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Forgiving versus Forgetting

Forgiveness can be tricky business. Societal messages encourage us to forgive so that we can move on. Plus, we know in our hearts how painful it is to nurture a grudge. Although being unforgiving of others hurts us, so too can the automatic reaction of wiping the slate clean prematurely. Forgiveness is a nuanced subject, not an all-or-nothing affair, whether we’re talking about our own transgressions or those done to us.

Why forgive? Because it hurts to harbor painful feelings against ourselves and other people, because we can get stuck in rumination, vengeful thoughts, and I-should-have- said-this and why-didn’t-I-do-that. A major reason forgiveness is troublesome is that we often couple it with forgetting, disappearing a distressing occurrence as if it never happened. We wonder: If I pardon myself for eating too little or too much food, how will I remember to eat right? Don’t I need a constant reminder of the past in order to move healthily into the future? If I absolve people for how they’ve wronged me, might I allow them to do it again—and again and again? If I cling to negative feelings about someone, won’t that ensure that I keep my distance?

Too often we confuse forgiveness with forgetting. The first is a process of letting go of the intense emotions surrounding transgression. The second is erasing memory of an event. Fortunately, we can do the former without the latter because emotional memory and factual recall are stored in different parts of the brain. You can have compassion for the school bullies who made fun of you because of your weight without forgetting that they did so. You can let go of self-hatred for over- or undereating, but keep intact the memory of how uncomfortable it feels to starve or stuff yourself.

There’s a difference in timing, however, concerning forgiving yourself and others. When you make a mistake, it’s best to forgive yourself immediately, allowing for imperfection and validating that you’re human. You can still hold onto the memory of your errors and learn from them if you stay compassionate and curious about your behavior. On the other hand, you might not want always to forgive others so quickly. This process takes time for you to work through hurt, understand people’s motivations and your reactions, and keep yourself alert to intentions. In fact, if someone hurts you over and over, you aren’t necessarily expected to forgive them. Forgiveness for those who’ve harmed you should be a healing process for you, not them. So that you won’t be hurt again, work on holding onto the memory of the injury while letting go of the negative feelings that cause you ongoing emotional pain.