In this episode of Conversations with Smart People, I interviewed Brenda Reiss, a forgiveness coach whose graceful guidance has changed my life in so many beautiful ways.
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I first interviewed Brenda back in 2017, when I was just beginning to move into the forgiveness process. At the time, I was struggling to accept that my marriage was unraveling, so I was grieving hard. But I still clung to hope that the relationship would recover.
In this second interview, Brenda and I took a deeper look at forgiveness — what it looks like, how to know when you’re ready for it, and how to remain open to the experience itself. We also examined some key concepts addressed in Colin Tipping’s book Radical Forgiveness, which has greatly influenced Brenda’s work.
Since my marriage ended, I've continued my forgiveness. While the emotions are less intense than they once were, old emotions still occasionally bubble up. But that’s how the grieving process works. It takes as long as it takes.
How do you know when you’re ready for radical forgiveness?
If you’re wondering how to know if you’re ready to begin the forgiveness work, you’re not alone. Like most important things, the question of readiness is personal. According to Reiss, jumping to forgiveness too quickly doesn’t leave enough space for grieving. When we allow ourselves to get there naturally — when we’re truly ready — we’re more likely to get what we need from it.
So, how do you know when you’re ready to forgive? “When you feel like you’re on the other side of grief and you want to engage in life again,” suggests Reiss. If we move there before we're ready, we’re still too wrapped up in our identity as a victim to gain value.
In his book, Tipping describes this readiness as being “willing to see the situation differently.”
Interpretation is the Source of Suffering
As tough as it is to admit, our interpretations of our experiences aren’t always accurate. We jump to conclusions. We create fictional stories in an attempt to try and make sense of what’s happened. We convince ourselves that since "THIS" happened, it must mean "THAT" is also true. But our interpretations are usually just random stories that we make up in our minds, based on our own beliefs and past experiences. And when we fill in the blanks with assumptions and interpretations, it only creates bigger stories...and negative emotions.
“The fact is what actually happened,” says Brenda, “and the interpretation is all the stuff we make up.”
This “interpretation is the source of our suffering,” she says. And being able to separate fact from interpretation is where our growth begins.
How Can We Recognize Our Teachers?
For me, one of the most profound takeaways from Tipping’s book was that the people in our life who seem to cause us the most problems may indeed be our greatest teachers. “What we think they do to us they actually do for us,” writes Tipping.
The people we perceive as hurting us might actually be nudging us to grow.
“On a differently level, those who hurt us didn’t really mean to hurt us,” explains Reiss. “Our teachers show us things about ourselves through a different means.” It’s just that we often don’t like those means.
For example, if you find yourself overreacting to minor incidents, like a friend not showing up for lunch on time, or someone cutting you off in traffic, it’s a sign that there’s something bigger at play. Whatever triggered you probably isn’t the root of your emotion. it’s more likely something much deeper. And it’s probably tied to an even bigger pattern if you examine similar past experiences.
Patterns show up in our lives to teach us something important, and they can come in the form of people, experiences, challenges, or situations. But what patterns also do is point us to our work, what needs our attention, what we need to learn. They guide us to where we need to heal.
What Makes Forgiveness Radical?
So, what is it about radical forgiveness that makes it so radical? This level of forgiveness opens us to the idea that nothing wrong took place and there is nothing to forgive.
If you're gasping, that makes two of us. I also had to re-read that several times myself. But that’s exactly what makes it so radical. It forces us to reexamine the events, our stories, and the facts to see that what really happened to us happened for us.
While forgiveness doesn’t excuse violations or condone bad behavior, it does lift the veil of our pain just enough to show us there might be something more within the experience for us to learn.
And when we can remove the heaviness of the event itself, we can begin to accept the peace that's waiting for us on the other side of the suffering.
That’s how radical forgiveness helps us in future situations and relationships as well.
Getting Stuck in the Why
It’s easy to get stuck in WHY questions. WHY did this happen? WHY did this happen to me? WHY did this have to happen right now?
While it's temping to go to that space, being stuck in WHY questions holds us hostage and keeps us mired in suffering. Insisting on knowing the reasons WHY is like “asking to know the mind of God,” says Tipping.
Instead of asking why, try asking these questions:
- What can I learn from this?
- What’s behind these feelings?
- What is being shown to me?
- What is this situation trying to show me?
- What pattern is playing out?
- How do I want my future to look?
- What do I want to come of this?
- Where is the gift in all of this?
Attachment to Outcomes
Our attachment to outcomes is another source of our suffering. When we become attached to specific outcomes or results, or have specific expectations of others, we give away our happiness, making it dependent on something or someone else.
In her book Loving What Is, Byron Katie reminds us that acceptance is how we find peace. Katie’s philosophy goes something like this: It should have happened because it did. (Her live workshops are phenomenal, and I highly suggest attending one.)
Because the simple truth is, staying angry won't change your reality, and neither will re-experiencing the painful memories over and over again in our mind. It only prolongs our suffering. And from that perspective, it's easy to see that we are often the source of our own suffering.
Radical forgiveness has been a huge part of my self-care journey. It's helped me build strength and resilience, and while I still have a long way to go in terms of my healing, what I know for certain is that no matter what happens, everything is going to be okay.
Navigating the Forgiveness Process
I used to think the grieving process was linear. But it isn’t. So far, mine has looked something like this: I went up a couple hills, fell down, blackened my eye, circled back again a few more times, and now I'm having a cocktail on the beach. But I'll probably fall again.
The process just isn't linear, and there’s no single direction to get to the other side. It looks however it looks and it takes as long as it takes. But the most important thing is to keep moving forward. Even if it sometimes feels like we’re moving backward, we’re still making progress as long as we're moving.
Working with Brenda
If you’re feeling ready to begin the forgiveness work, Brenda offers both one-on-one coaching and group programs that focus on the forgiveness process.
You can also purchase Brenda's book, Forgive Yourself, on Amazon.
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