Enlightening The World
Founding Partners
Faculty & Associates
Workshops & Institutes
Executive Coaching
Client Comments
Web Links
The Event Horizon: Essays On Our Spiritual Journey
Empowerment Stories
Networking Groups
Paul Houston's Blog: Political pH
Contact Us
Center for Enlightened Leadership

Forgiveness Prevention: Cutting Our Grievances Off at the Pass

  Maybeth Conway
  Maybeth Conway
Senior Associate

It begins with just a subtle twitch of discomfort. Then our heart beats a little faster. Maybe our palms start to sweat. Involuntarily, our mind races as dark, critical thoughts streak across our consciousness. Before we know it, our inner peace has evaporated. We’re hooked. Our world is not as it should be. Once again, like Hamlet, we are “suffering the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.”

What if we could stop this painful process in its tracks? Think of all the frustration, anxiety, and anger we could avoid. How many petty grievances could we put to rest? More serious long-term resentments might lose their grip on our spirit. We just might side-step many of the gut-wrenching experiences that will eventually cry out for forgiveness. We could become practitioners of forgiveness prevention.

Cognitive behaviorists and those who study the forgiveness process offer us some helpful guidelines. They suggest that the root of our suffering often lies in the realm of the unconscious in the form of irrational beliefs and unenforceable rules. Our emotions and our subsequent behaviors are the result of what we think, assume, or believe about ourselves, other people, and the world at large. It is our belief system, not the actual situation we face, that determines how we feel and how we behave. Rational cognition promotes healthy emotional states and appropriate actions. Irrational cognition triggers debilitating emotional states and inappropriate actions. To move from the irrational to the rational, we simply bring our demon thoughts to full consciousness, confront them head on, refute them, and replace them with more rational beliefs. Easier said than done!

At the Stanford University Forgiveness Project, Dr. Fred Luskin and his colleagues have blended cognitive-behavioral theories with other treatment modalities to develop a research-based approach to the process of forgiveness. A major component of this process centers on the topic of unenforceable rules. Luskin defines an unenforceable rule as a desire that you think must come true, but over which you have no control. This combination leads you to feel helpless, angry, hurt, and eventually bitter and hopeless (Luskin, Forgive Your Way to Better Health, p. 1).

Here are a few common examples of unenforceable rules:

       • People should always do the right thing.

       • Children must obey their parents.

       • Parents should always act lovingly toward their children.

       • For every problem, there’s an ideal solution.

Note that most of these statements are filled with absolute language; shoulds and musts abound. Therein lies the source of the irrationality. Note also that most unenforceable rules may actually be legitimate. The problem stems from their unenforceability. While it would be wonderful if these statements were always true, that’s not how our imperfect world works.  

At the Forgiveness Project and in most clinical settings, clients focus on past experiences. They are encouraged to uncover their unresolved grievances, examine them closely, identify the unenforceable rules at play, and then move into a process of forgiveness. While this work has proven to be extremely successful, it might also be useful to apply similar principles to a forward-looking process. Perhaps, by investigating our potentially unenforceable rules, we can amend or abandon them before problems arise.

For those who seek leadership positions, those unenforceable rules are an active minefield. While it may be tempting to believe that, as leaders, we are impeccably rational, that’s seldom the case. When we become frustrated, when things don’t go the way we want, when we’re angry with our colleagues or our staff, when we feel helpless or unappreciated, chances are we’ve entered the terrain of unenforceable rules.

What if we made an effort to avoid this minefield altogether by choosing to actively confront a few of those unenforceable rules and replace them with more rational beliefs before inflicting them on ourselves or our co-workers? What if we abandoned our rigid demands and replaced them with gentler wishes and hopes? What if our introductory leadership courses highlighted just one unenforceable rule that relates to ourselves, one that relates to others, and one that relates to life in general, and then helped us to move each one from the realm of irrationality to the domain of the rational? Think of all the forgiveness challenges that we could avoid.

As I gingerly reviewed the unenforceable rules that cluttered my own leadership experiences and questioned colleagues about theirs, a few prime target areas seemed to emerge. Here are our personal recommendations for the introductory course in Proactive Forgiveness Prevention 101:

Unenforceable Rule for Self: To be a successful leader, I must always set the highest standards, succeed at whatever I do, and make no mistakes. If I do not meet this mark, I have failed.

Replacement Belief for Self: To be a successful leader, I will set high standards, aim for success, and try to limit my mistakes. If I miss this mark, I will adjust my plans and try again.

Unenforceable Rule for Others: If I treat my co-workers with kindness, honesty, and respect, they will always respond in kind. If they do not do so, they should be blamed or punished.

Replacement Belief for Others:  If I treat my co-workers with kindness, honesty, and respect, most will respond in kind; some will not. I don’t need to take this personally; nor do I need to spew blame. I might consider new strategies to promote the desired behaviors.

Unenforceable Rule for Life: Life should be fair.

Replacement Belief for Life: Sometimes life is fair; often it’s not. As a leader, all I can do is gracefully accept this reality and try to make life with me as fair as possible.

While these replacement beliefs certainly won’t fix everything, they might give us a starting point and a model to apply when we find ourselves drifting back into the minefield of unenforceable rules. They might remind us that we can be a thoughtful victor rather than a constant victim. They might help us to experience the feeling of peace that emerges as we take our hurts less personally, take responsibility for how we feel, and become a true hero. Over time, they might help us to become masters of forgiveness prevention.

Center for Empowered Leadership ®
Email: info@cfel.org
Phone: 1.609.259.7911