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Forgive and forget...cliché or realistic?

Many have heard the saying, "forgive and forget," especially regarding negative life events. Over the years, past clients have asked, "Well, shouldn't I forgive? Shouldn't I forget?" Individuals might reference religion. Let me be clear: I do not teach forgiveness. Also, I do not promote forgetting. I believe this cliché is detrimental to mental and emotional wellness. It is also an unrealistic expectation with a high probability of failure. For anyone to set unrealistic expectations leads to an increased likelihood of mental and emotional distress (e.g., frustration, anger, disappointment, sadness, shame, and obsessive, self-deprecating thoughts) and instability.

Question #1: Should I forgive?

The American Psychological Association defines forgiveness as "willfully putting aside feelings of resentment toward someone who has committed a wrong, been unfair or hurtful, or otherwise harmed you in some way. . .it involves a voluntary transformation of your feelings, attitudes, and behavior so that you are no longer dominated by resentment and can express compassion, generosity, or the like toward the person who wronged you." (n.d., para 1). I read on other online sites that the psychological definition can also include no longer holding vengeance toward the offending person.

Black woman sitting in window
Black woman sitting in window

My problem with this definition is that it assumes a person must be dominated by resentment. As a highly educated Black woman, I have been treated wrong, unfairly, hurt, and harmed based on assumptions made about me due to the intersection of these identities, along with being tall, having natural hair, and having an Rbf (i.e., resting bitch face). There were many perpetrators, and some were in positions of power. I had and do not hold resentment or vengeance toward these people. I also think it's not productive or healthy to hold these negative emotions toward the unjust infrastructure of society and systems, which I believe will not change in my lifetime. Moreover, it is a way of life for me, and I long accepted it is what it is. I will have to make the best of what it is.

To address the second part of this definition, no one has to express "compassion, generosity, or the like" toward someone who has harmed them to move past vengeance or resentment (American Psychological Association, n.d., para 1). All a person has to do is not care anymore; no compassion or generosity toward the offender is needed. However, if I had a client who verbalized wanting to improve their relationship or mend fences with an individual (e.g., spouse, significant other, partner, relative, caretaker, etc.), I would provide feedback that showing some level of compassion, considering letting go of whatever negative feelings they hold about the person or choosing to acknowledge, explore, and process conflicted feelings will likely help achieve their goal. But I'm not assuming their emotions are resentment or revenge; someone can feel a wide range of emotions, including love, toward a person or people who have harmed them.

Question #2: Should I forget?

You can try to forget, but you probably won't be able to do so. When wanting to forgive and/or forget, someone has often experienced something immensely hurtful or painful. These instances or events can include betrayal or disloyalty by a loved one, trauma and abuse, bullying, discrimination, or unexpected death. Our brains don't function in ways to forget events like this and the negative emotions connected with the event itself. The event and accompanying emotions are stored in our memories. However, there are those pesky internal and external triggers to cue memories that can bring about or worsen mental and emotional symptoms. A person can be aware of triggers or not. So, even if we put 110 percent effort into forgetting about negative events and connected emotions, we are setting ourselves up for failure. We can't be prepared and aware of all our triggers. It is also not the healthiest to suppress (i.e., intentionally choosing not to think about something) or repress emotions (i.e., a defensive response by the brain to hide our negative memories or emotions without our awareness).

Positive and negative emotions must be recognized, identified, and processed for these feelings to not fester inside of us to create psychological turmoil and physical ailments. Additionally, negative events can not be in totality erased from our memories. Depending on the pain level and impairment to someone's past and present life, it may be best that the event(s) and accompanying emotions are suppressed or repressed by a person. As a mental health counselor, I do not dig into people's hurtful memories, trauma, and/or pain for my personal curiosity, interest, or entertainment. I find this unethical by causing undue harm. However, if a negative event is contributing to significant impairment or distress in an individual's present life, I will assist the person with discussing the event, identifying, exploring, and processing accompanying emotions, and drawing connections to recognize how the event is contributing to their impairment, and identifying ways to address their current problems(s). This approach can differ depending on the mental health professionals' training, education, and theoretical orientation.



Hi, thanks for stopping by!

I am a clinical mental health counselor and an educator. I have been in private practice for almost a decade. During this time, I have encountered hundreds of individuals to listen to their narratives and to help them heal in some way. Additionally, I have my own story. I hope to weave takeaways and lessons learned over the years from these interactions and from my personal life into informative and thought- provoking posts. 

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