Forgiveness: A Big Part of Addiction Recovery

Posted on June 3rd, 2010

Facing addiction squarely and going through the treatment process to become whole again takes a tremendous commitment – of time, energy, and determination. You learn about addiction, triggers, how to overcome cravings, how to prevent relapse – in short, you gain an entire toolkit of handy strategies and techniques to help you in recovery. When you complete treatment and enter the recovery stage, all should be perfect, right? It doesn’t quite turn out that way. There’s still a lot of hard work ahead.
One key element that will further your progress is forgiveness – a big part of recovery.

What’s the Big Deal About Forgiveness?

Think about your life before you entered treatment for a minute. 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, thinking, wrongly, as it turns out, that you could overcome any difficulties by the sheer strength of your personality, charm, intelligence or stature. Ah, but this is a false assumption, as you may have come to realize.

What about all 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 to mention a mountain of bills as a result of your addiction treatment. Who’s carrying this burden now? And there’s no question it’s a big one, a dark cloud hanging on the horizon.
Let’s talk about resentment here for a bit. Don’t you harbor a grudge over certain things that were said, or actions taken, that you found inappropriate, thoughtless, cruel, unjust, or just plain unfair? Of course you do. Some of these feelings may even be justified, but carrying around the resentment won’t do you any good at all. In fact, holding onto resentment can very well stall your recovery. It’s time to let go of all that baggage.

In short, you need to get to the business of forgiveness – of yourself, as well as others. Easier said than done, right? How should you go about it? Read on.

Forgiveness Is a State of Mind

While religions all over the world hold forgiveness in high regard – or even require it as a means of achieving a state of grace or salvation – forgiveness in regards to recovery is more a state of mind. In this respect it doesn’t matter if you are a religious person, practicing or not, an agnostic, or an atheist. Being able to forgive is a mindset that anyone can achieve, but it does take practice. It won’t necessarily come easy.

There are also, it seems, various stages of readiness to forgive. These are purely subjective, for the most part, and will vary by individual. How far along you are in your recovery has a lot to do with it, according to some treatment experts. But the truth of the matter is that you cannot progress very far to a sustainable degree if you don’t develop your powers of forgiveness.

How do you do that? Here are some tips that may help:

Let Go of Resentment – Mentioned earlier, resentment is the accumulation of the real or imagined wrongs we all carry around with us. Let’s face it. Resentment just doesn’t accrue any benefits. It’s like a balance sheet with a sea of red ink – no good to anyone. You have to let go of all your resentment, period. There are several ways to do this, and they’re listed here in order of easiest to more difficult.

• Passive Neglect – This sounds bad, but it simply refers to the passage of time and the resulting decrease in importance that certain wrongs hold for us. After a period of months or years, things that used to be bothersome probably don’t hold the same degree of intensity anymore. These are much easier to let go and should be first on your list of resentments to toss.

• Reflection – Looking back at some unkind or harsh words that were spoken to you, or actions you deemed unfair or wrong may benefit from introspection on your part today. You can also use this technique for words and actions that happen today, as it is always useful. What you need to do is reflect on what the person said or did. Did you hear what they were saying or were you too busy racing ahead with your own conclusions and judgment? Did you pay attention to the subtext of the words? This is the meaning that’s hidden behind the words. It takes some time to be able to discern subtext, but, again, this is a useful tool to help you better understand what someone else is saying – and not take offense at it. Another way of looking at reflection is the practice of giving the other party the benefit of the doubt. Why harbor resentment when what just happened (or happened long ago) may very well have been an accident, misinterpreted, or something that was deemed necessary by the other person for purposes unknown to you? Isn’t it just better to let the resentment go? On reflection, of course it is.

• Look Into The Matter – Maybe what you thought was said or done wasn’t what really happened. You could easily have misinterpreted the situation. Perhaps you need to gather the facts in order to weigh and balance your resentment – and let it go. Find out as much as you can to determine whether or not you were really harmed – or whether independent verification proves the other party’s action or words were either justified or not intended to harm you. In any case, again the best course of action is to let the resentment go.

• Risk/Reward – As with many decisions you make, doing a risk/reward or cost/benefit analysis is a good way to assess your pile of accumulated resentments. What good (reward) will come from you continuing to hold onto the resentment? On the other hand, what risk do you carry if you let the resentment go? Looking at resentments in this way makes it easier to separate trivial from more substantial (in your way of thinking) resentments. And you have to ask yourself how long you’re willing to keep hauling this resentment along?

How Can You Forgive?

Those of you who completed addiction treatment are probably well familiar with 12-step groups. While each 12-step group (Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, Cocaine Anonymous, Gamblers Anonymous, Marijuana Anonymous, Sexaholics Anonymous, etc.), is different, they all have similar philosophies with respect to member’s requirements to genuinely admit their addiction and dedicate themselves to their own recovery and helping others to recover as well. Deeply rooted in their philosophy is the 12-step route to lasting recovery. Some of the steps involve forgiveness – asking for it, seeking it, and forgiving yourself. This is not intended to elaborate upon the various steps in these self-help groups. You can gain all the knowledge you need by actively participating in such groups – which are invaluable in your recovery.

But the question of how you can forgive deserves some attention. The practical aspects of asking for forgiveness, obtaining it and forgiving yourself are sometimes much easier to talk about than to actually do.

Here are three ways to go about forgiveness:

• Do It Anonymously – There are some acts that you have committed that have resulted in the irrevocable loss of a relationship, such as a divorce or irreconcilable separation from a loved one. You may have lost your parental visitation rights to your children, or you may have so ostracized family members that you have become estranged or cast out. You can’t just show up on the doorstep or call them up and plead for forgiveness on the phone. What is the purpose of this anyway? You will only wind up causing more harm to these people who supposedly mean something to you. It’s much better to forgive them for all that they may have done or said to harm you – by telling yourself you forgive them. So much for that side of the ledger. What about asking for forgiveness for all the damage you’ve done to them? Again, you’ll have to do this by making amends privately and anonymously. You really have to mean it however. None of this just saying something aloud when you don’t really want to make the amends. In other words, you can’t make amends and ask for or receive forgiveness – even anonymously – if you still harbor resentment.

• Keep It Private – In some ways, asking for forgiveness or forgiving others in private is a lot like doing it anonymously. It differs in two respects. If the act of asking for or forgiving another is between just you and the other person, it can be done between the two of you, pending one crucial element. You have to proceed only if by approaching the other person and pleading your case (asking for forgiveness or forgiving the other person) will not cause further harm to the individual. Otherwise, you’ll need to do your forgiving in private – in your own mind. You can make a list of these types of private forgiveness to-do requirements, but don’t share it with anyone. It’s really no one’s business but yours.

• Once It’s Done, It’s Over – Once you’ve lightened the load 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, over, unable to cause you further grief. In fact, letting go of the accumulated harms and resentments and removing the guilt you feel as a result of all those negative words, thoughts and actions will lift your spirits – and pave the way for you to progress more rapidly in your recovery.

• If All Else Fails, Pray – Spiritually speaking, prayer helps us achieve forgiveness perhaps better than all other methods. And you don’t have to be a religious person to utilize prayer, although you probably refer to it another way. Some people use meditation or self-reflection, deep breathing exercises, yoga, or thinking about their higher spirit. Whatever works for you, use it. If such a practice helps you to lift your burden and achieve the state of mind that forgiveness brings, it’s a useful technique. There’s really no downside, so have at it.

Let Go Of The Records

A word here about record-keeping is in order. After months or years of addiction and self-destructive behavior, addicts have undoubtedly tallied up quite a lengthy list of grievances, debts, failed or strained relationships, ruined lives, legal troubles, employment difficulties – and on and on. A pessimistic person could look at this endless list and constantly berate himself over lack of progress, or inability to overcome the wrongs. This type of record-keeping, of never-ending checking and keeping score of where you are is counter-productive to recovery.

Suffice to say that forgiving yourself will go a long way toward letting go of the record-keeping. But it’s an important point to remember: don’t let record-keeping stand in the way of your recovery.

Forgiveness Results in a Clean Slate

Moving forward in your 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, and the only way you can achieve that clean slate is through forgiveness.

Think of all those resentments and issues you’ve eliminated from 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.

Attend to Your Future With Vigor

Now that you’ve forgiven yourself, others, and moved past the need to hear the words of forgiveness from those you cannot approach, what’s left? In a word, it’s abundance. You have in front of you an abundance of opportunity, of challenges, victories, new relationships, new things to learn, and the promise and hope of self-fulfillment.

With forgiveness firmly in place, you can now attend to your future goals with vigor. Make new plans as opportunities present themselves. Don’t allow yourself to get stuck in a preconceived notion of how things should go in your recovery. Do give yourself the freedom to explore, to veer off in different directions as something comes up that interests you, or that you’ve always wanted to pursue.

Your future tomorrow begins with the actions you put into motion today. You already know that you are not beholden to your addiction, that it no longer has any control over you, that you are so much more than you could have dreamed back in your dark days before you sought treatment and sobriety.

One final thought: begin and end every day with a simple request that you forgive yourself and others and 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.

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