We've all heard the old adage, "you need to forgive and forget." But how hard is it to try to forget something that someone has done to you that causes you even to feel you need to forgive them? Is it even possible to forget certain things that people have done to us, and better yet, is that even healthy for you? Tony discusses the mental health benefits of forgiveness and the mental health challenges and potential dangers of attempting to forget something significant that has occurred in your life. Tony references the article "Why You Should Forgive But "Never" Forget" by Kurt Smith, PsyD https://psychcentral.com/health/reasons-to-forgive-but-not-forget
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[00:00:12] Oh. Come on in. Take a seat.
[00:00:19] You. Hey everybody, welcome to Episode 328 of the Virtual Couch. I am your host, Tony Overbay. I am a licensed marriage and family therapist, certified mindful habit coach, writer, speaker, husband, father of four and creator of The Path Back, an online pornography recovery program that is helping people become the person that they've always wanted to be turning away from unhealthy coping mechanisms. So if you're interested in learning more, go to Pathbackrecovery.com. And one of the biggest components of the Path Back program is this weekly group meeting that is just growing and growing, and it is such a positive healing support group that it's what I've always dreamed of in terms of support and getting people together and becoming the best versions of themselves. So that is a part of this Path Back Recovery program. So again, go to Pathbackrecovery.com. You can find out more. So today on the podcast, I want to talk about the concept of forgiveness. I had someone recently in my office and they were saying the the old I know that I should forgive and forget. So we've got all the things that I enjoy so much as someone shooting on themselves, which makes them feel like they are doing something wrong and they're applying a clichéd phrase that I absolutely understand. It sounds like an admirable thing to do that the need to forget that goes along with forgiveness. And I feel like that one, if I'm just being honest, is something that often comes from the side of the person who has offended.
[00:01:46] So I will get people in counseling. Let's just give an example of a couple that comes in and I'm going to use so often I hear that I pick on the guy and I don't know if it's because I'm a guy, but so let's just go the the opposite way. So let's say that I've got a guy that has wanted to get his wife into counseling forever and that there's some rift in the marriage. It could be anything from emotional infidelity or it could be a lack of communication, it could be a disconnection and their intimate life or a variety of things. But the guy has wanted to get the wife into counseling forever, and she has even maybe said some things that have been highly offensive to him, that have really hurt him deeply, and he feels like he'll never be able to get over. So they come in to counseling and then the wife in that scenario will say, okay, I'm here, but I'm here. So I just want us to be able to move forward from this day forward. Let's just let's just let bygones be bygones. Let's forgive and forget. Let's not worry about the past and let's move forward. And I understand where that comes from. And in a perfect world, that would be wonderful and ideal. And often for the person who has caused the offense that you can see where that would be such a more comfortable place to work from.
[00:02:55] But for the person that has been offended, it is just asking them to not think about the chocolate cake with green sprinkles on it that it's saying, Hey, I need you to not worry about this anymore, okay? I'm here, we're going to work on this. So just can you just forget about the past and there are so many things going on there. Number one, we've got that good old psychological reactance. We're channeling our inner teenager of just basically saying, here's what you need to do, champ. Don't worry about it anymore. And what our brain does as a defense mechanism is saying, apparently, I need to worry about this even more so when somebody's saying, hey, here's what I need you to do. I need you to forget about this. I need you to be grateful that I'm here, and I need us to just move on in. Everything that we're saying right there is causing the person that is hearing that to go slightly into this fight or flight mode, tap into that Neanderthal brain, go a little bit psychologically reactant and say, I can't I can't let that go. I can't just forget about things. So there's a concept number one. Another idea there is that it really is the opposite of what is helpful. In reality. We need to be able to feel those feelings of frustration or feel those feelings of betrayal.
[00:04:04] And we need to be able to to sit with them. We need to acknowledge them. Again, I talked about this a couple of weeks ago on the podcast of we have been conditioned even by the best of parents that our feelings really aren't very helpful when we're young. If we're told continually that, hey, it's not a big deal, don't worry about it, they didn't mean it. You need to get over it. Don't cry about it. All of those things are in essence saying, Hey, you're feelings. Let's just kind of put them aside and let's just get back to business. So often that same vibe is coming from Can you just forget about it? Because it's saying that I don't want you to feel pain, right? That sounds good if somebody's saying that to you. But is it reality? In reality, it's the person that's maybe done the offending saying, I don't want to be uncomfortable. I don't want to have to talk about this anymore. And so therefore I don't want you to bring it up because that's going to make me feel uncomfortable. So here comes this emotional invalidation. And so there again, so many things that are already at the surface of when people are trying to have difficult conversations. And one of the party is saying, I just need you to forget about this, forgive and forget. So I wanted to talk about that today. Can you really forgive and forget? And I found a really good article on Psych Central.
[00:05:15] I'll link that in the notes, but it's titled Why You Should Forgive But Never Forget. And it's written by Curt Smith. He's he's got a doctorate in psychology. He's also a licensed marriage and family therapist and a licensed professional clinical counselor. And it was medically reviewed by another clinical psychologist named Laurie Lawrence. So I'm going to be quoting this article and I'm going to give some thoughts and comments on it as we go along. So in the article, Curt starts out by saying that forgiveness is a crucial skill, but can you also forget what you're forgiving? But should you even worry about trying to forget? And he says that we've all heard the adage, forgive and forget when somebody has wronged us, the idea that this will keep the peace and preserve relationships and that it will maintain a calm mind. And it does sound amazing, but are we capable of that? And is it even healthy for us? Forgive an offense and then forget about it? And is that the best action to take? So he says that because this advice has been handed out for ages and I found the phrase or the idiom goes back as far as the 1300s. And then I even did a little bit of digging because I feel like it's brought up in religious circles often. And even if you're going to go back to the Bible that there is some good scripture that talks about that, that God will forgive whom he forgives.
[00:06:29] But as for you, it's to forgive all and but nowhere in there does it talk necessarily about forgetting. So, again, because this advice has been handed out for ages that Curt says it might you would think it's rooted in this deep wisdom. So therefore it must be easy to do so. Wisdom. Absolutely. It definitely is rooted in wisdom. It would be wonderful. We can just let go of these feelings and emotions and just continue to move forward, but easy. Absolutely not. So he said that the adage that we're all so familiar with might be more properly phrased as forgive, but don't forget. And that's absolutely okay. It's okay if we just accept the fact that we're not just going to forget something. So let's talk about this. Yeah, there's actual data in research and several studies that give wonderful examples of this. So he says, What does it mean to forgive but not forget? So knowing how to forgive somebody can be an essential life skill because it can it can save friendships. It can restore faith in our kids. It can keep romantic relationships intact. But he points out a 2015 study that suggests that there are two types of forgiveness. And almost as if I'm going to throw a cliffhanger in there, let me just say at this point, you know, I have this other podcast waking up the narcissism, and a lot of times I like to put in asterisks for personality disorders.
[00:07:42] So when I am suggesting that someone does forgive and again, even if we're going to not forget that there are a lot of times where forgiveness, again, does not mean it doesn't mean being apathetic, and it absolutely does not mean reengaging or putting yourself back in a harmful situation. So if you are in an abusive situation, whether it's emotional abuse, physical abuse, financial abuse, spiritual abuse, sexual abuse, any of those that sometimes that concept of forgiveness can be this internal process for you. But absolutely, you do not need to forget because at that point, your body is trying to tell you a message. Your visceral or gut reaction can be part of a trauma response. And so forgiveness can be something that you can do, but it can be something that you can do to then liberate you so you can leave an unhealthy relationship. So I want to throw that out there that before we get into the data or the science around forgiveness, but not forgetting to know that this is speaking to more or less this general population. But if you are someone who has been harmed, wronged again, abuse, then it is not required of you to try to reengage with the abuser. That again, forgiveness sometimes needs to be something that happens within you to allow you to be able to move forward. And with that said, let me jump back into the content of the article here.
[00:09:02] Curt refers to this 2015 study where he suggests that there are two types of forgiveness. The first, he calls decisional forgiveness. So this is making a conscious decision to let go of hurt feelings such as anger and resentment, putting them in the past, moving forward, free of the effects of those feelings, the feelings that that can bring. And again, this is making a conscious decision to let go of these hurt feelings. Now, let go is a process. A couple of weeks ago, when I was talking about processing childhood trauma, we talked about, again, acknowledging the feelings, making room for feelings. Where those feelings are they in your chest? Are they in your stomach? What do they feel like? What do they look like? Because your body is trying to communicate to you through your feelings. So making a conscious decision to let go of hurt feelings first requires you to be able to acknowledge them, accept them, thank your body for trying to warn you or to give you these feelings and emotions to get your attention. And then letting them go can be this process that can be anything from writing them out. Going to a therapist. It can be a lot of different things to be able to to let go, in essence. But so that's what he calls decision forgiveness. Emotional forgiveness is replacing negative emotions toward the person who is wrong you with positive ones such as sympathy or compassion or empathy.
[00:10:14] And let me just say that as well would be a process. It's not just saying instead of thinking. That person has hurt me, then I need to think that that person grew up with a difficult childhood. That that sounds wonderful to be able to just mechanically replace a thought and have a completely different emotion and a feeling. And this is where, again, as a practicing cognitive behavioral therapist for years that was more of the model that I worked under. But then when finding acceptance and commitment therapy, it has just been a game changer in my practice and in my own life. So while I acknowledge that cognitive behavioral therapy or this mechanistic view of the brain of being able to replace a thought and have it lead to a different emotion and a different behavior, is it is a it's a researched therapy model. And that's what most therapists learn right out of school. And I practice that type of therapy for a number of years, and there are situations where that works well. In my addiction recovery group, I have a module in the course that is literally called wrong thought, and it is pure cognitive behavioral therapy at its most basic form, where in essence, if somebody finds themselves in a situation where they feel triggered to act out on whatever the addiction is, that one of the first steps you can do from a cognitive behavioral therapy model is to identify that, okay, I want to act out.
[00:11:30] It's the wrong thought. The right thought is I want sobriety or I want to choose my family, or I want to choose to create a new neuro pathway in my brain. And that's an amazing place to start. Sometimes, though, that has a bit of a short shelf life and where then if somebody says, okay, but that thought is right back with me, whether it's that thought of wanting to act out or in this situation, it's the thought of not wanting to forgive somebody that then if that is the case, then let's work around. Why? Why is that so hard to channel this forgiveness? And that's where I feel like acceptance and commitment therapy can come in and it can be because that just simply is the way that you're feeling and the way you're feeling is based on all of the things that you've gone through in your life that bring you up to that very moment. So while I appreciate this concept of this 2015 study of talking about decision forgiveness, again, making a conscious decision to let go of hurt feelings, put them in the past, moving forward or emotional forgiveness, replacing negative emotions toward the person who's wronged you with positive ones such as sympathy, compassion or empathy that those are amazing tools. And if you can tap into those, then and if they work, then that would be a wonderful way to to go or to start.
[00:12:39] But if you find yourself trying to replace those negative emotions or trying to pull empathy for the person that has wronged you, and that is a difficult thing for you to do. That absolutely does not mean that you are broken or that something is wrong with you. If you can't channel that, it just means, hey, let's take a look at why. Why is that more difficult? Because it might be because the person really has hurt you more than your you've sat with or more than you've admitted or the person has represented somebody else in your life. It could be somebody that has almost taken on this parental role and that if they have hurt you, then that can be really difficult to let go because if you felt like you've never dealt with your own childhood stuff. So I hope you can just see that the tools that we're talking about today are in this best case scenario. And if those tools don't work, it absolutely does not mean that something is wrong with you or you are broken. It means, hey, let's keep finding some tools, because this concept of emotional forgiveness experts in this 2015 study suggests that emotional forgiveness can lead to higher levels of forgetting than decisional forgiveness or no forgiveness. So, again, emotional forgiveness is trying to replace those negative emotions toward the person who is wrong. You with positive ones such as sympathy, compassion or empathy. And what I see in my office, I feel like the real life example of this is it can take a long time.
[00:13:51] But what I'm working with, let me just give the women who have been in relationships with narcissistic or extremely emotionally immature men that it can take years to work through the relationship, the difficulties in their relationship, continuing to try to go back into the relationship and fix it. Even if the husband is not interested or willing to fix it, where the wife will then try to raise her emotional baseline and she will try to show up different and express her own opinions and try to do so in a framework that would hopefully yield to better results than just going back and forth and tit for tat or that sort of thing. And that when she is doing that, that if he doesn't respond with more emotional maturity, I guess you could say, or if he doesn't respond in wanting to try to have these more difficult conversations or try to really want to understand or see or know his wife, that that can be really, really difficult. But if the wife continues to do her own work, that sometimes it will take and it will take some time for where she can move from that. What's wrong with me? Anger, resentment into this? I actually feel empathy for him because if he is unable to communicate from an emotionally mature way, even though now she's bringing these new tools into the relationship, then it can be a process of getting to this place of empathy, because empathy would be man, that would be hard if this person that I care about doesn't never saw modeled healthy communication tools and therefore he is not interested or willing.
[00:15:20] You even go to therapy or to really do some introspection to think maybe his version of reality is not the only version of reality. And if that's the case, then sometimes we can move to this place of empathy or sympathy or compassion. So I feel like that's where this 2015 study is really getting to, is that if one can get to emotional forgiveness of getting to this place of compassion, empathy or sympathy for the person who has done them wrong, then that is going to lead to higher levels of what they say is forgetting. Then decisional forgiveness or no forgiveness. Next up, he refers to a 2011 study that suggests that forgiveness may give the person permission to continue the offense. So in some cases, people who hurt others can also manipulate the forgiveness process. And this is where I feel like we're getting back into that realm of of extreme emotional immaturity. So when somebody comes into my office and says, okay, I just need I need her to forgive me, and then she says, okay, you know what? I'm willing to do that I will forgive you. And that it's a reality that sometimes that person then feels like, okay, then I don't have to take ownership or accountability of this and we're just going to move on.
[00:16:29] We're in reality being able to process difficult events or things where somebody has offended somebody or has taken offense to something. It being able to have those difficult conversations is where growth can occur. This is where I love talking about tension that we're so afraid of contention in our relationships. So we avoid tension altogether. Tension is a place of growth. Tension is a place where we're expressing that we have two different opinions about things because why wouldn't we were two different people? So in this 2011 study, he talks about when forgetting what 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. Simply put, that is saying that being able to learn from an experience is taking ownership of what happened, and then that will make it easier to forgive somebody, especially if the couple is communicating effectively about a situation and that might be able to say, okay, I forgive you. The goal here is not to forget because we're going to learn something about whatever the situation was that caused me to feel offended. So Kurt goes on to say, 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 what has happened wasn't their fault and that no behavior could have changed it.
[00:17:45] And this is what I see so often in my practice, and this is where I love the concept of acceptance in the acceptance and commitment therapy model of acceptance can be, yeah, that happened. So in essence I need to give myself I often say give yourself grace, but that's also saying forgive yourself because we don't know what we don't know. We're just trying our best. We're going around, we're going through life. It's the first time that we've ever been in this situation that you've literally been in this very moment. So instead of saying, What's wrong with me or Why did I do that, it really is saying, Hey, check out what happened and this is what I did, and that is a powerful, powerful place to come from. I had an amazing session yesterday with a woman who is coming through some really intense betrayal, betrayal, trauma. And she's continually working and listening to podcasts and reading books and watching YouTube videos and really just exploring in her default will go back to what's wrong with me, which is what so many of us do. And I felt like yesterday we had a real shift where it really was, Hey, I'm just being I'm just doing this is who I am. This is how I'm showing up in a situation. And in that situation in particular, this is where we end up trying to figure out, all right, how do I need to show up, in essence, to get others to like me or to get others to understand? And one of the most powerful things you can do when you're working on your self improvement or growth is to recognize that I again, I just need to be able to express myself.
[00:19:08] I just need to be able to be and do and not have to defend everything that I'm doing or saying because it's my experience. And this is where that concept of differentiation comes in, where one person ends and the other begins, that when you become more confident in the fact that you are trying your best and you're showing up as the way you're showing up because that's how you're now. I feel like I'm starting to get a little bit hippie dippy here, but because that is just how you show up. You you say the things you say because those are the things that pop into your head. And they do so because you're the only version of you that has ever walked the face of the earth. So instead of trying to figure out, man, I'm not exactly sure how to say this so that people will like me or that people won't get offended. Sometimes that can be a real difficult thing because we're not really being true to our self. Acceptance can be a huge part of a healing process and acceptance can be a huge part of the forgiveness process.
[00:20:03] Again, none of that has to do with forgetting. So in the article he also says a word of caution that the concept of forgive and forget can be a complex and delicate topic to discuss, and particularly for survivors of abuse or trauma. So misconceptions about this topic can lead to so when people miss. Construe what we're talking about to mean that even if you've been in a trauma situation, that you again have to forgive or forget, that that can lead to prolonged or continuation of abuse or it can really, really lead to big concepts of guilt and shame or feelings of helplessness or this concept of victimization or isolation, social distancing. If you are a survivor of abuse or trauma and want to discuss how this concept fits with your situation, that's where the recommendation would be to reach out to a mental health professional, because it really is a different ballgame when you're talking about trying to forgive someone from a place of abuse. Kurt goes on to say, Is it possible then to forgive and not forget? So he says, If you don't forget, can you really forgive? It can be difficult to truly forgive somebody when you know that they have hurt you. But no one said that forgiveness was easy, and as a matter of fact, it will be difficult. Forgiveness may be as much for you as it is for the person for whom you're granting it.
[00:21:15] There's no rule that says that if you are forgiving someone, that you even have to let them know that a lot of times this can be an internal process because forgiveness can help release emotional baggage such as anxiety, anger and pain. And he notes a 2019 study that that study referred to several other studies that linked to forgiveness, actually leading to lower levels of depression and lower levels of anxiety. And it also notes that forgiveness may be it may even improve your physical health and pain, while not forgiving or unforgiveness can actually increase your heart rate and blood pressure. And this is where I feel like the body means, well, bless, bless its heart. But even things like anxiety are there to warn you, to want you to stay hypervigilant about a situation. But oftentimes it can go a little bit extreme with that and continue to warn you about situations that may not ever happen or situations that did happen. And we'll note them, but that doesn't mean that they're going to continue to happen. So then he goes on to talk about the mental and physical health benefits of forgiveness, and he says, if you're still having trouble forgiving, especially when you can't forget, there may be some good reasons to continue trying. He says that forgiving is critical to 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.
[00:22:30] And 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. And we we don't forget I love this reframing. We don't forget we learn that each experience teaches us something, even the painful ones. So forgetting means that you're forgoing the lesson and growth that can come from whatever that lesson was. So instead, use that situation to help better equip you for the future. So don't beat yourself up about a situation even when you may forgive. Then you learn. Now forgetting is saying that, okay, I don't even want to deal with that. I just need to forget about it. And again, that can cause these elevated levels of stress and anxiety, which can lead to depression, where in reality we need to accept that that happened. Whatever it is that happened, we don't have to forget about it, but we learn. He also refers to this 2011 study again and says forgiving strengthens relationships. All relationships have the potential to deepen and thrive even when things have occurred. A 2011 study then 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 and in a very, very broad term or concept. This is where I feel like it. People come into my office and that they will often learn to communicate more effectively or at a deeper level.
[00:23:51] And they're in here because there is some something that happened, some big thing happens because sometimes people are just going along and everything seems to be okay because they don't know what they don't know. And sometimes a big event needs to occur and needs is probably the wrong word. A big event occurs and then it's What do we do with that event? Do we just sweep it under the rug? Do we take offense? Do we withdraw or do we go and seek help for whatever happened? Do we learn? And I see so many people that come in here for things like infidelity or betrayal and where then the couple learns to communicate more effectively. And never at any point do we say, Man, I'm so glad that that betrayal happened. But in in the world of acceptance, it happened. So now what do we do with it? And again, it doesn't mean that this recipe fits all or this size fits all, but if you can truly learn to grow from experiences, I mean, experiences is I'm sure this is I'm sure this is a cliché somewhere, but experience is most likely the greatest teacher that there ever is. Forgiveness can have a positive effect on your physical health. So he says, have you heard the phrase being eaten up inside and holding onto resentment and anger can indeed create problems within your body? Those festering feelings can increase blood pressure and inflammation leading to potential heart problems.
[00:25:05] So there is a physical component to holding on to things or bottling things up. So being able to forgive again, not to forget but to forgive can also lower that overall stress level, the cortisol levels and help you get to a better place in. Emotionally, which can help your physical health as well. He does give a few tips on how to forgive without forgetting. So he says, convinced of, unsure how to start. You're not alone. If you are having trouble figuring out how to begin the process, consider the following tips. Identify and articulate the things that you'd like to forgive. Too often hurts and offenses get intertwined. They're knotted up, they're enmeshed. They're in all kinds of other things that are within your brain. So he said that they may not even come from the same source. So to start the process, try to be specific about what you'd like to forgive. And I'm a big fan of Go Talk This Out or write this out, he says, understanding forgiveness. Forgiveness is a process. It does require effort and a tremendous amount of patience. I feel like this is an overall vibe in mental health of We want the quick fix. We all do. I know I do. And it really does take time for growth to create these new neural pathways. So give yourself time and patience to go along with that grace and forgiveness, he said.
[00:26:13] Acknowledge forgiveness. Try to think about what forgiveness will do for you, not for the other person, how it will help you get to a better place that will help you raise your emotional baseline. And he said, Forget about forgetting. It's not really possible to forget, nor is it necessary. This is the part where people say, I know, I just need to not think about it. Well, good luck. I mean, that's saying don't think about the white elephant, I guess, and we all just did. So instead it's I'm noticing that I am thinking that and then I can work on forgiveness. But again, it doesn't mean that you're going to forget, he says, find perspective. And this may require putting some distance between you and somebody else and talking with a friend or a family member or seeking counseling. So putting that distance a lot of times is where you're if your body is trying to warn you or you feel unsafe around somebody, sometimes that space or distance is what is going to lower that cortisol level, that stress hormone that leads to the fight or flight response. So sometimes we just need a break from people and a break from triggering situations. And then he says, be ready to repeat the process that it is going to take more than one time to reach the point of being able to forgive. So if at first you do not succeed, then absolutely try. Try again.
[00:27:17] And there's nothing wrong with you because of that. I feel like this is another one of these concepts where people start to take on a new path, a new parenting model, a new communication style with their spouse, a new diet, a new exercise regimen. And then it will last for a few days because we get a little dopamine bump and it's exciting and shiny and new. But then reality hits and patterns that have been there for decades, if not more, kick in. And then we go right back to the path of least resistance or revert to old behavior. And when we recognize we're doing that, then it's okay. Just note that and then get right back on the path of whatever the new tool is that you're using and you need to stick to that. And then eventually that becomes the new path of least resistance. He says that again, this is recap. Forgiveness is an important skill. It can be positive. It can improve both your mental and physical health. It can lead to resolution and personal growth in some cases. And even though you have forgiven someone, it does not mean you have to forget their offense, nor is it even necessarily possible. And that forgiveness is absolutely this process that will take time and it will require effort. If you want help, you can consider reaching out to a mental health professional for guidance. They can help you with the next steps and provide you with tools to help cope with your circumstances.
[00:28:26] And then he says that forgiving and forgetting is a choice. And if you choose not to do either, guess what? It's absolutely okay. The fact that you're listening to this or you made it this far, you're even considering the idea of forgiveness is it's a process. It's something that you maybe weren't aware of or felt like you needed to do. And now if you're thinking about it, then you're on this path. And the path could go a lot of different directions from here. But you're taking action just by simply even starting to wonder or think about, should I be able to forgive and forget? Or now hopefully you're ending this podcast episode by saying, okay, maybe I can forgive. And it feels maybe liberating to think, No, I can't forget. And that's and that's okay. I really appreciate you taking the time today. And if you have questions, thoughts, those sort of things, feel free to reach out to me through my website and you can hit me through the contact form there. And boy, I wish you the best of luck in the coming week. And I would love to hear any examples that you have of, if you have been able to then forgive and maybe feel liberated by not necessarily having to forget. All right. Taking us out per usual is a wonderful The Talented Florence with her song. It's Wonderful. And I will see you next time on the.
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