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Forgive and Forget – Can you Really Forget?

It doesn't matter what you're recovering from—substance abuse, mental health issues, or [another thing]—forgiveness is a big part of the process. For those in 12-step programs, you are often encouraged to forgive those who've hurt you in the past, but also to forgive yourself for times when you haven't lived up to your own expectations. But how do we achieve forgiveness?

Importance of Forgiveness

To start, it's important to understand how forgiving people can help us. When we refuse to forgive someone for something we have done, we hold resentment or a grudge towards them. Every time we see the person, or think about the event, we may feel the same sort of anger response. Our body may react to the stressful stimulus just like it did the first time the event occurred. Our hearts may race, our mind may move towards "fight or flight" thinking, and our cortisol levels may rise. If we can find forgiveness, we may be able to move past these sorts of physical responses, letting our mental and physical health improve.

But there are several factors necessary to achieve forgiveness. Linda Bevans, a self help expert, points out that:

  • You must be reasonably sure that the person you're forgiving is sincere in their intention to not continue their painful behavior.
  • You genuinely believe that the person you're forgiving is sorry for their actions, or at least the effect that their actions had upon you.

That being said, there is a type of forgiveness that you can achieve even when the person you are forgiving is not apologetic. Wilma Derksen, a therapist in Winnipeg writes about resentment, forgiveness from a personal and professional point of view. She links forgiveness with ideas like resilience and letting go. These realities can be pursued regardless of the feelings or intentions of the other party.

We Really Do Forget!

Forgetting, however, is a very different story. Many people who are willing to forgive get stuck on what it means to "forget" someone else's negative actions.

Generally speaking, when people talk about forgiving and forgetting, they are not talking about literally erasing the event from your memory. In fact, some people say you forgive because you can’t forget.  Charlotte vanOyen Witvliet, who is a PhD and associate professor of psychology at Hope College, has said that "Forgiveness does not involve a literal forgetting. Forgiveness involves remembering graciously. The forgiver remembers the true though painful parts, but without the embellishment of angry adjectives and adverbs that stir up contempt." When you forget something that has happened in this context, you are agreeing that you have accepted the other person's apology, that you aren't going to continue to reference this fault or flaw in anger, that you aren't going to continue to demand apologies (unless the behavior is repeated).

With this in mind, some new research has suggested that forgiving is actually linked with actual forgetting. Saima Noreen, Raynette Biermann, and Malcolm MacLeod published a research article in the July 2014 issue of Psychological Science showing that forgiveness and forgetting are linked. So, even though we usually don’t take it literally, it seems that if you forgive you are actually more likely to forget.

One of the factors that decide whether our memories are stored in long term memories is the importance we associate with the event. It would make sense that events that are dealt with or forgiven are likely going to be considered less important by our brain. In this way, it may be that forgiven events are more likely to fragment and decay – never to bother us again! Of course, if the event is truly forgiven, it probably wasn’t bothering you that much anyway.

So How Do We Forgive?

Forgiving and forgetting are not necessarily easy things to do in our society. As a culture, we often have a difficult time apologizing well, or accepting apologies. In the Journal of Psycholinguistic Research, doctors Steven Scher and John Darly have laid out the crucial steps to an apology that can actually help heal a relationship.

  • Step 1: Express remorse. Say "I'm sorry," or "I apologize," and be specific. State what it was that you did wrong. For example, you could say "I'm sorry I spoke in a way that hurt you," or "I apologize for snapping at you this morning." It is not appropriate to use language that shifts blame onto the other party. For example, "I'm sorry you were offended by what I said," says that the other person was at fault for being offended, not that you were at fault for using inappropriate language.
  • Step 2: Admit responsibility. Saying that you know what you did wrong helps the other party know that you understand your inappropriate action, and helps them believe that you sincerely hope to do better in the future. "I was wrong to doubt your ability to handle this task, and it was even more inappropriate for me to express that in front of our entire team. I embarrassed you, and I should not have done that."
  • Step 3: Make amends. This can be the hardest step. Empty promises will just lead to a further degradation of trust between two people. If there's no clear path to helping resolve the problem, simply state your intent. "If there's anything I can do to help make this up to you, please let me know."

Accepting an apology graciously can be difficult as well. Too often, people respond to an apology with a further airing of grievances. When an apology has not actually addressed what someone did wrong, this can be appropriate, but if the apology is appropriate and sincere, it just furthers the conflict.

If you are prepared to accept the apology, it's okay to stick to simple phrases. "Thank you for this," and "I accept your apology," can be very helpful. If you're not yet ready to accept the apology, it may help you both to be clear about your intentions. "Thank you for saying that you're sorry. I am still very hurt, and I need some time to process before I'm ready to consider resuming our relationship. I would appreciate it if you would give me the time and space necessary to do that," may be something that people in 12 step programs may hear a lot during the step about making amends.

Forgiving and forgetting are difficult. There are many situations in life where the best we can hope for is to stop our stress reactions in the moment, and move towards a more peaceful existence. If you have difficulty forgiving or forgetting, or find yourself experiencing a lot of physical and mental stress due to things that have happened in the past, it may be time to see a mental health professional to get some additional techniques and strategies to manage your emotions.

About the author

Dr. Syras Derksen

Winnipeg Psychologist