How to Forget Bad Memories

We’ve all been there—recalling an experience and each time feeling the searing ache in our heart, the churning and knotting in the pit of our stomach, or the burning anger welling up. On top of this we feel trapped by our memories and victims of the emotions that accompany them.           

Bad memories usually revolve around two kinds of experiences: those involving a traumatic or painful incident, and those involving people who have hurt us in some way. Sometimes, as in the case of abuse, these experiences are combined. Is there a way to forget painful memories? Is it possible to forgive others who’ve hurt me?

How can I forget bad memories?

God has given us a brain with a memory. Memory can serve to protect us from further harm by storing what happened the last time resulting in the trauma. So, when we ask how we can forget bad memories, we really want to know how to remember the bad things without the emotional trauma that accompanies the memory. In other words, we want to experience emotional forgetting.      

Releasing emotional pain

The first step is feeling—by allowing ourselves to feel our emotions deeply. I love the way David does this in many of his psalms. For example, in Psalm 55 he contemplates the abuse of the wicked against him (vv. 3, 12–14). David feels and expresses the anguish he feels (vv. 4–8). He pours it out to God venting his true feelings. Some people find journaling or talking it out with a confidant helps too. This is important: to experience an emotional forgetting there needs to be a full and deep expression of the feelings connected to the painful incident.

The second step is accepting—resignation to the fact it happened. Sometimes we get caught up in denial, wondering if it ever happened or not, or hoping it didn’t. But to get to the point of acceptance and peace we need to focus on the incident and accept that it happened, recognizing that was then, and this is now.

One thing that can help us accept bad memories is to reframe it positively by finding a lesson to learn from the experience. For example, through the memory of emotional abuse, a person can learn strength and avoid being taken advantage of. Even Psalm 55 was a Maskil, a teaching psalm.

The third step is releasing—release, let go, throw away. Do as David did, throw them on your heavenly Father. “Give your burdens to the Lord, and he will take care of you” (vs. 22). This is a deliberate decision and act of the will. We are choosing to give it to God. When the memory is triggered or recalled and the emotions begin to surface, we say, “No, I gave that to the Lord. I am not controlled by these memories any more.”

Forgiving others

Forgiveness comes in when we have bad memories involving people who have hurt us. Ephesians 4:32 commands, “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, just as God through Christ has forgiven you.” The word “forgive” in this verse means to pardon or release from debt. Just as Christ pardoned us for our sin and released us from the sin debt we incurred against God, so we are to decide and choose to do the same with those who have hurt us. As we have been shown grace and mercy by God, so we are to deliberately decide not to hold it against those who have hurt us. We are to graciously and by the power of the Holy Spirit pardon them for what they did to us. “For I can do everything through Christ, who gives me strength” (Philippians 4:13).

In our minds we accept and with our will we choose to release hurt and forgive.  Our emotions then respond to those thoughts and acts and we experience emotional forgetting. Over time as we continue to choose to release and depend on the Holy Spirit, the Holy Spirit heals. The ache in our heart, the knot in the pit of our stomach, or the burning anger welling up no longer accompanies the memory. 

Steps to find emotional healing
  1. Feeling—by allowing ourselves to feel our emotions deeply
  2. Accepting—resignation to the fact it happened
  3. Releasing—deliberately choosing to let go, throw away, and give to God
Steps to forgiving others
  1. Remember how God has forgiven you through Christ
  2. Make a deliberate decision not to hold it against those who’ve hurt you
  3. Commit to not dwell on the hurt
  4. Repeat steps one to three