“Forgive and forget.” No doubt, you have heard that advice a time or two (or more). The idea is that you will benefit not just from forgiving someone for a wrong they have done to you, but also from “forgetting” about it. We put “forgetting” in quotes because, of course, we can seldom simply choose to strike something from our memory. The advice, then, is really about forgiving and then behaving as though you have forgotten the whole thing.
And to be honest, there are plenty of situations in which this is probably great advice. After all, you don’t want minor disagreements, misunderstandings, and the like to start to chip away at your relationships with your friends or members of your family. We all make mistakes, hurt one another’s feelings, or let someone we love down. Sometimes we simply disagree with each other, and a conversation can get more heated than we might intend. In situations like that, it does not make sense to nurse a grudge. It is much better to give one another grace.
But for a person in recovery from a substance use disorder, forgetting might not be the optimal move in all situations. There are certainly benefits in forgiveness whenever it is possible, but sometimes having a long memory can serve you better than forgetting.
Let’s take a look at a couple of examples when this might be the case.
Forgiving Yourself Without Forgetting
Often, the first person who has to be forgiven when you have developed a substance use disorder is yourself. After all, you probably have any number of regrets related to your use of drugs or alcohol.
Maybe your drug use led to financial issues for you and your family. Maybe you harmed someone (or yourself) while under the influence. Maybe you damaged important relationships in your life.
Whatever might have happened before you regained your sobriety, there is a good chance you are beating yourself up about it now. It may seem like feeling guilty is your actual obligation. You did things you wish you could undo, but since you can’t, you feel obligated to carry the guilt around.
But maintaining your sobriety requires you to forgive yourself for past mistakes. Dwelling on those mistakes will make it much more likely you will experience a relapse—either because you decide you don’t deserve your sobriety or because you turn back to drugs or alcohol to self-medicate against the guilt you feel.
So, forgiveness is a must. Forgetting, however, is not a realistic option. You need to remember what led you to start drinking or using drugs so that you can be on guard against similar situations. You need to remember the people who contributed to your substance use either by actively encouraging it or by being a toxic presence in your life. And you need to remember the challenges of getting sober so that you will remain motivated to stay sober.
Forgiving Others Without Forgetting
As we have noted, there may be people in your life who contributed to the development of your substance use disorder. They might have been the friends you liked to party with who always made drugs or alcohol readily available. They might be the disappointed parent, hard-to-please supervisor, or the supposed friend or partner who always seemed to be criticizing you so that soon enough you were always criticizing yourself.
When you regain your sobriety, you will benefit from forgiving these people to the best of your ability. But it remains equally important that you don’t forget the ways in which their behavior influenced your own.
We should note that we are not suggesting that you should hold others responsible for your substance use disorder. Rather, we are arguing that relationships that did not support your sobriety in the past will not support your sobriety in the present. So, while forgiveness is a wonderful thing, it is important to forgive without forgetting about the ways in which others might trigger decisions and behaviors that will undo the hard work you have done to get sober.
Another Thing to Never Forget: We are Here to Help
If you are struggling with drugs or alcohol, The Aviary Recovery Center near St. Louis, Missouri, can help. We provide medically supervised detoxification, a rehabilitation program designed to give you resources, strategies, and support for your ongoing sobriety, and a continuum of care that ensures you continue to have support in the difficult early days of your recovery journey. Forgive us if we brag a bit: We can help you get sober, and we can help you maintain your sobriety as well.