How to Forgive Yourself and Others in Recovery

At first, life often feels like a whirlwind for the newly sober person. There’s struggling with cravings and uncomfortable physical sensations. There is experiencing unfamiliar routines and learning new things. Not to mention seeing the world un-fogged by drugs or alcohol for what may be the first time in a very long time. Addiction treatment and recovery can feel like being plunked down on a strange planet!

The newcomer mostly thinks about how to stay sober and cope with the new order of things. Eventually, though, the past will have to be faced. With it, the barriers to sustained and happy sobriety.

Resentment is one such barrier. Often discussed in 12-step recovery programs and meetings, resentment is cited as the number one challenge that drags us back into addictive behaviours. But how can a person who is struggling with substance abuse overcome their bitterness about the past to freely embrace a hopeful future?

First, What is Forgiveness?

In recovery jargon, forgiveness is often used interchangeably with ‘letting go’, though they are not precisely the same thing. For people who have been badly wronged in the past and feel justifiable anger at those wrongs, either proposition seems difficult and perhaps even undesirable: What, just let them off the hook for what they have done?

Never! But when the counselor or sponsor points out that some form of forgiveness or letting go of harm is essential to healing, the recovering person may see it in a new light.

The fact is that forgiveness is not for the other person; it is primarily for yourself. By no longer feeling resentment and bitterness, by letting go of the grudge, you are freeing up energy and love for the person who needs it the most right now: yourself. By no longer expending energy on thoughts of vengeance, anger and other forms of negativity, we become increasingly free to spend more hours in the ‘sunlight of the spirit’ described by the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous.

It Takes Work to Forgive

Yes, some people do experience the type of sudden forgiveness that comes with a flash of blinding light. For most recovering addicts and alcoholics, there is no quick shortcut to forgiveness; it takes work. The first necessary ingredient is to find a way to look at the grudge from a different angle. The 4th step in recovery, the personal inventory, is a great tool for this because it allows us to see in black and white the terrible toll our resentments – justified or perceived – are taking on our life. It hardly seems worth it to walk around with so much bitterness when the person it’s hurting the most, is you! However, letting go is still easier said than done, particularly when deeply entrenched and serious harms such as childhood trauma or spousal betrayal are involved.

The next tool is to be able to hold a mirror up to ourselves and see what part we had in either bringing events about, or holding on to them. It doesn’t really matter if the other person was 95 percent responsible for the harm, there is still our 5 percent. Often, it’s 50/50, or we find that we actually set events in motion ourselves and have given better than we got. For the resentments where we hold no responsibility (such as childhood abuse) it may at least be a start to see that we, too, have made other mistakes when acting from a place of sickness, like addiction. This can begin to loosen the stranglehold of resentment long enough to see the world in a different light, and open the door to taking other healing, self-affirming actions.

Forgiveness Begins at Home

Often, the person we find hardest to forgive is staring back at us in the mirror. Even if we have felt victimized by others rather than considering ourselves perpetrators, there is usually a lot of guilt, shame and even self-hatred in the mix. That’s normal; addiction takes people to places they are not proud of. Forgiving yourself for the harms and mistakes in your life will take time, but more than anything it takes a decision: to extend to yourself the same compassion that you would to any other imperfect human being, one step at a time.

If you know people who are struggling with forgiving themselves or others, do them a favour and share this article on your social media profiles.

About the Authors

Renascent Staff
The staff at Renascent is passionate about helping people with substance addictions so they can reach their full recovery – with compassion, respect, empathy and understanding. Our staff includes our counsellors, all of whom have lived experience of addiction and recovery.