Is It Always Wise to Forgive and Forget?

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This article first appeared on Happify

I always believed that forgiving went hand in hand with forgetting. I believed that when we forgave someone for their mistakes—or ourselves for our failings—we freed ourselves to move on with a clean slate. Our relationships blossomed, we felt good about ourselves, and we left the ashes of the past where they belonged.

Such lofty ideals often take a tumble in the face of reality. More than once, I’ve suffered for choosing to forget situations where someone had a reason—conscious or subconscious—to harm or take advantage of another. More than once, I’ve let my guard down before the lesser angels of my nature and hurt a dear one or failed to do the right thing.

The reality is that we’re human. We desire to be good—but we’re also curtailed by an overriding need to survive that’s sometimes beneficial, but more often misguided. Staying aware of our inherent paradox while keeping faith in our higher intentions is a fine balancing act that takes more than a clean sweep of the past.

In my work as a positive psychology coach helping people live their most meaningful lives, I’ve found that a 2×2 framework, with the importance of the relationship on one axis and the sincerity of the apology on the other, is a great way to bring clarity to the situation. If you’re carrying grudges and anger or regrets and self-loathing from the past that keep you from living the life that awaits you, spend a few moments on it and see what you find.

Here’s how to know when to forgive and when to forget

An Important Relationship and a Sincere Apology

If the relationship is important to you—and this includes your relationship with yourself—and the apology is sincere, it’s wise to both forgive and forget. Perhaps a friend or family member falsely accused you of something, your child acted impulsively and let you down, or your partner had a weak moment and wronged you. Perhaps you gave in to your urges or anger and acted in a way that you now regret. Difficult as it may be, try to see yourself/the other person as human and fallible, and if the apology is sincere with a plan of how to avoid a similar situation in the future, focus instead on how to rebuild your relationship. However, if the sincere apology is a recurring theme, you may want to seek help for yourself/others to see what may underlie the behaviors that cause you pain.

An Important Relationship and an Insincere Apology

If the apology is insincere—and most of us have been on the receiving end of an apology that seemed more of a compulsion than a genuine expression of regret—forgetting puts us at risk of being hurt again. However, forgiving is still necessary, because the inability to do so keeps us trapped in rumination and limits our ability to think clearly or act in prosocial ways. It helps to remind yourself that the insincerity of the other person’s apology is simply a reflection of their low self-awareness. For example, if the insincere apology comes from a child, you’ll want to see it as part of their development journey. If it comes from a partner or a friend, you may want to help them create healthy boundaries for yourself. If you are the one giving an insincere apology, you may want to put yourself in the shoes of the other person and think about how your words or actions may have affected him or her.

An Unimportant Relationship and a Sincere Apology

Often, misunderstandings between people are based on inadequate knowledge and the brain’s confirmation bias of trying to fill in the gaps with its own set of beliefs. This is far more common when we know little about the other person: an acquaintance, for example, someone we meet for the first time, or a person we see only occasionally. I’ve been shocked by how often I’ve believed a certain mental story about another person, only to have it come apart at the seams as I got to know that person better. I’ve also seen others react to a situation and then calm down almost instantly with just a little more knowledge about the facts. If their apology is sincere, forgive and forget—we’re all human beings trying to do the best we can with the mental machines we’ve inherited.

An Unimportant Relationship and an Insincere Apology

Sometimes, someone says or does something that upsets you but walks away with a meaningless “I’m sorry” that does little to fix the hurt. If this other person is someone you’ll hardly ever meet again or with whom you have no intention of having a meaningful relationship, forgive and forget. Move on. The insincere apology is not worth mulling over. There are a hundred more important places to invest the limited mental energy of the brain. Limit your exposure to the other person if you need to, but, most importantly, do not feed hate. Remember: the opposite of love is not hate; it’s indifference. Hatred keeps you obsessed with what happened and traps you in a prison of the past. In this case, being indifferent frees you to live your life and opens you up to the goodness all around you.

Needless to say, life is way too complicated to fit neatly into quadrants. Take this as a general guide and see whether you find something here that helps you deal with situations that you’ve been holding on to—perhaps for way too long.

Here’s how to know when to forgive and when to forget

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