“Forgive and forget” a cultural slogan or idiom meaning to pardon and to hold no resentment concerning a past event. The past cannot be changed, so let it go. At first I thought I did this with ease with my prior relationships, only to realize down the road it looked more closely like what Carl Jung and his analytical psychology would classify as one of our greatest defense mechanisms… repression. According to Jung, repression is described to be the unconscious suppression of psychic contents that are incompatible with the attitude of consciousness. After a few months of leaving an unhealthy relationship, picking up my life in a foreign country and replanting myself in what seems like the middle of nowhere comparatively to a place like Cape Town (Cleveland, Ohio), it was much more convenient to take on an attitude of “forgive and forget.”  After all, I was in survival mode, and that meant to focus my energy on making a plan for me and my son who was rapidly growing in my uterus at the time. The thing is that our unconscious mind simply cannot forget in the same way that our consciousness can, and the longer we repress our true feelings about the situation, the more dysfunctional those feelings can become. They manifest themselves in the form of new unhealthy relationships, addictions, nightmares, headaches. In one way or another, if we pretend to forgive and forget, without actually forgiving and without actually being able to unconsciously forget, it catches up.

This theory does not just apply to relationships, it applies to events which occur everyday, some of which are more convenient to avoid than to bring to awareness because of our emotions associated with the event.  Although these events may not be in our conscious awareness they cannot be so easily eliminated. In fact I could very easily take the unhealthy relationship with my ex one step further, that it didn’t start there, that it was actually a traumatic event from the past, an event without justice, which I desperately attempted to forget. This led to a history of abusive and unhealthy choices. Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalysis and John Bowlby’s attachment theory would take it back even further, that my adult relationships are all related to my early childhood experiences, which in my case may have been insecure, anxious and pre-occupied. Experiences that I was too young to remember, yet cannot seem to forget.

Before pathologizing the mind even further, the bigger question is where do we go from here? What is the next step, when it has come to our awareness that we have not actually forgotten or forgiven events from the past that we thought we had let go of long before? Maybe John Bowlby and Sigmund Freud were right, that my childhood experiences were insecure, and the neuroscientists were right too, that the trauma from being assaulted created a chemical reaction in my brain which explains its subsequent impulsive behavior. I’ll give them some merit for their discoveries, however, I feel like my fate is more positive than that. Carl Jung explains this phenomenon called “self-actualization.” It happens when we integrate the conscious and the unconscious. It allows us to be our true authentic selves. A self that is no longer anxious, depressed or avoidant. A self that hasn’t forgotten the past, or even forgiven it.  Rather it has a stronger awareness of the past and can therefore move forward towards a healthier way of being, a type of being one chooses rather than allowing past events destine it to be.

One thought on “The thing about forgetting

  1. What a well-thought and beautifully executed post! I love how you braided your experiences with psychology theories. It’s such a blessing that you’re examining your life with various lenses and looking introspectively at the past. But my main interest is how you are able to bring it back to the here and now. Though unmentioned, Fritz Perls would be proud of the present tense and Carl Rodgers would be pleased with your gentleness toward yourself. Kudos on a great essay.


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