Two of the biggest offenders in addiction recovery, when it comes to relapse, are shame and resentment. Those two things have a tremendous amount of power in terms of screwing us up and driving us back to our drug of choice.
The cure for both of those things is forgiveness.
When we forgive others we can overcome resentment.
When we forgive ourselves we can overcome shame.
The key is that we must:
1) Recognize that these problems may exist in our lives, and
2) Be willing to do the work in order to forgive.
Yes, forgiveness takes work. It requires willingness and action.
It doesn’t just happen by itself. So in order to forgive yourself and others you have to make a deliberate effort.
Learning how to forgive others starts with self forgiveness
My suggestion to you would be to start with the idea of self forgiveness.
This is just a suggestion by the way. You may have had a different experience that works differently than this. I don’t claim to have the ultimate process for this nailed down. This is just what worked for me.
In order to forgive others I first had to learn how to forgive myself.
And in order to do that I had to take a step back, as if to see myself through the eyes of my higher power. And when I could do that, I realized that I was struggling through this life, just doing the best that I could do with the circumstances that I was given. I wasn’t inherently evil, even though sometimes my actions were not perfect. I was doing the best I could, and deep down I knew this was the case.
And in coming to realize that truth for myself, I realized that this has to be the case for others as well. They, too, are just doing the best that they can with what they have got. Sometimes they may lash out in anger or do or say things that they regret, but ultimately they are just doing the best that they can do.
In the end we all want the same things. We want to be safe, we want to be loved, we want to be happy. And so we are all thrashing about in this world just trying to get those needs met. I don’t believe that I am an inherently evil, just as I don’t think anyone else is inherently evil. We are all just doing the best that we know how in order to get the love that we want from others.
I think that if you can get this perspective on yourself and realize that you are not deliberately trying to hurt anyone else, then you will realize that the same is true of others as well. Even if they seem to be trying to deliberately harm you, they are in fact just thrashing about and trying to get the love that they crave. Their efforts are simply misguided, just as ours have been in the past.
Look at your own past. We have all had moments when we lashed out, when we tried to hurt others, when we reacted out of fear or anger. If you look into your own past you will see that you were just trying to get the love that you desired, and you lashed out because you were frustrated, or afraid, or angry. And you can look back at your old self with this knowledge and be able to forgive yourself because you did not know any better at the time. You were just doing the best that you could with what you had.
And so it is with others. They are not evil, they are just trying to find love. And if they don’t get it then they lash out at the world. This is the basic case for forgiveness. We have all been there, and we have all lashed out when we were deprived of love.
A journey that is more important for some than to others
Some people have a lot of resentment in their heart, and it drives them deeply into addiction.
Others have much less resentment. In fact, there may be some recovering alcoholics and drug addicts who have very little resentments built up.
If this is the case then the concept of forgiveness is more important to some people than to others.
The extent to which you need to work on forgiveness is the extent to which you harbor anger in your heart. The more anger you hold inside, the more you need to work on forgiveness.
Asking for help in learning how to forgive
When I first got clean and sober I met a therapist in treatment who was an expert at forgiveness.
This was based on his own personal past in which he had harbored a major resentment for most of his life. He was not able to break free until he learned how to forgive the person who had victimized him in his past.
Because of that experience, this therapist was very good at dealing with forgiveness. He taught us how to do this by helping us to identify what was going on inside, where we were storing our anger, and how that anger was ultimately hurting us. And later this therapist taught us how to release this anger by forgiving the person in our past.
At first, a lot of my peers were not willing to forgive people in their past, because they felt like they would be “letting them off the hook” if they were to do so.
This therapist of mine convinced us that this was not a problem, however. If you forgive someone in your past, he pointed out, you are not actually letting that person “off the hook.” That person in your past that you are angry with may never even know that you forgave them. It’s not about them at all. It’s about you and your higher power. It’s about releasing that judgement that you are carrying around with you, and giving that judgement back to your higher power.
This is one of the most freeing things that you can do if you have a major resentment that you are carrying around. In order to be truly free you have to forgive the people in the past who have done you wrong. And you can’t just say that you forgive them but continue to harbor resentment and anger inside, you genuinely have to forgive them. You must fully forgive that person and release them entirely. You have to let go absolutely. This is how you gain freedom.
If you fail to work through this forgiveness process and you hang on to your anger instead then you run the risk of relapsing as a result.
Gaining perspective by practicing genuine humility
One way to work on forgiveness in recovery is to work on practicing humility.
This is not an easy thing to do. In order to be humble you have to be teachable. This is about cultivating the right attitude.
I would suggest too that one of the most important parts of being humble is to also be grateful as well. Most people would not necessarily make that connection, but I think that I have discovered this to be the case in my own life. If you are truly grateful then it is much easier to be humble.
This is because you will find gratitude in many different situations where you used to be selfish instead, and in having this attitude of gratitude you will then be much more willing to see the silver lining. For example, let’s say that something “bad” happens and you label it as such because you are frustrated with yourself or with the situation. In that case you may later remind yourself to be grateful, and in doing so you will force yourself to find something “good” about that situation as well. If you are practicing gratitude then you will try harder to find the silver lining in things, and this will force you to find more hidden lessons. You can say things like “Well, at least I learned something about myself today.” That is a sign that you just learned a valuable lesson in a situation that you otherwise may have just labeled as being completely negative. Forcing yourself to practice gratitude and look for the silver lining can therefore lead you to a greater sense of humility.
When we are learning new things about ourselves then we are, by definition, being humble.
How do you practice this on a day to day basis? And how does humility help you to forgive others?
When you are practicing gratitude and humility on a regular basis you will be slower to attack other people and their character. You will pause and reflect before you pass judgement on someone. Being humble will force you to realize that everyone goes through many of the same struggles, and that we have all been through much of the same things in our past. No one is perfect and everyone is just doing the best that they can in most situations. Knowing that you are like this, and that others are like this, is one of the hallmarks of real humility.
The trap of relapse if you fail to do the work
In early recovery you need to build a foundation of support and strength. Many people relapse in early recovery, and it is still possible to relapse in long term sobriety, so you want to give yourself every advantage that you can in order to bullet-proof your recovery.
In the Big Book of AA it says that “resentment is the number one offender.” This is probably true in early recovery, and it certainly trips up a lot of struggling alcoholics. If you are carrying around anger towards other people then this is toxic to your serenity. The solution for this is to forgive others. When you forgive others you release that toxic anger and thus protect yourself from relapse.
There is another threat in long term sobriety though and it may be even more dangerous than resentments. That threat is complacency. The people who wrote the big book of AA were not yet complacent because, quite frankly, they did not have much clean time yet! What happens after you have been sober for ten, twenty, or thirty years sober and you are getting lazy in your recovery program? That is complacency and it can lead to relapse.
In that sense you need to not only do the work to find the anger in your life and eliminate it, but you must also make a habit of continuous self improvement and lifelong recovery work. You cannot just get lazy, think that you are cured from your disease, and expect to stay sober forever.
No, long term sobriety requires constant vigilance. My suggestion is to:
1) Do the work. Get a sponsor in AA, or get a therapist, and do the work that is releasing all of the negativity in your life. So that would include things such as identifying the anger inside and then working on forgiveness to release that anger. Or maybe you will figure out that you suffer from self pity and you need to practice gratitude instead. Or perhaps you have a lot of guilt or shame or fear inside and you will need to find ways to cope with that. Whatever the case may be, we all have work to do in early recovery in order to overcome the negativity in our lives. Doing this sort of work is critical to your success in sobriety. Without doing this sort of work there are going to be negative things in your life that will eventually pop back up and cause relapse to happen.
2) Assume that you are complacent in long term sobriety. How can you defeat something that sneaks up on you silently? The only way to combat something like that is to assume that it is always there. Otherwise, complacency will strike you when you least suspect it. That is why the solution is simple: Just always suspect complacency. Assume it is a problem. Just assume that you are complacent, right now.
What is the effect of doing this? If you assume that you are suffering from complacency, then you need to take positive action. You need to motivate yourself to make positive changes. You need to motivate yourself to get more honest with yourself, to look deep inside, to do the work that really matters.
Now read over those solutions again and ask yourself if those are things that are worth doing, or if this assumption about complacency is a big waste of time.
Think about it.
You assume that you are complacent. The solution is to get busy, take a bunch of positive action, and improve your life tremendously. Does that seem like a bad assumption to you?
In my opinion this is probably the only good assumption you should ever make in life. Assume that you are getting too lazy, and that you need to kick yourself back into positive action.
I have never regretted this decision. I have never regretted pushing myself to take more positive action in life. I have never regretted the assumption that I may be complacent.
This is how you bullet-proof your recovery. Take action, do the work, and then come up with a long term action plan for your lifetime of recovery.
It is still possible to become complacent even if you are attending AA meetings every day. It is still possible to become complacent even if you are working with others in recovery on a regular basis. I have known therapists who were in recovery and they worked full time in an addiction treatment center and they relapsed while doing this. They got complacent even though they were doing the work and carrying that message of hope every single day. Somehow their recovery program still betrayed them. They still got complacent and it cost them their sobriety in the end.
So how would you prevent this? The answer is to assume complacency. If that same therapist had assumed that they were growing complacent all along, they would have questioned themselves and their own daily actions. They would have challenged themselves and pushed themselves to do more, to get honest with themselves, to reach out and ask for help in their time of need.
Perhaps the hardest part of recovery is to forgive yourself. Every alcoholic and drug addict has a certain amount of shame that they feel because of their past, because of their addiction, because of what they put themselves through. They blame themselves for their poor choices, even though their addiction was calling most of the shots.
The only way to move forward in early recovery is to give yourself a chance. Give yourself a break. You were trying as hard as you could, you did the best you could at the time with what you had, and you never asked to become addicted to anything. It just happened. The addiction itself was never your fault, it is never anyone’s fault. What we do after we learn about the solution is our responsibility, and if you know that you could get help and you turn away from it then you are responsible for that.
But that doesn’t matter….it is time to pick yourself up off the floor and give yourself a break. You deserve to be happy and you deserve to be healthy. The only way to get to that point is to forgive yourself and give yourself a chance at real life.
No one knows the impact that they are going to make in long term sobriety. You don’t necessarily get to predict how you might affect the world down the road if you get clean and sober. I know people who sponsor people who sponsor people who sponsor people. That is pretty amazing! Just think of how many lives can be affected, how many people can be changed for the better if you are willing to give yourself a break, give yourself a chance, and forgive yourself so that you can get sober.
The key is to let go. Let go of the past. Let go of the anger. Let go of everything negative inside that threatens to strangle your sobriety, and give yourself a break. This is how you give yourself a break.
What about you, have you given yourself the gift of forgiveness? Have you learned to let go of anger and resentment? How did you do it? Let us know in the discussion forums. It only takes a second to register!