Forgiveness is a crucial skill, but can you also forget what you’re forgiving — and should you?

We’ve all heard the adage “forgive and forget” when someone has wronged us. The idea is that this will keep the peace, preserve relationships, and maintain a calm mind.

Sounds good, but can you really do that — forgive an offense and then forget about it? And is that the best action to take?

Because this advice has been handed out for ages, you might think it’s rooted in deep wisdom, and it must be easy to do.

Wisdom? Yes, in part. Easy? No, definitely not.

This adage that we’re all so familiar with might be more properly phrased as, “forgive, but don’t forget.”

Knowing how to forgive someone can be an essential life skill. It can save friendships, restore faith in our kids, and keep romantic relationships intact.

A 2015 study suggests that there are two types of forgiveness:

  • decisional forgiveness: making a conscious decision to let go of hurt feelings, such as anger and resentment, putting them in the past, and moving forward free of the effects those feelings can bring
  • emotional forgiveness: replacing negative emotions toward the person who has wronged you with positive ones such as sympathy, compassion, or empathy

Experts in this study suggest that emotional forgiveness can lead to higher levels of forgetting than decisional forgiveness or no forgiveness.

A 2021 study also suggests that forgetting is easier with emotional forgiveness than decisional forgiveness or no forgiveness.

But does forgiving someone require that you forget what they’ve done? Not necessarily.

“Forgiving and forgetting” implies that you’ve moved on and no longer think about the offensive act. But forgiving an offense can be hard to do.

A 2011 study suggests that forgiveness may give the person permission to continue the offense. In some cases, people who hurt others can manipulate the forgiveness process.

When “forgetting” what has been forgiven is challenging, learning from the experience may help some people cope if they encounter that behavior in the future.

Still, “forgiving and forgetting” isn’t always possible in every situation. While some can learn from the experience, others may forgive to release the past and accept that what happened wasn’t their fault and that no behavior could have changed it.

A word of caution

The concept of “forgive and forget” can be a complex and delicate topic to discuss, particularly for survivors of abuse or trauma.

Misconceptions about this topic can lead to:

If you’re a survivor of abuse or trauma and want to discuss how this concept fits with your situation, consider reaching out to a mental health professional.

They can help guide you on the next steps as they relate to you and your unique circumstances.

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If you don’t forget, can you really forgive? It can be difficult to truly forgive someone when you know how they’ve hurt you.

But no one said that forgiveness was easy. It may be extremely hard. Forgiveness may be as much for you as it is for the person to whom you’re granting it.

Forgiveness may help release emotional baggage, such as anxiety, anger, and pain. A 2019 study notes that several studies have linked forgiveness to lower levels of depression and anxiety.

It also notes that forgiveness may even improve physical health and pain, while unforgiveness may increase heart rate and blood pressure.

The study of nearly 1,000 women ages 18 to 40 found that those who emotionally forgave an offense held the person less responsible for the offense than those who decided to forgive.

Practicing forgiveness may improve your emotional health and overall happiness, according to a 2016 review.

If you’re still having trouble forgiving, especially when you can’t forget, there may be some good reasons to continue trying.

  • Forgiving is critical for our emotional well-being. By refusing to forgive someone, you may be holding on to all the anger and pain that their actions might have created. This can take an emotional and physical toll. According to a 2016 study, practicing forgiveness might help reduce stress, anxiety, and the likelihood of depression.
  • We don’t forget — we learn. Each experience teaches us something, even the painful ones. Forgetting means you’re forgoing the lesson and growth that can come from it. Instead, consider using it to better equip you for the future.
  • Forgiving strengthens relationships. All relationships have the potential to deepen and thrive because of what occurred. A 2011 study suggests that forgiving your partner may be crucial to maintaining a healthy romantic relationship. Forgiving may encourage you to become more committed to not allowing divisive and hurtful conflicts to occur in the future.
  • Forgiveness has a positive effect on your physical health. Have you heard the phrase, “Being eaten up inside”? Holding on to resentment and anger can indeed create problems within your body. Those festering feelings can increase blood pressure and inflammation leading to potential heart problems.

Convinced but unsure of how to start? You’re not alone.

If you’re having trouble figuring out how to begin the process, consider the following tips:

  • Identify and articulate the things you’d like to forgive. Too often, hurts and offenses get intertwined and knotted up. They may not even come from the same source. To start the process, try to be specific about what you’d like to forgive.
  • Understand forgiveness. Forgiveness is a process and requires effort and patience.
  • Acknowledge forgiveness. Try to think about what forgiveness will do for you, not for them.
  • Forget about forgetting. It’s not really possible to forget, nor is it necessary.
  • Find perspective. This may require putting some distance between you and someone else, talking with a friend or family member, or even seeking counseling.
  • Be ready to repeat the process. It can take more than one try to reach the point of being able to forgive.

Forgiveness is an important skill, and it can be positive. It may improve both your mental and physical health and lead to resolution and personal growth in some cases.

And even though you’ve forgiven someone, it doesn’t mean you have to forget their offense.

Forgiveness is a process that can take time and may require some effort.

If you want help, consider reaching out to a mental health professional for guidance. They can help you with the next steps and provide you with tools to cope with your circumstances.

“Forgiving and forgetting” is a choice, and if you choose not to do either, that’s OK.