At some point in our lives, we have all struggled with the wrongs or perceived wrongs that others have done to us. And being unable to forgive someone is not without its costs. The emotional pain associated with such incidents can severely limit our ability to get on with our lives and plan for the future.
Yet it can be difficult to truly forgive. Our initial response may even be to seek revenge and to retaliate like for like. But according to recent psychological research, the better we are at controlling our thoughts and behaviour and not retaliating, the easier it is to forgive. Crucially, such control enables us to free ourselves of the pain and hurt that can imprison us in our past.
Our own research has revealed that the act of forgiveness itself can lead us to forget the offence in question. We asked 30 participants to imagine that an individual close to them had hurt them in some way – examples included being cheated on by a partner, accused of stealing by a work colleague, or lied to by a friend.
We trained them to forget these incidents, and found this was easier where the incident had previously been forgiven than if it had either not been forgiven or they had not been given instructions on whether to forgive it.
The idea that memories can be modified and intentionally forgotten is not altogether new. For example Sigmund Freud alerted us to the possible links between our apparent ability to control or repress upsetting memories and the consequences of doing so for our physical and mental well-being. Subsequent research in this field, however, has failed to provide unequivocal evidence of our ability to repress memory, and the idea is still a controversial one.
What our studies have shown is that it is possible to train people to forget information associated with memories of events that they have personally experienced – many of which are emotional and strongly related to one’s identity. And forgiveness may be an important means of achieving this.
Although the exact relationship between forgiveness and forgetting remains unclear, one possibility is that forgiveness may lower the tendency to ruminate or to constantly think about a particular offence. Rumination typically involves looking inwards and thinking negatively.
Previous research has demonstrated that people ruminate more about offences they deem to be unforgivable. In other words, ruminating may prevent people from being able to forget an incident because the details, motivations and associated emotions are continually being brought to mind. This is supported by other research which suggests that individuals who tend to ruminate also tend to be more unforgiving and more likely to take revenge.
Why this matters
The fact that forgiveness can influence our ability to forget details about an offence is of particular interest in view of the potential associated health benefits. Indeed, a whole new line of enquiry has begun to reveal numerous benefits for a forgiving individual. These include reduced risk of heart attack, reduced blood pressure and pain and improved cholesterol and sleep. There are also associations with lower levels of depression, hostility, anger, paranoia and inferiority.
The ability to forget painful memories may provide an effective coping strategy which allows people to move on and not get stuck in the past. We hope that further studies in this new field of research will eventually lead to powerful therapeutic tools. In short, the old adage that we should forgive and forget has far more potential value than we could ever have imagined.