At one point in my early recovery I was learning about forgiveness.
I had a therapist and this person was teaching me how to forgive other people in my life. He was sort of an expert at teaching people how to forgive others.
What I learned from this person was that the core of learning how to forgive other people was in learning how to first forgive yourself.
In order to understand why this is, you must first realize how it is that we come to judge others. All of our judgments tend to be based on our own behavior and our own self image. If we see someone doing something that we would not do ourselves, then that fact becomes the basis for our judgement against them.
So what happens with people in recovery from addiction is that we have all–due to the nature of our disease–done some pretty awful things in our life. Everyone who has seriously abused drugs or alcohol has undoubtedly acted selfishly at some point in their “career.” Anyone who has been through the chaos of drug addiction or alcoholism has racked up some black marks on their score card. We have all done things that we regret doing. We have all done things that have hurt others. That is the nature of addiction, and to a larger extent, that is the nature of life itself. No one is perfect–especially not addicts and alcoholics who are stuck in their disease.
So when we get clean and sober, we have 2 problems. One, we have these resentments against other people that threaten our sobriety. If someone hurt us in the past and we hold on to that anger we have against them, that anger can lead us to drink at some point. This is really, really dangerous. It is also very common. If you read the big book of AA it talks quite a bit about resentments and how dangerous they can be to the recovering alcoholic. If we allow ourselves to stay angry at something in our past then that is just fuel for the alcoholic disease. It becomes an excuse to drink.
Therefore we need to figure out how to let go of those resentments and how to move on from them. In order to do that we have to forgive the person in our past that hurt us. So the question is, how do we go about forgiving this person, and what does that process look like? How do we execute this plan?
The first step in my opinion is that you must first forgive yourself. This means that you need to go through and figure out how and why you are judging yourself. Writing it all down can be helpful. You can explore this in the form of a journal possibly. You can keep coming back to a notebook and writing down why you are judgmental against yourself, why you are holding yourself to a certain standard, and how you are “beating yourself up” in your own mind.
If you can write all of that down and explore it thoroughly, then I would suggest that at some point you need to do some more work with it. Take that list to a therapist, to a sponsor in AA, or to a religious leader in your life and work through that list with the person. You need to talk about your past and get to the point where you realize that you were just doing the best job that you could at the time, given what you knew.
Today you can look back at your own past and realize that you were, at times, in the wrong. And you can remember what your mindset was back then when you made the mistake, and how you were lashing out at the world in search of love, in search of security, in search of some primal urge or survival mechanism. In other words, you were just doing the best that you could at the time.
We all want to feel safe, to feel loved, and to be happy. We all have these basic needs that we are seeking to fulfill. And based on our limited knowledge, we may lash out at times trying to get these things and accidentally hurt others.
If you can look back at your own experience and realize that this is the truth–that you were only doing the best that you could do at the time, given your knowledge–then you have the basis for real forgiveness. You can say “oh, I was only trying to fulfill my need for security, and I did not know any other way to get it, and I was doing the best I knew how at the time.” Based on that realization you can then forgive yourself, knowing that you have matured since then, knowing that you are a little bit wiser today, a little bit more careful.
If you cannot do this with yourself, if you cannot look into your own past and forgive yourself, then you cannot forgive others who have harmed you.
It is through this process of forgiving yourself that you can then start to do the work to forgive others.
It could be argued that these 2 tasks–forgiving both yourself and others–are vitally important to your success in sobriety. You cannot afford to skip this process. You cannot afford to not do this work.
The resulting freedom that you get from letting go of these judgments is just too good to pass up. You cannot miss this opportunity.
Now the second way that I think you can benefit from letting go of judgement is through the learning that you can do from your peers in recovery.
This is part of the central philosophy of recovery support groups, and the idea that we can help each other from a peer support perspective.
If you go to an AA meeting and you have the attitude of “these people are all just drunks, they can’t really help me” then you probably won’t get much out of the meeting.
But if you go that same AA meeting and you have the attitude of “every single person is going to share something today that might have a huge impact on my life if I listen closely” then you will get something vastly different from that meeting.
Again, this has to do with judgments. If you are believing that you cannot learn anything valuable then your mind is going to closed off from finding a valuable nugget of actionable advice. But if you treat every encounter as if it were a lesson sent from your higher power, then you can start to find wisdom in just about everything.
Really it all comes down to humility. If you can practice some humility in your daily life then you become open to the lessons that are all around you. Some of these lessons come from other people, and some of those people might not strike you as being “wise” at any given moment. But sometimes they might say something that gives you a sudden insight that you may have otherwise missed. So we need to stay humble so that we can absorb the lessons that are all around us.