As a divorce and family mediator, I sometimes think I specialize in the grudges of others. And I confess, I’ve had one or two of my own (although seriously, not more than two). Do we forgive and forget? I think not. Forgiveness is easier for me than forgetting. But recently, by way of a dear friend and one of the smartest women I know, I was introduced to the concept of wiping the slate clean.
When I began researching for this article, I looked up the expression “clean slate” and learned that it originated from what I like to call the olden days, when teachers used chalk on chalkboards. Wiping the slate clean began in its most literal sense because we could simply erase the wrong answer to a math problem and start over. Today, obviously, the expression is figurative rather than literal.
Here’s how the Cambridge dictionary defines the idiom: “to start a new and better way of behaving, forgetting about any bad experiences in the past.”
In divorce mediation, I sometimes use the expression to see whether my clients are ready or able to make a new start and let go of the past. Clearly, this is easier said than done. My clients often want to be right and prove their partner wrong. Let me tell you, this strategy is not only counter-productive, it’s unimportant.
In family mediation, I see vastly different dynamics. Each family member appears to have a valid reason for holding a grudge. Like the sister who stopped speaking to her brother because she assumed he caused their mother’s stroke. Or the gay brother who was ostracized by his siblings when he came out to the family. Sometimes the death of a parent or other close relative triggers a reset of the grudge. That’s when it’s time to wipe the slate clean.
Psychologists sometimes offer a five-step roadmap for letting go.
Step 1: Acknowledge your actions. If you believe you were wrong, admit it and accept responsibility for what you did.
Step 2: Apologize and ask for forgiveness.
Step 3: Make amends.
Step 4: If appropriate, ask for help.
Step 5: Figure out what you’ll do differently next time and try again.
I know you’re thinking, “But what if I’m right? Why do I need to apologize?” Well, technically, you don’t. Instead, you can apologize for all the hurt feelings and for the wasted time dwelling on those hurt feelings.
You also might be thinking, “How am I supposed to make amends when it’s not my job to do so? ” You can’t. Instead, you can skip to steps 4 and 5, by asking the other person how they can help you figure out what to do next time.
Does this seem like an exercise in futility because you are unable to forget how you were wronged? Nope. Not so much. Because nobody’s asking you to forget. This is a trajectory for starting over. Or better yet, starting anew.
Do you think what I’m suggesting is actually possible? If not, why not?