“It’s one of the greatest gifts you can give yourself, to forgive. Forgive everybody.”
~ Maya Angelou
Alcoholics and addicts know all about pain. While in active addiction, they were responsible for inflicting a lot of it, both upon themselves and upon everyone around them. Often, they were the recipient of the pain caused by someone else, as well. For many, some past trauma played a significant part in the development of the addiction, because the sufferer was looking for a way to numb the psychic pain.
Because of the unhealthy ways that they dealt with their pain, most substance abusers not in recovery – or new to recovery – still carry that emotional burden around with them, as heavy as a millstone around their neck. Holding on to old anger, mistakes, and guilt prevents the person from ever moving past those negative feelings.
Resentment = Relapse
Continually being resentful about actions, behaviors, and events of the past is a symptom of being out of control. Consequently, it can lead to other “out-of-control” behaviors that can directly lead to drinking or using.
- Blaming other people
- Expecting someone else to “fix” the problem
- Constantly reliving “what-if” scenarios or fantasies while showing disdain for the current situation
- Continually dredging up old hurts without trying to resolve them or move past them
All of these behaviors show an unhappy rejection of what IS while entirely dreaming about what ISN’T, and only serves to further disconnect the individual or from the acceptance and serenity promised by recovery.
Feelings of personal and situational REjection and REsentment can negate any progress made during recovery. A person never has an opportunity to heal, because the wounds are always kept fresh and raw.
REliving and REhashing old hurtful situations without a productive purpose force the person to REexperience past traumatic negative emotions, thereby REcreating the original mindset that helped shape their addiction, and that sets the stage for a RElapse.
According to the Big Book used in Alcoholics Anonymous 12-Step meetings, resentment destroys more substance abusers than anything else, because it is the source of all spiritual disease.
This resentment can also be directed inwardly. Feelings of guilt or shame for past harmful actions and behaviors can make a person in recovery feel unworthy of the benefits of sobriety. This makes it all too easy for a person to justify a return to using and drinking.
After all, in their own fragile mind, what kind of decent human being would do the things they have done? And, if they have no value as a human being, what is the point of trying so hard to get clean and sober?
Forgive to Move Forward
“Today I choose to forgive all those who have hurt me, not for their sake but for mine. I have sought to forgive my offenders before, but my bitterness continues to surface like waste rising from the bottom of a polluted lake. It’s time to cleanse the poisons that have polluted my life. I know the offenders from my past will continue to live as uninvited guests within my memory unless I can release my resentment, with their hurtful roles in my life.”
~Rokelle Lerner, Affirmations for the Inner Child
Forgiveness is one of the most important steps taken on the journey of recovery. Part of being emotional sober means ACCEPTING the past and the present and then FORGIVING everyone – others and yourself.
Accepting what has happened/is happening does not mean condoning pain or abuse. It simply means acknowledging that a thing merely occurred, and then coming to the understanding that it does not have to rule the present. A person who realizes that they are free to make their own choices and decisions – regardless of what has happened in the past – has made a significant breakthrough.
Barriers to Forgiveness
Learning acceptance and practicing forgiveness is not easy. Before recovery, most addicts/alcoholics coped in the same way – getting drunk or high. The perplexing fact is, drugs and alcohol only serve to further damage the person’s life and relationships to the point of creating more pain and more resentment.
Now, an individual in recovery might attempt to make amends to those they harmed as a means to forgive themselves. However, the other party is under absolutely no obligation to accept those amends or forgive the past. When their efforts are rejected, the recovering addict/alcoholic can feel the weight of past sins more than ever before.
In the same way, a person in recovery might find it hard to forgive others. The injury might feel too grievous or too recent to let go. The other person may not have even taken responsibility, apologized, or tried to repair the damage. Without remorse, can there be forgiveness?
Learning to Forgive
True forgiveness is an internal process, totally independent of what others are doing or not doing. In learning how to forgive, the recovering alcoholic/addict needs to take small mental steps until they are no longer encumbered by the weight of things that they cannot change.
- Process the emotion – When a person realizes that it is okay to feel an emotion, it negates the need to numb it with drugs or alcohol. When a negative experience is talked about (usually with a professional) and dealt with in a productive manner, its power over the present becomes negligible.
- Separate emotions from forgiveness – Until emotional processing is complete, it can be very helpful for the addict to understand that they can forgive even before any other steps are taken, such as reparations or apologies. Anger can still exist where there is forgiveness, just as joy can exist simultaneously with grief. It is okay to feel the emotion without giving it control.
- Embrace imperfection – Recovering alcoholics and addicts often have unrealistic expectations of themselves, with an “all-or-nothing” approach. When they dwell on their past mistakes or misstep in the present, they can be too hard on themselves, to the point that they give up. When they understand and accept that they are just as imperfect and just as worthy of forgiveness as everyone else, self-forgiveness comes much easier.
- Stay objective –To mitigate resentment, a person in recovery needs to look with an unbiased mind at all factors that have played a role in a given situation – illness, disability, personal problems, etc. When what has occurred can be viewed from the other person’s perspective, sometimes the need to be offended goes away. Often, looking at the problem from the other side allows a healthy and productive dialogue to begin.
- Be sincere – Cheap forgiveness achieves nothing. A hasty “I’m sorry” or a compulsive gift is given with no thought to the nature of the hurt or injury. Likewise, accepting of an apology or forgiveness without properly processing the feeling is superficial, and does not allow a person to emotionally commit to forgiveness.
- Disconnect from the other person’s actions – Forgiveness has to come independently of what the other person is doing. Whether they are trying to make amends, or whether they are still making the same old mistakes, recovery cannot effectively move forward without the granting of forgiveness. Forgiveness is for the spiritual health of the person doing the forgiving, not for the offender.
- Write a letter – This is a practical therapeutic tool that can be utilized by everyone. The person writes a letter pouring out everything that they feel – all the pain, anger, hurt, resentment, etc. This letter is never meant to be sent. Instead, the person can burn the completed letter as a symbolic way of releasing resentment and other negative feelings.
The act of forgiving is the act of freeing one’s self from the poisonous and crushing weight of actions that cannot be changed. In fact, the wisdom of acceptance is lauded in the off-repeated Serenity Prayer that people at all levels of recovery say to their Higher Power –
“Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”
When the unchangeable past is accepted, then the focus can move from pain and resistance to forgiveness, healing, and progress in recovery.