“Forgive and forget” has been a widespread mantra for as long as I can remember. We are encouraged to try to understand one another, extend empathy, not dwell, let go of whatever might fester and get in our way. Forgiveness is as much or more for the benefit of the person whose forgiveness is sought as it is for the person seeking it. It is a basic tenet of most religions, right up there with “love thy neighbor”. I feel very religiously connected and, still, I don’t believe forgiveness is a commandment and I do not love all my neighbors.

When my kids were younger and they felt wronged, usually by one of their siblings, the child who had committed the wrongdoing was always expected to apologize for whatever they had said or done. Apologies had to be delivered without any explanation to excuse the wrongdoing. “I’m sorry” was not to be followed by “but”. They didn’t always want to apologize but they generally nailed it. Accepting the apology was a whole different story. At some point I must have told them people must apologize when they’ve done something wrong but you are not required to accept an apology. I stand by the message but in the hands of young children, my real point got more than a little lost. They would take their sweet time accepting apologies from one another and it drove me up a wall.

We are taught to forgive others out of compassion and, especially, for our own sake, to be able to let go and move on. But forgiveness is not always a necessary ingredient of moving on. It’s also not always about the culprit and the victim. Sometimes the pressure to forgive is more about the comfort of others than our need to be forgiven or let go. Such was certainly the case when I wished my kids would forgive each other quicker and restore harmony in the home. Pressure and speed have no place in the realm of forgiveness. Sometimes we might need time to feel forgiving and sometimes we never get there. That doesn’t necessarily mean we’re dwelling on what was done or said to us. It might just mean that we don’t genuinely forgive the wrong or the wrongdoer and we’re okay with that. We can choose to let it be rather than let it go.

For a very long time, I had difficulty accessing anger on my own behalf. I could fire up instantly if I felt someone wronged my children or someone I cared about or for whom I felt responsible. But I couldn’t seem to get angry if someone did something to me. My default emotion was sadness. It was natural for me to wonder what I had done wrong and what it was that led the other person to behave the way they did. If someone sought forgiveness, I’d be quick to give it because I imagined there was more to the story of them than appeared and I didn’t want to deprive them of comfort. I also imagined “letting it go” would help me. Numbness to anger and adherence to “forgive and forget” worked for me until they didn’t. At that point, I realized they never really had.

I’ve changed over the years. I’m more in touch with my own anger now than I used to be and that feels more balanced and real. I think I used to wall off anger, in part, because I thought it would give me more peace, similar to the way I was quick to forgive because letting go seemed like it would do the same thing (and it seemed like a compassionate response). For some people, both these propositions may be true. For me, they weren’t. My reactions were consistent with anxiety but they did not give me peace because they lacked authenticity.  

There is a distinction to be made between the different kinds of offenders seeking your forgiveness. The main distinction is those with whom you have or care to have an ongoing relationship and the others. You’re more likely to comfortably and quickly forgive the former. Sometimes forgiveness is the preferred route even if you’re not genuinely feeling it. There is also a distinction to be made between the nature and severity of offenses committed. So many acts and people are forgivable and some are not. How you respond to any situation is entirely your choice. But what about those times when you don’t feel it and realize you don’t particularly want or need to forgive? Feigned forgiveness doesn’t benefit me in those situations. You may feel differently.

A close friend of mine has reminded me on many occasions that “you can’t go back”. Simple words with so much oomph. I may not forget the times I’ve been hurt, offended, or wronged but I generally don’t dwell. I can’t change the past, I know this, so why live there? Another close friend identified “place of meh” as the aspirational destination after feeling or being wronged. Meh is an expression of indifference. I don’t need to forgive everyone (and forget) to feel at peace. I need to radically accept that I cannot change the past and use that acceptance to help me arrive at a place of meh. To me, “meh” means that I may not feel forgiving toward someone who slighted me and that’s perfectly fine if that person and/or their behavior no longer affects me in any way. Like forgiveness, it may take time to get to a place of meh but it’s a comfortable, liberating and authentic landing place.

There’s so much to say about forgive but what about forget? I didn’t forget. I almost never do. What I had for breakfast this morning and why I walked into one room from another may elude me but it’s rare that I forget something cruel that was said or done to me. You can be sure I never forget anything cruel that has ever been done or said to any of my children. Forgive me but forgetting for most of us is utter nonsense.

While I don’t subscribe to “forgive and forget” as a general rule, I do believe apologizing to others and forgiving ourselves are essential. It’s important to both own our mistakes and not define ourselves by them. Apologies and self-forgiveness are consistent with self-improvement and, ultimately, self care. That’s where the letting go really happens.

Thinking and Trying

Something to think about: “A lot of people, when they say forgive and forget, they think you completely wash your brain out and forget everything. That is not the concept. What I think is you forgive and you forget so you can transform your experiences, not necessarily forget them but transform them, so that they don’t haunt you or handicap you or kill you.” ~ Ishmael Beah

Something to try: We tend to be very hard on ourselves and often unkind. If someone else said the kinds of things we sometimes say to ourselves out of frustration and sadness, we’d hope for an apology. I don’t think I’ve ever expected an apology from myself. Have you? Why not surprise yourself and seek self-forgiveness? It can be empowering. Try writing down the following:

  • Define what you’d like to forgive yourself for
  • Identify the negative emotions you’d like to release
  • Acknowledge the benefits of self-forgiveness – for yourself, and for others, and
  • Make a dedicated commitment to forgive yourself and accept the benefits that come with it.

Coaching Can Help

Some people find it hard to apologize and other find it challenging to meaningfully forgive. Coaching can help you determine the person you’d like to be and how you’d ideally like to behave and interact with others. I’d love to work through this with you. Sign up for a free 15 minute discovery call here.

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  1. Forgiveness is often a hard thing to accomplish, not necessarily because of the “wrong” that the other person or people committed, but because it asks a lot of the person who is doing the forgiving. It requires a mindset change, the way I see it, especially when the act of forgiving involves something major in one’s life. Sure, it’s easy to forgive someone for an awkward comment, or for being late for something, but the “bigger events”? Not so easy. For me–and this is strictly a personal thing–I found that I could forgive someone when I realized A) that I owned a (big) part of the situation, and B) that I could learn something from it. Accepting and acknowledging these two things enables forgiving, and it allows a person to move forward in life.

    1. Forgiveness really does ask a lot of the person doing the forgiving. For the “bigger events”, I think each of us has to figure out what it is that helps us move forward in life in a way that works best for us.

  2. Really powerful blog. I actually just tried out your last exercise, and it worked!! I’ve forgiven myself for something that happened >30 years ago. Let’s hope it sticks. 🙂

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