“People can be more forgiving than you can imagine. But you have to forgive yourself. Let go of what’s bitter and move on.” – Bill Cosby

I consider forgiveness my superpower. It takes me a really long time to realize that someone is holding a grudge against me. Often, I’m surprised to find that rather than be grateful I’ve shed their wrong against me they, instead, harbor more resentment than ever.
It seems counterintuitive to think that someone who has been forgiven their mistakes can be so ill-equipped to forgive others but it happens quite often and may be linked to a little known cognitive bias known as the Empathy Gap.

The Empathy Gap is a fairly self-explanatory term used to describe the behavior of someone who cannot identify with or underestimates the effect of feelings, either their own or someone else’s (usually someone else’s), and how those feeling contributed to a set of circumstances. In effect someone with an Empathy Gap either cannot see that they’ve hurt you or they think you’ve done them more harm than they have done you.

I have a tendency to forgive quite quickly because I identify very easily with the psychological cause for someone’s behavior and the feelings they’re likely to have been experiencing at the time (i.e. when my adolescent children act out I know it is mostly a function of 1) puberty and 2) feelings of disempowerment). In essence, I don’t take their behavior personally because I can normally identify the root cause of their behavior. What this can mean, however, is because I don’t make a big fuss about the times I feel mistreated the people exhibiting inappropriate behavior can easily miss the fact that my feelings have been hurt in the first place.
Translation: If there was a misunderstanding and I was able to forgive them their part then their interpretation is that they never did anything wrong in the first place.

As with any other behavior, the brain strengthens with practice. Every time a person with an Empathy Gap either feels they did no wrong (or at least that their wrong wasn’t as egregious as your wrong) they strengthen the understanding that they’re the victim which further perpetuates the cycle.

There is hope!!

Remember, the neuroplasticity of the brain means that with practice it can be re-wired and reconditioned to contain a new understanding.

If you think you’re the one with the Empathy Gap
…the best, most effective method we have at our disposal for increasing empathy is meditation.
Meditation conditions the medial pre-frontal cortex to create a stronger understanding of a commingled “self” and “other.” Here’s a very comprehensive article from Psychology Today that goes into detail on that. Essentially, meditation bulks up the part of the brain that can see things from another’s point of view, including any potential feelings they may be experiencing.
…Of course, making a conscious effort to exercise empathy will help, too. New effort requires excellent communication skills and a lot of patience as you engage in conversations with the people around you to really try to understand how they feel.
Make sure your efforts include reflection on those conversations to further practice the new thought patterns that now include someone else’s understanding of the incident in question.
Remember, this isn’t comfortable at first. You’re fighting some very strong old patterns that have kept score and worked hard to be “right” rather than forgiving. With practice you will find that empathy comes easier – then forgiveness is just natural.

If it’s most certainly “not you, it’s them” then I can share with you what has worked for me…
1…Always wait until the hurtful moment is over and cooler heads prevail. We can never get our point across when people are in a stressful state (watch my TedxTalk to understand why).
2…Once everyone is collected and themselves again revisit the situation.
Seek first to understand… : ask them questions about how they felt, what triggered it and reflect back to them what you think you understand.
…then be understood“: express how you felt and ask them to reflect back to you what they understand.
3…Do this as often as necessary until everyone has a full grasp on the situation.
Once there is understanding forgiveness comes easy.

That’s fine if the person is a willing participant in the process (like my kids). What happens if the person has a strong Empathy Gap and no ears to hear or willingness to learn?
…We cannot change the behavior of anyone else. We can only change our own.
…While it might be tempting to hold a grudge to just make sure they cannot ignore your hurt, grudges do not serve your highest good. There are times when we take the harder choice to model the behavior we’d like to see (“be the change you wish to see in the world” – Ghandi) but we may not be rewarded by those closest to us. As an example: At the end of a long-term relationship I was accused of not nagging enough. He was angry that I would say my piece and then simply move on and be happy which allowed him to forget that I’d been hurt. Looking back, as painful it was to watch that relationship end, I wouldn’t change a thing. I certainly wouldn’t go back and wield my injury over his head like an axe. I could never be happy while keeping score of his ills. He certainly wasn’t happy keeping track of mine. Happiness is most certainly a choice I’m going to make every time.
…View the experience as a chance for you to practice all the characteristics you wish that person would practice; patience, understanding, grace – these moments give you a chance to strengthen your brain in the direction of more loving and compassionate connections to others.

The upshot: Choosing forgiveness strengthens empathy which strengthens our capacity to love ourselves and others. Those who cannot forgive others ultimately cannot forgive themselves.

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