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A Radical Approach to Forgiveness with Brenda Reiss

In this episode of Conversations with Smart People, I interviewed Brenda Reiss, a gifted forgiveness coach whose guidance has changed my life in so many beautiful ways.

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 also grieving.

In this second interview, Brenda and I take 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.

During our interview, we also examined some key concepts in Colin Tipping’s book Radical Forgiveness*, which has greatly influenced Brenda’s work as well. Surprisingly, a lot of old emotions bubbled up for me as I read through the book, emotions that I thought I had already moved past after my divorce last year. But the truth is, I still experience anger and sadness from time to time. That’s how the grieving process works. Even so, the book brought me a great deal of peace as well.

Here are the topics we explored in the interview:

How do you know when you’re ready for radical forgiveness?

If you’re wondering 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. But 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. When we move there before we're ready, we’re still too tied to our victim status.

Tipping describes this readiness as being “willing to see the situation differently.”

How do our interpretations of our life events carry into our forgiveness work?

As tough as it may be to admit, our interpretations aren’t always right. We jump to conclusions, create fictional stories to try and make sense of what’s happened, and attach meaning to events that just aren’t accurate. We might say, THIS thing happened, so it means [insert interpretation].

But filling in blanks with assumptions and interpretations 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.”

But our “interpretation is the source of our suffering,” she says.


Being able to separate fact from interpretation is where our growth begins.

How can we recognize our greatest teachers?

For me, one of the most profound takeaways from Tipping’s book was that the people in our life who seem to cause 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 likely something much deeper. And it’s probably tied to an even bigger pattern.

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 radical forgiveness so radical?

The process of radical forgiveness opens us to the idea that nothing wrong took place and there is nothing to forgive.

I know, right?

If you're gasping, that makes two of us. I had to re-read that several times myself. But that’s what makes it so radical.

To be clear, acknowledging that there’s nothing to forgive doesn’t excuse violations or crimes, nor does it condone bad behavior. What it does is lift the veil of our pain just enough to show us there might be something within the experience for us to learn.

When we can remove the heaviness of the event itself, we can begin to accept the peace waiting for us on the other side of the suffering.

That’s how radical forgiveness helps us in future situations and relationships as well.

What happens when we get 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?

But 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.

And do we really have that kind of capacity?

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?

Our attachment to outcomes is another source of suffering. When we become attached to specific outcomes, or have specific expectations of others, we give away our happiness.

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. (Side note: her live workshops are phenomenal!)

Staying angry will not change reality and neither will rumination (the re-experiencing of painful situations over and over again in our minds). They only serve to prolong our suffering. And from that perspective, we become the cause of our own suffering.

Radical forgiveness has been a huge part of my self-care journey and I still have a long way to go, but I’m okay with that. What I know for certain is that relationships are messy. They’re anything but predictable and they certainly aren’t perfect. Friendships can give way to misunderstandings, marriages can erode into disrespectful forms of cohabitation, and dysfunctional families can leave deep wounds that linger for a lifetime.

Left unaddressed, disharmonious relationships can leave us physically ill and unable to find joy.

But forgiveness offers us a way to address them.

How to navigate 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, blacked my eye, circled back, and did it again a few more times.

Honestly, I won’t be a bit surprised if I go back through that obstacle course a time or two again. If I need to go, I’ll go. And that’s the beauty of the process: it isn’t linear. 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 no matter what, we can’t stop moving. Even when it feels like we’re moving backward, we’re still making progress.

If you’re feeling drawn to the radical forgiveness work, I highly recommend working with Brenda, either one-on-one or by attending one of her courses. 

What has been your experience with forgiveness? Please share in the comments below.

Have a thought about forgiveness? Leave a comment below.

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