Book Recommendations, Emotional Intelligence, Family Issues, Relationships

Forgive and… *Don’t* Forget?

Somewhere along the lines, our culture took to heart a lesson we seem to indoctrinate into small children as a way of keeping the peace in home and playground: when someone does us a hurt, our job on the receiving end is to “forgive and forget”. Let it go and move on. Don’t harbour the grudge. This admonishment seems to come regardless of whether the hurt has been redressed (at all, never mind adequately), whether any repair has been attempted, whether any degree of ownership and justice have been served.

In Buddhism, the Four Noble Truths sometimes baffle people who have a hard time “letting go” or forgiving the injustices, big or small, that have been done to them, even when clinging to their anger and hurt is making them miserable. I have a lot of clients who struggle with this indoctrinated precept of “forgive and forget”, whether it means forgiving parents, friends, employers/colleagues, or especially intimate partners. It has become a kind of cultural shorthand now when talking about “foregiveness” that people simply imply “…and forget” when we talk about forgiving those who we believe have harmed us. When people hurt, they don’t *want* to forget, because many people are reasonably afraid that, having been hurt once, they can be hurt again. Even if they move on to other relationships, the remembered pain and sense of hurt goes with them, and they bring that fear and mistrust into new connections. They don’t want to forget because remembering helps guard against future hurts.

But being constantly on guard is exhausting. Ask anyone who has ever suffered to the degree of being diagnosed with PTSD what it costs to remain hypervigilant, and most of them will tell you: it drains everything. When we spend all our time remembering, we have a hard time being in the present moment, because we are so consumed by the past. But letting go opens us up to being vulnerable, to *potential* future harms. For some people, that’s just not an option.

For people struggling in the sticky tar-pit of that “forgive and forget” mindset, I find the language Terry Hargrave introduced in his work on Families & Forgiveness to be ground-breaking. Hargrave suggests that “forgiveness” is one of FOUR “stations” we can move to from our place of hurt when a relationship is damaged:


Salvation (Exonarating)

Restoration (Forgiving)

Insight Understanding Giving the Opportunity for Compensation Overt Forgiving

Figure 1. The Four Stations of Forgiveness (Terry Hargrave, “Forgiving the Devil”)

Hargrave’s use of “stations” here does not carry the same implication as, say, “stations of the Cross” might, to suggest a progression from one state to the next. Rather, each of these options exists as a resting place unto itself, and may represent the total progression an individual might make in the relationship to the one they feel has harmed them. And only the final stations actually involve forgiveness as we understand it, though Hargrave does not suggest that “forgetting” is at all a necessary part of any of these stations:

[…] [F]orgiving and forgetting are two separate issues that are not connected by necessity. […] [W]e seldom forget the action that has damaged us in an unfair way, but we do tend to forget the pain that is associated with that action after we have forgiven. I believe this is true. Pain tends to fade with time after the work of forgiveness is achieved. When a person engages in the second two stations of forgiving and restores the relationship with the former relational culprit, then the pain of the past has the opportunity to fade when compared with the trustworthy and loving relationship of the present. The popular belief that if a person truly forgives another, he or she will wipe the slate clean of all memories of the incident, is simply not true. Even if it were neurologically possible on request to erase specific memory pathways in the brain that contain information about the damaged past, it would not necessarily be preferable.

Again, at the heart of […]injustice and pain is the violation of trust. If I am damage by [someone], there is a sequential deterioration of trust. If I forgive and forget, then possibly nothing will change in a relationship with an untrustworthy [person], and I will open myself up to the same type of relational damage to occur again. If I try to forget the damage, then I will not remember the necessary steps to take to prevent such damage in the future and there is a possibility that I will be “twice burned”. Trust is best restored to a relationship not when the victim and victimizer act as if no violation ever occurred; it works best when they do not forget the past and choose to live life differently [in the present and future].

The first two stations do not demand that trust in a relationship be re-established, but they can provide reflection and a frame of reference for understanding something about what happened that may shed some light on WHY it happened. This is often as far as many people safely feel they can get; they have something that feels like an explanation that makes sense, but they cannot feel safe in the act of re-establishing trust with the person who damaged them. This is often true for those coming out of toxic or abusive relationships with parents or partners (or both). Forgiveness, on the other hand, demands an active process of re-engagement and reconstruction, and active repair attempts from all parties involved. It is a riskier position to be in, because it also requires vulnerability on both sides; the one who has been hurt risks being hurt again, and the one who has effected the hurt is often bringing some degree of guilt and shame to the table that they have to confront and manage within themselves as part of the process. (Note from the therapist’s chair: it is NOT the job of the person who has been hurt to manage that guilt and shame for the other; just be aware it’s a part of the equation for whomever is sitting on the other side of the table.)

This stationed approach allows greater flexibility in presenting options to people who seem caught between the rock of “forgiveness” and the hard place of “forgetting”. As a therapist, we can give them permission to take forgetting off the table completely, and then offer not one but FOUR unique perspectives under two classes of approach (exoneration and restoration) from which to begin their work. This opens up new discussion directions and new language to explore, and often helps clients determine what they want to do that point, and how to engage with the damaging partner. It may allow them to move on from stuckness and let go of their exhausting attachment to the pain of the incident, with new options for living more fully in the present than in the past.

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