Forgiveness: A Big Part of Addiction Recovery

The dictionary says that forgiveness is “the action or process of forgiving or being forgiven.” It means to pardon or be pardoned; to exonerate or be exonerated. Essentially it represents being released or releasing others for wrongdoings or errors. It may be a show of mercy, for yourself or others. People often wonder why forgiveness is such a big deal in addiction recovery. It may seem like a cliché but research has shown the age-old belief that it can set you free is an important part of healing. Why? Because progress often depends on being able to move on in life. Forgiveness is one of the ways you can bring closure to the past. This doesn’t mean it is easy. Many people find it impossible to forgive others. This may be due to childhood abuse or other trauma. It’s hard to let the person who hurt or offended you off the hook. But if you carry resentment around inside, you are doing yourself more harm than good. You may thing that holding grudges will shield you from being hurt again, but that is far from the truth. The only person who is hurt is the person holding on to anger and resentment. It brews like a poison within and festers over time. This is doubly true when it comes to self-forgiveness. Inability to forgive yourself turns life into a constant battle. It keeps you stuck in old patterns. It leads you to punish yourself and act self-destructively because you don’t think you deserve better. It can lead to behaviors you regret. One woman described inability to forgive this way: “Resentment is like old garbage and holding on to it is like using yourself as a trash receptacle for old stuff.”

Face Addiction and Seek Forgiveness

Guilt, shame and inability to forgive oneself are part of every addiction. It takes tremendous commitment to face your demons and seek help. It requires time, energy, determination and patience to go through the addiction treatment process to become whole again. Forgiveness of yourself and others is part of the experience. But the only way you can hope to forgive others is to give that to yourself. In the course of your addiction, you have probably done many things you are not proud of. You may be tortured by things that happened in the past. Or you may still need to do work to understand the ways you may have hurt others. Here are some tips for reviewing behaviors. Try to do this without judgement as a way to gain information that will help you heal.

  • Reflect on your life before you entered addiction treatment. You probably said and did many things that caused harm to others, resulting in physical, emotional, psychological or financial damage. Perhaps you irrevocably strained a relationship that was important to you. Maybe you thought at the time that you could overcome any difficulties using your charm, intelligence or stature. But in the end hearts were broken and people were hurt.
  • Reflect on the debt you incurred as a result of your addiction. The financial woes may include loss of your home, job, and inability to provide for the family’s household expenses, not mention a mountain of bills left unpaid. Who’s carrying this burden now? Did your behavior leave a dark financial cloud hanging on the horizon of your home life?
  • Reflect on feelings of resentment. Do you harbor a grudge over certain things that were said, or actions taken? Were you subject to words that you found inappropriate, thoughtless, cruel, unjust or unfair? If so, you are not alone. Most people have resentments at one time or another. Some of these feelings may even be justified, but carrying around the resentment won’t do you any good. It can stall your addiction recovery.
  • Reflect on whether you are ready to move on. Are you ready to let go of all that baggage? If so, you need to work on forgiveness – of yourself, as well as others.

How Can I Forgive Myself and Others?

For some people forgiveness has a spiritual component. That is not a requirement to experience forgiveness but some of the concepts may apply to your life. The most important part of the process is readiness to forgive. Here are some ways to let yourself off the hook:

  1. Honor your humanness. Humans are imperfect. They make mistakes. Sometimes good people do bad things or they get involved with bad situations. But, as all spiritual traditions teach, anyone can be pardoned. People can find redemption.
  2. Give yourself grace. Addiction is a disease that hijacks your mind and drives you to desperate behavior. Would you have done certain things were it not for your addiction? Did you really mean to hurt others? Step away from the situation to consider that it was not your true self that wrought destruction.
  3. Practice self-compassion. Allow yourself to tap into the part of you that can find compassion for who you truly are and that can forgive you for the things you did. Be your own merciful mother and father.
  4. Release others who hurt you. There is no quick fix for childhood trauma that occurred when you were too young to defend yourself. And not everyone who hurt you is worthy of your forgiveness. But forgive for you. Free yourself. Don’t carry them around anymore. Trauma may only happen once but it will get triggered over and over. It’s better to do the work to let go of resentment.
  5. Accept it is a journey. It may take time and practice to forgive. You may be in the process for a while. But this is healthy and helpful. The more practice you have the more skilled you will become at forgiveness of self and others.

Learn From the 12 Steps

While each 12-step group is different, they all have similar philosophies. A common theme is a member’s requirement to admit their addiction and dedicate themselves to their own recovery and to help others as well. Some of the steps involve forgiveness:

  • Asking for it
  • Seeking it
  • Forgiving yourself

There are some acts that you have committed that have resulted in the irrevocable loss of a relationship. You may have been through a divorce or irreconcilable separation from a loved one. You may have lost your parental visitation rights to your children. You may have so ostracized family members that you have become estranged or cast out. Before you even begin to seek forgiveness you must forgive those who have hurt you in response to your days before recovery. You can’t make amends and ask for or receive forgiveness if you still harbor resentment. Here are some suggestions for seeking forgiveness from the 12-step community:

  • Do it Anonymously. It may not be possible to show up on the doorstep or call them up and plead for forgiveness on the phone. You will only wind up causing more harm. Sometimes you cannot directly ask for forgiveness for the damage you’ve done. You may have to make amends anonymously. Perhaps you can offer a gesture such as paying for your child’s education or putting money in a bank account. Maybe you can send a gift or book that is meaningful. Think of something they need or would enjoy. Any gestures must be done without strings or expectation of anything in return.
  • Keep it Private. If you do ask for a meeting, make it private. Do not discuss with family members. Keep it between you and the person you seek forgiveness from. And do it on their terms, in a way that they can handle it. Maybe they prefer discussing this in their own home, or a park or public place. Keep the contents of the meeting sacred and secret.
  • Once it’s Done, it’s Over. If you have been able to release yourself and your loved one by asking for or giving forgiveness, you don’t ever need to revisit it again. You’ve completed your step for that particular issue, and it’s now done. Bringing it up again with that person will cause grief and stir up emotions. Be satisfied with whatever response they give, knowing you made the effort. Letting go of the accumulated harms and resentments will lift your spirit. Making the attempt to bring peace to the situation will help lighten the guilt you feel as a result of negative words, thoughts and actions of the past. This can pave the way for you to progress more rapidly in addiction recovery.
  • Let Go of the Records. After months or years of addiction and self-destructive behavior, addicts have tallied up a lengthy list of grievances, debts, failed or strained relationships, ruined lives, legal troubles and employment difficulties. You reflect on this endless list and constantly berate yourself over lack of progress, or inability to overcome the wrongs. This type of record-keeping and keeping score of where you are is counter-productive to addiction recovery. Forgiving yourself will go a long way toward letting go of the record-keeping.
  • Meditate daily. Begin and end every day with a simple request to your higher mind that you forgive yourself and others. Ask for forgiveness for any harm that you have ever done, may do today, or inadvertently do tomorrow. Accept that you are human, that you are not perfect, but make a strong assertion that you will live each day to the best of your ability, seeking to lift up not only yourself, but others as well. In this way, you will truly begin to realize the power of forgiveness in your recovery. Ira Byock, MD, suggests using these four phrased with yourself and others: “Please forgive me,”  “I forgive you,” “Thank you,” and “I love you.”

Forgiveness Cleans the Slate

Moving forward in addiction recovery means you need to adhere closely to the 12-step principles so that you can effectively pursue your dreams in sobriety. A clean slate is required for true progress. The only way to achieve that clean slate is through forgiveness. Think of all those resentments and issues you’ve carried in your conscience. There’s no blot on it once you have achieved the state of forgiveness in your mind. That’s the clean slate that you need to go forward. Some in recovery refer to the feeling as an intense relief. They’re no longer crushed under the burden or weight of past misdeeds. Some see it as forgiveness of their sins. Practically speaking, when you are not emotionally tied up in knots, your mind is clear and you are free to engage in other pursuits. You’ll probably also sleep better, since you won’t be rehashing old wounds and misdeeds over and over in your subconscious. Being refreshed and renewed from a good night’s sleep does wonders for your outlook as well. Your future tomorrow begins with the actions you put into motion today. You already know that you are not beholden to your addiction. Your addiction no longer has any control over you. You are so much more than you could have dreamed back in your dark days before you sought addiction treatment and sobriety. With forgiveness firmly in place, you can now pursue future goals with vigor.

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