Psychology of Forgiveness

Remembering an event, a situation, or a person can evoke a shiver of excitement, the heat of anger, or the anguish of grief.  Although emotion that is activated by a memory may not be felt as intensely as the actual experience, the recall can be enjoyable or painful nonetheless. Emotional memory adds credibility to the notion that thoughts can trigger emotion just as the activation of emotion can create cognitions (Lerner & Keltner, 2000; Lewis, 2008).


Forgiveness is a beautiful yet challenging command for all Christians who bask in the forgiveness that Christ gave us; on the proviso that we forgive those who offend, sin, trespass against us.

While it is very easy to passively forgive an offender, with a simple ‘I forgive you’, the challenge comes when you are reminded of their offence every time you see them. Or when you find it hard to get rid of that negative memory. Sometimes these recurring memories and feelings make you question whether you have really forgiven them or not. 

On a personal note I am really glad that the command is to forgive and not necessarily to forget, because let’s face it — it is virtually impossible to forget certain experiences whether good or bad. How gracious our God is, that he “forgives our wickedness and remembers our sins no more” (Jeremiah 31:34). Psalm 103:12 says, “As far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us”.

On a human level this isn’t always possible, we may remember what someone did to hurt us for as long as we live. Though, this is not always a sign of unforgiveness; it can simply be that it is the most salient memory that you have with that individual. 

The psychology of memory can explain why this is the case.  Our memories are so powerful in that a single experience can become entrenched in our long-term memory, so much so that it becomes a cue for future expectations. Furthermore, small repeated experiences can also become entrenched in our long-term memory and what happens is the neural connections for those experiences are strengthened after each one, almost like a dirt path that is formed by constant footsteps. For example, someone who has suffered from abuse on one occasion will have that memory of abuse strengthened/reinforced if they were to experience it again on another occasion. You can’t physically go into your brain and rewire the neural connections that have strengthened those memories over time. 

That we’ve forgiven doesn’t mean we’ve forgotten. That we’ve forgiven doesn’t mean that we can forget because in the Short paragraph above we have learnt that our memories are both biological and psychological. So what do we do when we have forgiven but we still remember?

A true sign of forgiveness is; even when you remember their faults and offence, you say in your heart and to your mind, ‘His grace is bigger than what you did to me and how you made me feel’.

While it would be handy to have a ‘sea of forgetfulness’ for all the bad stuff. What we can do is make a conscious effort to decide how we respond to our memories and to perhaps be intentional about forming new memories where possible. Creating new memories will do two things, it can weaken the existing neural connections in your brain for the negative experience that you had, and form neural connections for the positive experiences that you will intentionally create.

Forgiveness also requires us to surrender ourselves, to literally surrender our pride and our right to be offended. A psychologist called Carl Rogers suggested that in order for us to narrow the gap between our self-concept and our ideal self we need to engage in ‘unconditional positive regard’. What this means is that our regard for ourselves and for others should always be positive even in the absence of ‘conditions’. In other words, people do not have to do anything in order to receive positive regard from you. Now this may sound bizarre however, this is exactly what Christ implores us to do; “to love each other as we love ourselves”; to receive forgiveness whilst offering forgiveness even without an apology; to extend grace without any condition. That is true forgiveness.

In summary, if you’ve forgiven someone but the bad memories are still there. 

  1. Don’t be hard on yourself. Your brain is literally functioning as normal and the command to forgive is abnormal to the flesh, but it is still doable by His grace and ultimate example of forgiveness.
  2. Be graceful. “Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.” (Ephesians 4:32).
  3. Where possible, make new positive memories.

References

Lerner, J. & Keltner, D. (2000). Beyond valence: Toward a model of emotion-specific influences on judgment and choice.  Cognition and Emotion, 14(4), 473-493.

Lewis, M. (2008). Self-conscious emotions: Embarrassment, pride, shame, and guilt. In M. Lewis & J. M. Haviland-Jones (Eds.), Handbook of emotions (3rd ed., pp. 742-756). New York: Guilford Press.

Read more about Carl Rogers’: https://www.psychologytoday.com/gb/blog/what-doesnt-kill-us/201210/unconditional-positive-regard

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