“Forgiveness does not change the past, but it does enlarge the future.” - Paul Boese
Forgiveness is difficult. For those of us who love an addict, it can seem like we’re always forgiving them for past indiscretions with no end in sight. And for those who are addicts, the feelings of self-loathing and shame feel like impossible obstacles to overcome, hence why it becomes easier to continue using.
Forgiveness in recovery is difficult because it seemingly asks us to go against our nature and not react in anger to a slight that was inflicted upon us. It asks us to accept the past for the past, and it asks us to empathize and move on. These things take more work than we realize. Healthy forgiveness is not “forgive and forget”. Healthy forgiveness takes hard work and contemplation. It asks us to truly empathize and allow ourselves to forgive past indiscretions. It is a path to healing and serenity that begins and ends with compassion, for ourselves and for others.
Getting stuck in the past and feeling resentment and bitterness only make it more difficult to find happiness in life. As we move forward with recovery, it’s important to learn and understand the power of forgiveness. Self-forgiveness and forgiveness for others allow us to let go of pain and allow the healing process to unfold. It’s important to unload the burdens of resentment and guilt, as they will only serve to pull us back into the folds of substance use.
One national poll by Gallup showed that 94% of Americans believe that it is important to forgive others, yet that same poll shows that less than 50% had actually tried to forgive those who offended them. Although forgiveness is something we can all agree is important, it seems many of us do not know what it looks like or when to do it, or find it something too painful to undergo.
“Forgiveness is God’s invention for coming to terms with a world in which, despite their best intentions, people are unfair to each other and hurt each other deeply. He (Jesus) began by forgiving us. And he invites us all to forgive each other.” - Lewis B. Smedes
What is Forgiveness?
The concept of forgiveness is relatively simple to understand but difficult to practice. People forgive one another all the time for minor and large issues every day. It’s something that we are asked to understand at a young age, which will hopefully build the foundation for our adult lives to accommodate for forgiving others. In the context of addiction, forgiveness can be a complicated and painful concept. For example:
- Forgiving a parent who abused you in the past
- Forgiving yourself for past bad decisions
- Forgiving a loved one for continuing to use substances
Forgiveness means letting go of anger, frustrations, resentment, and negative feelings towards another person or ourselves. It requires us to release the built-up unhealthy emotions that we may harbor. It is understandable to be hesitant about forgiveness when it comes to the pain caused by others and even ourselves, but there is a peace and empowerment on the other side that will make recovery easier in the long term.
Why Should You Forgive?
Not being able to forgive carries many negative consequences for your emotional health. A harboring anger leads to higher blood pressure, a weakened immune system, and heart issues. If you’re attempting to recovery from substance use disorder, you’ll need to minimize the potential stressors in your life and achieve a state of emotional clarity. Forgiveness allows people in recovery to achieve a healthier state of emotional and physical wellness, making it easier to cope with triggers, stressors, and urges to use again.
The Science of Forgiveness
Psychologist Michael McCullough, PhD, at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, has undertaken several studies on the power of forgiveness to affect the health of subjects. During one study, patients were asked to reflect on someone who had hurt them in a significant way and to reflect on the pain and resentment they held towards that person. Then, they were asked to picture this person in a forgiving light, imagining that they had made amends and moved on. Throughout the study, subjects were monitored for heart rate, blood pressure, perspiration, and facial expressions. Unsurprisingly, the first reflection period was characterized by higher heart rates, higher blood pressure, increased perspiration, and frowning. One can see how retaining negative perceptions and harboring ill will towards a person can result in poorer overall health and wellness.
Another study carried out on the power of forgiveness for interpersonal relationships found that there is a significant correlation between marriage satisfaction and forgiveness. According to the study, one third of marriage satisfaction quality is attributed to the ability of the spouses to forgive and be forgiven. The greater the degree of forgiveness that both spouses afforded one another, the fewer symptoms of depression and anxiety were reported.
Another study on forgiveness, conducted as part of the Stanford Forgiveness Project, analyzed the impact of therapeutic forgiveness training. Nearly 260 participants in the study with unresolved feelings of resentment or pain against another individual underwent nearly 5 months of educational training. Aqt the end of the study, it was found that participants made huge leaps not only in forgiving that person but also in reducing physical and mental effects. 70% reported decreased feelings of hurt, 13% reported reduction in long-term feelings of anger, 27% reported a reduction in physical symptoms of stress, and 15% reported a decrease in stress.
“When we forgive, we surrender the burden of hurts and resentment that so easily weigh us down and keep us from living a full and joyful life.”
The Importance of Forgiveness in Addiction Recovery
The beginning of the addiction recovery process typically begins with a wide range of emotions, some of the strongest being feelings of shame and guilt. For example, the pain you may have caused others in the form of mental stress, money problems, or physical hurt. Self-forgiveness is a helpful way to cope with these powerful, negative emotions, making it an integral component of the overall recovery process.
Guilt and shame are natural parts of human life, so it’s important that you do not beat yourself up further for being unable to relinquish these emotions. Your conscience helps you to determine your personal value system and is what unites us a human race, so it would be a negative thing for you to never experience these emotions at all. The recovery process will ask you to come face to face with these feelings and ultimately to forgive yourself if you wish to complete treatment successfully.
How to Forgive Yourself
As an active or former addict, you may have done some things you are not proud of. Maybe it was stealing money for drugs, lying about being intoxicated, cheating on a spouse while under the influence, or neglecting a relationship. You may have even hurt yourself, neglecting your physical and emotional well-being, gaining weight, losing too much weight, or perhaps ruining your career or education. The laundry list of infractions and offenses done by addicts throughout history is well documented and exhaustive.
While there are many things that you might have done while using or in the pursuit of using, the one thing they all have in common is that they happened in the past. These are actions that you cannot undo. If you continue to hate or pity yourself for doing these things, the pain will remain as a lasting sickness and you have a lower chance of full recovery. Remember, ADDICTION IS A DISEASE, NOT A MORAL WEAKNESS. You’re not a bad person. You’re a sick person and you deserve the opportunity to recovery and make amends.
An important aspect of recovery is called making amends. Making amends to those you have wronged while using is a way to acknowledge your regret and make a pledge to do better. Making amends can include paying back stolen money, apologizing for offenses, or telling the truth to someone you have lied to. Even if there is no way to fully make up for what was done, you can still do your best and ask for forgiveness. Here are some ways to practice self-forgiveness.
Write It Out
Writing can be a therapeutic tool for working out your feelings. Write down what you have done and why you are angry with yourself. Through complete honesty, you may be able to work out why you feel this way.
Talk With Others
Sitting down and sharing with another human being is often the best form of release for addicts in recovery. Choose someone who will not be judgmental or who has gone through similar experiences to you.
Where possible, make amends to those you have wronged. In the TV Show My Name is Earl, Jason Watkins travels the country and makes amends to everyone he ever wronged in his life. You can make a list of all the offenses that linger in your mind and work on apologizing for them.
Give Yourself Credit
Get in the habit of crediting yourself when you do something good. We can have difficulty with discounting the positives in our life, but taking the time to acknowledge them makes them all the more powerful.
How to Forgive Others
It’s not easy to forgive addicts for wrongdoing. Authentic forgiveness is not forgetting or denying the effects of something, but instead learning to transition from resentment to connection. According to the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous, resentment is what destroys more alcoholics than anything else, because it ultimately leads to futility and unhappiness, shutting us out from the sunlight of the spirit.
It’s important to look objectively at a situation and weigh all the factors that may have gone into another person’s actions. They may have come from a background of abuse. They may have never learned to communicate. They may come from a long ling of addicts. They may have experienced a serious trauma. They may be experiencing chronic, untreated pain. There are any number of reasons beneath the surface that can be recognized and empathized with. Here are some ways in which you can practice forgiveness for others.
The disease of addiction is something that rewires the brain and changes the way people think. Addicts go against all logic and sense to use because they are no longer in control of themselves. When you understand that addiction is not a choice, you can accept that your loved one has a sickness and that they need treatment.
Write a Letter
If you have difficulty talking to the person, or perhaps they have passed away, some experts suggest writing an “unsent letter” in which you express your hurt, your resentment, and ultimately your acceptance and understanding of their addiction. You can send the letter if you wish, or if the person is deceased you can burn the letter in a symbolic gesture.
Give It Time
In some cases, you may find it impossible to forgive another person. They may continue using or they may refuse to acknowledge the pain they inflicted upon you. In any case, it may take time for you to understand their disease. In the meantime, you can surrender the burden of hurt and continue to live your life.
Quotes About Forgiveness
“The more you know yourself, the more you forgive yourself.” - Confucius
“You cannot travel back in time to fix your mistakes, but you can learn from them and forgive yourself for not knowing better.” - Leon Brown
“Forgive yourself. The supreme act of forgiveness is when you can forgive yourself for all the wounds you’ve created in your own life. Forgiveness is an act of self-love. When you forgive yourself, self-acceptance begins and self-love grows.” - Miguel Angel Ruiz
“Never forget that to forgive yourself is to release trapped energy that could be doing good work in the world.” - D. Patrick Miller
“Embrace and love all of yourself – past, present, and future. Forgive yourself quickly and as often as necessary. Encourage yourself. Tell yourself good things about yourself.” - Melody Beattie
“Love yourself, accept yourself, forgive yourself and be good to yourself, because without you the rest of us are without a source of many wonderful things.” - Leo F. Buscaglia
“Understanding that we are more than our transgressions helps us see beyond the transgressions of others.”
“Regardless of how illogical it may seem at times, it is through unconditional forgiveness that we surrender the past to the past and enter the present, freeing ourselves to stand in the infinite Light that knows how to heal our deepest and most painful wounds.” - Dennis Merritt Jones.
To learn more about coping methods and useful tools for recovery, visit the Landmark Recovery Blog. If you or a loved one are seeking help to treat a substance abuse disorder, reach out to our admissions team. We approach treatment from the perspective that everyone’s recovery is different and requires a unique and ongoing solution. Reach out to Landmark Recovery's drug rehab and alcohol rehab today to begin your journey to a better tomorrow.