Why ‘Forgive and Forget’ Is Actually Really Bad Advice

The experts agree: There’s a better way.
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Mary Rose Somarriba
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The experts agree: There’s a better way.

“We’ve all suffered in life, but I like to forgive and forget,” a friend recently said, probably expecting me to nod in agreement. Instead I visibly grimaced. I call B.S.

To me, the alliterative phrase "forgive and forget" represents a romanticized sentiment more than actual helpful life advice. I believe it serves to smooth things over more so than it heals or amends wrongdoing. 

We’ve all suffered in life, it’s true. But the thought of forgetting about wrongs I’ve faced seems offensive to me. How could “forgetting” help? And how is it even possible? We don’t live in the film Eternal Sunshine for the Spotless Mind wherein it’s possible for people to surgically remove past wounds from their memory. Plus, if we forget about past wounds, how are we to avoid the same situations again? Another common phrase, “fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me” comes to mind.

Of course for most of us, we don’t forget. We remember the hurts we’ve experienced, and we revise our behavior to avoid them. Even if we don’t consciously pay attention to the wounds or wrongdoers in our lives, often our body remembers them, and whether we’re conscious of them or not, they affect how we live our lives. So rather than banish our issues, let's rethink how we move on. 

01. Forgetting is not possible. Period.

As Julia Hogan, LPC, told me, “it's impossible to truly forget a wrong that has been committed against you. It happened. It happened to you, and you experienced how hurtful it was. That is something that is impossible to erase from your memory. Nor would it be fair to you to ask you to forget that the wrong happened despite the harm that you've suffered. You are allowed to acknowledge the hurt that you've suffered and it is often beneficial for someone to say, ‘Yes, I've been wronged by someone.’”

The thing is, if someone tries to forgive and forget, it's possible they haven't really forgiven, because by the quick act of “forgetting,” they haven't fully processed the wrong they've been done. And acknowledging the wrong is essential to real forgiveness.

The leading researchers on forgiveness, Drs. Robert Enright and Richard Fitzgibbons, describe forgiveness as "people, upon rationally determining that they have been unfairly treated, forgive when they willfully abandon resentment and related responses (to which they have a right), and endeavor to respond to the wrongdoer based on the moral principle of beneficence which may include compassion, unconditional worth, generosity, and moral love (to which the wrongdoer, by nature of the hurtful act or acts, has no right)."

Enright and Fitzgibbons describe the process of forgiveness as a four-stage process of uncovering the hurt; understanding what forgiveness is and isn't and deciding to forgive; working to change the way they view the offender, themselves, and their relationship with the offender; and finally, finding meaning in suffering, connecting with others, and feeling a renewed purpose in life.

02. Moving on takes time.

When it comes to grave hurts, “to grow in true personal healing and truly forgive is incredibly difficult and has no timeline,” Hogan told me. 

“It can be very difficult and emotional process and so a therapist can be a great resource to help you with this.” Despite the difficult process, though, seeking true forgiveness can be a much more freeing experience than forgetting. “True forgiveness doesn't erase the wrongdoing but rather frees the person who was hurt.”

So, forgetting has nothing to do with real forgiveness. Forgetting actually impedes it.

“Pretending the wrongdoing never happened doesn't make the effects of it go away,” Hogan continued. While it might be easier in the moment to ignore the wrongdoing and act as if nothing has happened, the emotional effects of the wrongdoing are still there. Once the person who was wronged is ready to acknowledge the hurt, the healing process of forgiveness can begin.”

Hogan has seen this to be true in counseling her patients. “If I were to tell my patients who were abused as children to ‘forgive and forget’ what happened to them, I would be saying to them that the ways their lives have been negatively impacted by that abuse doesn't matter. And nothing could be further from the truth. Their lives have been incredibly impacted by what they experienced as children.”

03. Forgetting can be useful but costly.

Dr. Jennifer J. Freyd, psychologist, professor at the University of Oregon, and editor of the Journal of Trauma & Dissociation, notes that there are situations where forgetting can be a helpful coping mechanism—but it comes with a price. Also author of the book Blind to Betrayal, Freyd told me “the basic idea in betrayal trauma theory is 'forgetting' can serve a function of someone who’s really stuck in a bad situation.” It’s not uncommon for someone to forget a painful experience in order to “stay attached to a person who keeps you alive, for instance.” A child needs a parent to stay alive, so in cases of abuse, for children, “forgetting harms done to them serves a function. But it comes at a great cost.”

For those facing betrayal trauma, the notion of forgetting often comes in the form of dissociating. “We have many kinds of memories,” Freyd explains. “I can remember facts, I can remember how to do things like how to ride a bicycles; some memories I can talk about they’re very consciously accessible”; others, not so much. 

“People who are betrayed traumatically in childhood are much more likely to have dissociative tendencies in life and difficulties having intimate relationships later in life. These are things people can heal from, but it takes effort, relationships, and admitting the truth to oneself.”

But can we handle the truth? We can’t handle without it, actually. 

04. Forgiveness is possible.

Freyd stresses that forgiveness can be incredibly beneficial under the right circumstances, but truth is a necessary precondition to reconciliation. Even when one has been harmed by a person who is unable to admit the truth, that person can still admit the truth to themselves about the the wrong they’ve been dealt—a necessary step to move forward. 

Forgiveness is beneficial “only after there has been some kind of accountability and truthfulness. The problem is without accountability, there are conditions for bad things to happen again.” Instead of leading to healing, it leaves the person with all the costs of being harmed, and could let the perpetrator harm again. Without the “ability to see the reality and take protective action,” the person risks being victimized in the same way again.

All this said, however, Freyd impressed on me there is yet some good news. “A sincere apology is extremely healing. In our society people are afraid to apologize even if they want to because they think it could somehow be used against them (legally or socially), but what I have observed is sincere apologies are extremely healing to both the person who apologizes and the person apologized to.” So while we can’t rush the healing process of forgiveness for ourselves or others, we can help others by not encouraging them to brush our foibles under the rug but instead offering sincere apologies. We also can benefit from forgiving ourselves if we've unfairly blamed ourselves for being wronged by others. 

But most of all, don't aspire to forgive and forget. Because, as it turns out, forgetting how one’s been betrayed not only doesn’t lead to true forgiveness, but it also risks betraying oneself.

Photo Credit: The Mullers