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Why You Don’t Need to “Forgive and Forget” to Move On

Step back, take a deep breath, and begin to explore your true motivations.

Key points

  • Forgiving another person before you feel ready can harm your mental health, hindering your ability to move forward.
  • A person’s inability to forgive indicates that they still need some emotional support with emotionally processing their feelings.
  • Instead of rushing to forgive, we need to build support for our feelings, letting them be guiding principles for what needs to happen next.
Alex Green/Pexels
Source: Alex Green/Pexels

Contrary to popular opinion, it is 100 percent unnecessary to forgive other people in order to deeply heal and transform your own life.

The idea that in order to be able to move on, we must first forgive is nonsense. Feeling pressured to do anything usually indicates that you might be better off not doing the very thing you think you ought to do. Instead, step back, take a deep breath, and explore your true motivation for forgiveness.

Instead of needing to be understanding of others’ transgressions, sometimes there is a protective value in choosing not to “forgive and forget.” When people excuse or condone an act, they are, in a sense, minimizing, absolving, or even nullifying another person's role in causing an offense. This practice actually has a greater negative effect on a person’s mental health than not forgiving.

Leaders, teachers, parents, mentors, self-help gurus, and religions worldwide proselytize that to free up your energy and allow yourself to move forward. You have to forgive. I disagree.

Under Pressure

Anything done from a place of pressure is not felt from a place of the heart. Doing things like exercising, eating a clean diet, giving up sugar, quitting drinking, etc., when coerced, is more about emotional self-preservation than true desire. Pressure is always an indication that something might be amiss.

Feeling like you need to forgive someone even though you’re not at that point yet is never about the other person or truly trying to reconcile the situation. Rather, it’s about the need to emotionally protect yourself from what you might have to feel if you didn’t forgive. Forgiving another person before you feel ready can harm your mental health, hindering your ability to move forward.

Research conducted in 2016 by Myung-Sun Chung found that a lack of forgiveness is related to depressive symptoms. However, Chung could not establish the causal nature of the relationship. She found that self-compassion toward one’s own experience and related feelings are the larger determining factors in whether or not foregoing forgiveness leads to negative mental health effects.

Based on psychological research, it’s not fully conclusive that the lack of forgiveness always leads to psychological maladjustment. However, pressuring someone to forgive before they feel ready is a profound way to ensure these depressive symptoms emerge. Sadly, many religious and cultural communities are guilty of imposing this type of hidden pressure on people. Instead, one of the most powerful experiences that help someone move on is actually when the offender takes responsibility for the harm they have inflicted.

The idea of forgiveness imparts the notion that it's possible to just stop dwelling on something and make a conscious decision to let go, as if our emotional well-being and energetic existence were all determined by choice. This approach sees forgiveness as a cognitive, rational process that could not be further from the truth about how feelings and emotions work.

Forgiveness includes the energy of feelings and emotions, not thoughts, and if done authentically, energy from the heart. It naturally occurs when someone unravels and reflects upon their feelings about what has happened. This takes tremendous emotional stamina, courage, and support and requires people to experience and endure difficult feelings in order to figure out what’s next.

Many people find that they are not able to withstand this process and shy away from the thought of confronting their difficult feelings. A person’s inability to forgive is a signal that they still need emotional support with emotionally navigating and processing their feelings. It’s not a fault of their character.

Some people get hung up here, in some cases for hours, days, months, years, decades, or even lifetimes. However, the inability to feel your feelings will be the thing that truly holds you back, not the inability to forgive.

Clean Slate

Leading researchers in the field of psychology believe that sometimes it is adaptive to remember important events from life, both positive and negative, so that you can learn from these experiences. They say that knowing about potentially hurtful or harmful situations can help people protect themselves from future difficulty and harm.

Yet, there is an implication in the process of forgiving someone that you are striving to wipe the slate clean, and therein lies the biggest problem of all. By not holding people accountable for their actions, the world continues to be filled with the energy of emotional irresponsibility and the idea that there is no lasting impact on another person because all that needs to happen is to “just forgive them” or “ask for forgiveness.” What is the impetus for living a life of emotional consciousness, nurturing self-awareness, and, most importantly, taking responsibility for the consequences of actions?

By working hard to be as conscious as you can about your impact on others, you are developing emotional responsibility for how you affect those around you. This is what leads to organic, heart-filled, spontaneous empathy on the part of someone who has been harmed. And not only is this better than forgiveness, but with time, it becomes a “no-brainer.”

Final Thoughts

Oftentimes, the more a person works on their personal growth and healing, the more they are able to grow more heart and empathy for others who have harmed them. When this deep, transformational process occurs, there is a natural development of these feelings and a more compassionate understanding of why they might have acted out in the first place.

While this is crucial for mental health and emotional well-being, empathy does not mean letting someone off the hook for what they did. Developing emotional health means having the ability to hold others accountable for their actions. And when you feel naturally inclined to do so, you may put in your best efforts to repair the connection, understanding that this still doesn’t mean that you have to forgive to experience growth.

We must ask ourselves what it would look like if, instead of rushing to forgive, we built support for our feelings, letting them be the guiding principles for what needs to happen next. After all, we are only able to move on when it’s time to move on, not because we’ve been told to.

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