

Holding on to old resentments is not only unhealthy; it can also hamper our ability to have successful relationships. Bitterness toward one person often seeps into other relationships, causing us to project negative attitudes onto those relationships. Over time, refusal to forgive can also lead to mental anguish and even physical suffering.

According to the Mayo Clinic, the benefits of forgiveness include:

  • Lower blood pressure
  • Less stress and hostility
  • Fewer symptoms of depression, anxiety, and chronic pain
  • Lower risk of alcohol and substance abuse
  • Greater psychological and spiritual well-being
  • Healthier relationships

Although forgiveness can be difficult, it is possible. Consider some of the following techniques as you seek to find peace with a situation or person in your life.

1. Choose positive thoughts

Negative thoughts generally bring negative feelings. Choose to focus on gratitude, and the positive times you’ve had in your life and enjoy the positive feelings that follow!

2. Take time to breathe

Take a 10-minute break twice a day to breathe slowly while focusing your mind on a positive time, place or person or just being grateful to be alive.

3. Learn to live without perfection

We all make mistakes. Think of times when you have made mistakes and how grateful you were for others’ forgiveness. Forgive yourself and others for being imperfect. Expect some pain in life and expect humans to make mistakes.

4. Focus on your positive traits

Focus on your abilities, achievements, and goals instead of focusing on others. Focusing on others’ accomplishments can lead to jealousy and endless criticism.

5. Learn the art of detachment.

Detach from the issue or problem causing the pain and look at it without emotion or judgment.

6. Develop empathy

Slow down the pace of making judgments about others and speed up the process of walking in their footsteps. Empathy and understanding of another’s history can ward off a great deal of unnecessary, incorrect interpretations.

7. Chose to let it go

When you forgive others you are not condoning their behavior or giving permission for others to treat you poorly, but by choosing to forgive you let go of the negativity that will weigh you down and keep you stuck in unhappiness.

8. Forgiveness is not a one-time event

True forgiveness can take time, because we may need to replace the old habits of thought with new ones. When we truly forgive someone, we may not forget the offense but we no longer hold resentment toward that person.

While forgiving others can be challenging, it is also ultimately your own best shot at happiness. Refusing to forgive can erode your mental and physical health; it can also compromise your ability to have successful relationships with others. Regardless if you ever receive a satisfactory apology from your offender, choosing to forgive them can release you to live a healthier, happier life.


Research provided by Naomi Brower

Adapted from “Why Forgiveness is Good for You” found on twoofus.org

3 Tips for Building Optimism

Optimism is a pattern of thinking that allows you to believe in good things and regard life events in a positive light. People who practice optimism are better able to rise to challenges and cope with adversity, and they experience less depression, distress, and anxiety. Optimism contributes to positive emotions, good health, and success. It allows you to focus on finding solutions rather than getting caught up in the emotions your problems produce. Optimism is most beneficial when it is flexible and realistic because you can be hopeful and motivated as well as have an accurate view of your situation so you can be prepared if things don’t go as planned, be empathetic, and know how to achieve success.

The core of pessimism (negative thinking habits) is helplessness, which leads to an emotional downward spiral. If you are being pessimistic about a challenging situation, you’re less likely to put in the effort needed to find success or a resolution, and thus more likely to have things not go your way. This will confirm negative beliefs and perpetuate self-fulfilling prophecies, making it more difficult to be motivated or hopeful.

Luckily, this helplessness is often learned –  luckily because, despite genes, environment, or experiences, helplessness doesn’t have to be permanent. Optimism can also be learned to replace it. It is possible to interrupt patterns of negative, pessimistic thinking and introduce more helpful thinking habits that will allow you to find solutions and experience more positive emotions in your life. Here are a few ways to get started practicing optimism:

1. Simple as ABCDE

For the next week, when you recognize a negative event in your life, write it down in a notebook or journal. Identify the Adversity (what happened), your Beliefs about the event at the moment, and the Consequences of those beliefs (your behavior and emotions). To guide your thoughts to a more helpful place, use one of the three Ds: Distraction (e.g. calling a friend), Distancing (e.g. going for a walk), or Disputation. Distraction and distancing are great for helping to manage the immediate intensity of emotions, but the disputation of negative beliefs is often the most effective tactic.

Disputation involves finding evidence to support or counter beliefs and alternative explanations for the negative event. These steps will help prevent catastrophizing when pessimistic thoughts get out of control and lead you to harmful extreme beliefs (e.g. you might as well give up on being healthy because you ate one thing that wasn’t in line with your diet plan).  Next, ask yourself what the implications are of having a belief and how useful the belief is to you. Will it make things better to hold onto it? Even if a belief is true, these steps can help put things in an empowering perspective.

Try to write about five events and the thoughts they trigger. This process won’t eliminate negative beliefs or emotions, but it will provide alternative paths that will help you see that adversity isn’t permanent, it doesn’t have to affect everything in your life, and it’s not all your fault.

2. Time to Worry

If you find yourself overwhelmed by worries, acknowledge the anxious thoughts and schedule a time to think through them later. Choose a time when you know you’ll be calmer and have 15-30 minutes of “worry time.” If the worries pop up outside of this time during your day, distract yourself with something such as exercise or a mindfulness technique. You might write the worries down. This can help take away some of their power. Try to solve the problems one step at a time instead of all at once.

3. Is It Possible?

Optimism doesn’t always mean believing that good things will happen but that they could. When facing a challenge or disappointment, ask yourself if it’s possible that something good could come out of it – that may be a better job or clearer understanding to help with relationships. Imagining good things happening helps your brain develop the ability to think optimistically.


It’s natural to have negative thoughts and beliefs when difficult things happen. Their presence doesn’t make you weak, stupid, or hopeless. It may sometimes feel like they are in control and that it’s no use trying to find alternative thinking habits. However, thinking habits aren’t written in stone. Through trial, error, and perseverance, you can learn to make these tools a part of your everyday life and enjoy the improved physical and psychological well-being that comes from practicing the “psychological self-defense” of conscious optimistic thinking.

  • You might also try the “Best Possible Self” and other practices found at berkeley.edu/optimism to help you look on the bright side.

 

Reference

Akhtar, Miriam (2012).  Positive Psychology for Overcoming Depression.  London, UK: Watkins Publishing.

Engage with Your Life: How to Find and Use Your Strengths

Is there something in your life that makes you say, “this is the real me?” Something that gives you energy. Something that you do when you are at your best and would do for its own sake? Playing music? Building things? Cooking? Whatever it is you enjoy doing, it’s probably a strength for you, and research says that using it more can help you in a multitude of ways.

Strengths help with optimism, confidence, finding direction, producing positive emotions, and having insight. They even build resilience against adversity and protect against mental illness.  They help you perform well and overcome a negative self-image. In a word, they can help you flourish.

Everyone has strengths. It’s just a matter of identifying and figuring out how to use them in daily life. Once you start using your strengths, it will set up a virtuous cycle of performing well, triggering positive emotions such as satisfaction and confidence, and overcoming the natural bias of your mind toward negativity. This will lead to more success, and the positive spiral upward continues.

To get started discovering and activating your own strengths, consider the following tips:

1. Make a List

Begin writing a list, perhaps in a journal, or even in your phone, of positive personal qualities (e.g. kindness or humility) and performance strengths/talents (e.g. organization) you can see in yourself. Include things you’re naturally good at (e.g. cooking or showing empathy) and ask friends and family what they see as strengths in you. Add to the list whenever something new comes to mind. For a rewarding, research-based boost on this, complete the free VIA Character Strengths Survey found at viasurvey.org.

2. Reflect and Act

Every day for a week, consider one of your strengths. How can you use that strength that day? Try thinking of how it might help you at work or with a personal challenge. Write what your strength is and how you plan to use it that day.* You can broaden this by imagining other new ways to use your strengths that will help you be motivated and feel like your real, best self.

3. Look Forward

To get a better idea of how to reach your goals, spend some time each day writing about what your ideal life would look like in the future. Consider what you really want for your relationships, career, health, etc. and include as much detail as possible. This will give you a better idea of what goals would be most helpful for you. Identify a few of those goals then choose one and ask yourself how one of your strengths can help you reach that goal. Write through your thoughts and plan a few small steps in the direction of your goal, applying the chosen strength.


Becoming familiar with your strengths can help you recognize the good in yourself and give you tools to both overcome challenges and enhance the positives in life. Strengths are assets that enable optimal performance, helping you feel authentic and energized. They are both a sign of and a contributor to well-being, and they can help you find the direction in life that will be most fulfilling for you. You already have strengths; now is the time to find and use them to engage more fully with your life.

* Based on the “Use Your Strengths” and “Best Possible Self” practices found at berkeley.edu, which has other great exercises that can help you develop strengths.

Reference

Akhtar, M. (2018).  Positive Psychology for Overcoming Depression.  London, United Kingdom: Watkins Publishing.

Cultivating Gratitude: How It Counters Depression and 3 Ways to Get Started

Our brains naturally focus more on the negative events in our lives than the positive, and this is especially the case for people with depression. One great way to counter this bias is to cultivate gratitude, which is a feeling of appreciation, wonder, and thankfulness for life. Gratitude isn’t about circumstances or comparison, which can quickly bring us down. It can help cure disillusionment, envy, and the sense of not being or having “enough.” Gratitude helps us savor life experiences, fosters hope, invites positive emotions, improves self-esteem, and nourishes healthy relationships.

Gratitude is more than a feeling or an attitude; it is “tuning in” to recognize the good. It is a mindset or pattern of thought that takes practice.  Here are a few ways to get started:

1. Three Good Things

Take time each day to write down three things (positive events, people, or aspects of your life) you’re grateful for. These can be big or small, and if you can’t think of three, focus on one or two. Write about them in as much detail as possible and include how they make you feel. Also, try looking at how your involvement might have helped the “good things” happen. This will add to the benefits of this exercise by building confidence. *

  • Bonus: Once a week, make a list of all the positives in your life and why you’re grateful for them. That can be a great tool for helping you develop a “mindset of abundance” and provide evidence of the good things you experience.

2. Mental Subtraction of Positive Events

Think of a positive event in your life, such as an educational achievement and consider what made it possible. What could have gone differently (e.g. decisions or other events) and prevented this event from happening? Write these thoughts down and imagine what your life would be like without the positive event and everything that came from it. Now, remind yourself that it did happen and reflect on the good things it has brought to your life. * 

3. Thank-you Therapy

Think of someone in your life who has had a positive influence on you. Write them a detailed, hand-written letter of thanks on stationary you like, and then visit them and read the letter out loud to them. If that last step is too intimidating right now, that’s fine. Start with writing the letter and delivering it in person, if possible. Expressing gratitude to others will benefit both you and them by helping you bond emotionally and fostering trust and good will.


Gratitude amplifies the good in our lives, counters the negative bias from our own minds and the world around us, and helps us connect with others. It inspires joy and helps us overcome fear. It reminds us of loving and supportive people in our lives, of our strengths and achievements, and of the wonders around us.

It might take a while for these exercises to become heartfelt expressions of gratitude or to help you connect to positive emotions, and that’s okay. You may find apps that focus on gratitude helpful, such as the 5-minute journal app, which invites you to write three things you are grateful for each morning. Practicing gratitude will still train your brain to recognize the good things around and within you. This will help you in ways that might take some time to notice but that are powerful contributors to an upward spiral that counters depression. Choose an exercise, and start practicing!

 

* See the full description of this exercise at berkleley.edu.

References

Akhtar, M. (2018).  Positive Psychology for Overcoming Depression.  London, United Kingdom: Watkins Publishing.

Brown, B. (2010).  The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are.  Center City, MN: Hazelden Publishing.

Korb, A. (2015) The Upward Spiral: Using Neuroscience to Reverse the Course of Depression, One Small Change at a Time. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications, Inc.

The Power of Heartfelt Positivity: Reducing Negativity

6 amazing tips to reduce negativity and bring joy into your life, right now.

Research has revealed that we are most likely to flourish when we have at least three positive experiences for every negative (for people with mental illness, this ratio may be higher).  However, our brains are wired to focus more on the negative aspects of our lives – the red lights, the rude comments – than the positive. This can make it difficult to achieve the optimal 3:1 ratio, but it’s not impossible. A good place to start is by finding ways to decrease the negativity you experience. Here are a few tips that can help:

1. Dispute Negative Beliefs

We need some negativity in our lives; it keeps us grounded and is part of being human. To be beneficial, it needs to be appropriate – that is, specific and correctable – such as guilt that motivates us to correct a mistake or conflict that leads to an important change in perspective. All too often, inappropriate negativity drags us into a downward spiral. These spirals happen when negative emotions and thoughts feed on each other until we can’t see the situation or ourselves clearly and are weighed down in unhelpful emotions such as despair and shame.To interrupt this pattern, it is helpful to practice disputation – that is, stepping back to look at all the facts of a situation and see it more realistically. Consider effort, intentions, progress, and possibilities for improvement and success. Be a fair judge that takes into account all of the evidence, not just the mind’s negatively distorted interpretation of a setback or mistake. This isn’t about suppressing negative thoughts but dissolving them with a realistic lens and being able to make something good out of a challenge.

2. Interrupt Rumination

We may all sometimes get trapped in rumination, which is when we can’t seem to stop examining worries, concerns, and questions from every possible negative angle. To escape rumination, you need to be aware of when it’s happening and then engage in a healthy distraction such as exercise or reading. Be careful that your distraction isn’t harmful and doesn’t become just a way to numb unpleasantness – its job is to break the cycle of rumination, so you can approach challenges with a clearer mind and experience more positivity.

3. Practice Mindfulness

Expert Jon Kabat-Zinn defines mindfulness as “paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally.” This kind of awareness can help you take a mental and emotional step back, allow yourself to fully experience the present, and recognize your thoughts for what they are: thoughts. Mindfulness is a skill that can be cultivated through the practice of mindful movement (e.g. stretching), formal or informal meditation, meditation, and focusing on one task or idea at a time. It may be helpful to have guided meditations such as those found at Berkeley’s Mindfulness articles.

4. Diffuse Negativity Land Mines

Important perspective can come from “zooming in” on a particular day to recognize specific sources of harmful negativity, or considering which parts of your normal daily routine can be seen as “land mines.” These can be avoidable – such as a depressing movie or overreacting in anger – or alterable, at least in part. For example, you might practice mindfulness during a task that usually fuels anxiety. Try to have emotional distance between you and these negativity triggers when you’re examining them; it may be helpful to use other negativity-decreasing tools first so you can be in a neutral or positive emotional state when you’re assessing your life.

5. Assess Your Media Diet

Consuming media can lead to an overdose of all kinds of negativity if we’re not careful, resulting in skewed beliefs of what’s “normal”, real, and acceptable; harmful feelings such as shame or depression; and reduced enjoyment in daily living. Take an honest look at the media you “eat” and consider: What is it telling you about violence, race, sexuality, and body image? How does it make you feel about yourself? It may be helpful to “trim” some of the unnecessary negativity we take in through movies, the nightly news, social media, etc., not only by reducing time spent on media but changing the kind of media we choose to take in. For example, getting news online rather than TV allows you to sort through headlines and consume only the articles and videos you want to.

6. Negativity and Other People

When talking about others, highlight the positive rather than flaws or mishaps, and substitute light humor for sarcasm or making fun at another person’s expense. If you are around someone who brings needless negativity, you can: (1) Modify the situation by becoming aware of how you might add fuel to the negativity; working together on tasks that inspire both of you; or lighten the scene with compassion, hope, or humor. (2) Look for positive traits in the person you can appreciate. (3) Mentally reframe the situation and practice mindfulness, looking for opportunities to grow rather than adding more negativity.


Positivity has been found to have remarkable power to help us in every area of our lives – from physical health to relationships – and most of us probably don’t have enough of it.  Although some negativity is natural and even needed, we can begin to invite more positivity into our lives by recognizing influences that drag us down in unhealthy spirals of negative thoughts and emotions and then acting to loosen their hold on our minds, relationships, and daily patterns of living.

References

Fredrickson, B. (2009).  Positivity: Groundbreaking Research Reveals How to Embrace the Hidden Strength of Positive Emotions, Overcome Negativity, and Thrive.  New York, NY: Random House, Inc.

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