The Danger of "Forgive and Forget"
+JMJ+ Whether you are someone healing from sexual abuse, the death of a loved one, or a medical condition, you are bound to hear some unsolicited advice at one time or another. Sometimes, we may be able to let the advice of some people slide. At other times, however, their words may stick and we start to wonder if perhaps they are right. Bad advice can be extremely damaging to our physical, mental, and spiritual health.
I can't stress this enough: whenever possible, you should be in control of who you surround yourself with on your healing journey. While backing away from certain individuals may cause you to feel guilty, selfish, and unkind, you are actually doing what is right. We are supposed to care for our well-being and God wants us to pursue the things that are holy and that will help further our healing as well as our relationship with Him. The last thing you need is bad (even sinful) advice being thrown at you and negative influences dragging you down. This can seriously impede your healing and also pull you further away from Christ. Here's a simple rule of thumb: if something or someone is leading you into sinful practices or negative mindsets, then it's time to cut the relationship off or, at the very least, put some boundaries up.
One of the worst and most harmful pieces of advice I have personally come across many times over the years (and this may be different for everyone) is, “Forgive and forget.” Think about those words for a moment and consider what they truly mean and then consider whether or not this is truly helpful, good advice.
The truth is we all suffer in one way or another at one time or another. Suffering is a reality of the world we live in, the result of original sin. Now consider for a moment the adversities you have faced and overcome. While most of us probably think at one time or another, “Oh, I'd love to forget about this thing...” the reality is that, no matter what, forgetting is impossible. Even if we suppress bad memories, they will manifest themselves in other ways. Our minds, bodies, and spirits are connected and when one part of our being is out of balance, the rest is thrown out of balance. This is why when abuse victims attempt to suppress their memories, they often experience physical, emotional, and spiritual ailments. These victims will often suffer with drugs or alcohol addiction, eating disorders, and other issues.
While forgetting for a time (called dissociation – it is often seen in child abuse) can serve a purpose for a time, it is very harmful in the long-run. Dissociation allows someone to continue on with their lives as best as they can. This is what allows a child to repeatedly endure abuse in the home sometimes for years. For example, during the year I was being sexually abused by a parish priest, dissociation was what allowed me to continue waking up every morning and carry on with my life in a relatively normal way. My brain was essentially protecting itself. However, this phenomenon only lasts for so long. Eventually, addressing the trauma becomes necessary because it will eventually become too much to handle. For me, the last straw was my brother's death. I just couldn't hold everything in and so was (thankfully) able to come forward and get the help I needed to heal.
Forgetting is impossible and unhealthy.
I want you to know that it's ok to acknowledge how you've suffered.
It's ok to acknowledge the wrong done to you.
It's ok to acknowledge and address your emotions.
This all takes time, but acceptance is often the first step in moving forward on your healing journey. Acceptance is also key to reaching the point of being able to forgive.
Let's talk a little about forgiveness and how it relates to healing. As I already mentioned, moving on takes time. Moving on does not mean forgetting, however. Moving on simply means that you are able to accept the suffering you have endured and that you find ways to continue on with your life without your past experiences being constantly at the forefront. In other words, the hurt you have endured does not rule your life.
Just as healing takes time, forgiveness also takes time...and practice. In my experience (and from what I've learned from talking to many other abuse survivors), forgiveness is something that happens gradually – down the road and not at the beginning of one's healing journey. Let me explain.
In order to truly forgive, you have to be willing to address the reality of how you have been hurt. Acknowledging the wrong done to you and facing it is necessary in order to forgive. It means turning over every rock, confronting every memory, and every negative emotion. Again, any suppressed negative emotions or memories will manifest themselves in other ways! It's unavoidable. You can't honestly say that you have truly forgiven if you are suppressing certain things.
Another important point is that forgiveness is ongoing. It's not as though you simply say, “I forgive him/her,” and “Poof!” you no longer hate the person (or persons) who hurt you. That's not how it works. Forgiveness means choosing over and over to release that person from whatever it is you think they owe you. It is releasing yourself from the hate.
On a side note, keep in mind that anger does not automatically equal hatred. Anger alerts us to the fact that something is wrong, and so our anger at someone who has hurt us is not bad in an of itself. What we do with the anger can easily turn sinful. To grow in true forgiveness is very difficult and takes a lot of time and practice. Here's something I've learned: forgiveness is sometimes for you, not necessarily for the person who hurt you. My rapist never asked for forgiveness, nor did he ever (to the best of my knowledge) express regret over his actions. By forgiving my rapist, I freed myself from the chains of hatred and resentment that held me captive. Forgiveness opens up the door to peace and freedom. Forgiveness is freeing! Forgetting only keeps you in chains.
Make no mistake, when you continue feeding hate, it will take you over. When I was walking around filled with hatred toward my abuser and his supporters, there was little else I could think about. I became less present to the people I loved and was gradually becoming a very different person. I was not happy and certainly far from feeling at peace. For all you Star Wars fans, just think about Anakin Skywalker (AKA Darth Vader). It was hate that gradually won him over to “the dark side.” Make no mistake, the devil will use your hatred to his advantage. He feeds on hate and is an expert at manipulating our anger and fears so that we turn to hate. He wants us to think that we are not capable of forgiving or that forgiveness somehow releases the perpetrator from responsibility. Nothing could be further from the truth!
The evil one is also an expert at making you think that, because you are angry at someone, you must have not forgiven them. That's not always true. Your anger can actually help protect you in the future and can help you to build necessary boundaries. The fact that you feel anger does not necessarily mean that you haven't forgiven. Forgiving someone who has wronged you does not release them from having to face the necessary consequences of their actions nor does it erase what they've done. Have I forgiven my rapist? Yes. Would I go out to lunch alone with him? Absolutely not. Why would I put myself in a situation where he could hurt me again? Would I be willing to meet with him if he expressed remorse? I would consider it, but I would not do so alone and there would need to be a plan in place for my comfort and safety. But not everyone would be willing to do that and that's ok!
So here's my advice to you: don't forget. Address whatever trauma you have suffered and, if you keep Christ at the center of your healing, you will eventually be led to forgive.
Your trauma has meaning.
The impact of your painful experiences have meaning.
Your memories don't have to rule your life, and living in the present (and not the past) is possible. You have a choice: either your past runs your life and you remain immersed in denial and/or hatred, or you accept the pain and allow God to use your experiences for good. The choice is up to you! If you are struggling to face the past or struggling to forgive, bring it all to God. He won't abandon you! If you're not there yet, don't worry. Trust in God's grace, lean on Him, ask for His help, and He will lead you there. You never have to do this alone.
Some questions for reflection:
Are there any past experiences you have avoided facing?
Do you think that forgetting those experiences has been healthy?
Are you ready/able/willing to face them now?
How would your life change if you faced those things?
What steps can you take to face your past experiences?
How can you make God a part of your healing journey?
Think of someone who has caused you pain.
Have you been able to forgive them? Truly forgive?
Why or why not?
Are you willing to take the steps necessary to forgive?
Are you ready to ask God to help you forgive?
Are you ready/able/willing to pray for that person?
What steps can you take to help lead you to forgiveness and, ultimately, peace and freedom?
Lord, help me to accept the pain and please be with me on my healing journey. Please open my mind and heart to your many gifts so that one day I may experience true peace and freedom.