By: Jeanene Swanson

As we read about the remarkable acts of forgiveness and reconciliation going on in Rwanda this month—the 20th anniversary of the brutal genocide that began in April of 1994—it’s tempting to embrace the idea that forgiveness for less severe acts should come easily. The reality is, it doesn’t. And, for recovering addicts who generally struggle more with feeling guilty and shameful, ruminating over the past, and expressing feelings with difficulty at best, it can be even harder to forgive.

There is power in forgiveness—this is the first thing most addictionologists will tell their patients. According to the definition of the word, forgiveness is the process by which a victim—the person you hurt, or yourself—changes his attitude toward the offense, lets go of negative emotions such as revenge, and creates within himself an increased ability to wish the offender well. It’s important to note that forgiving someone is not condoning, excusing, pardoning, forgetting or reconciling. In fact, you can choose to forgive someone without engaging any further in a relationship.

Personal Stories Of Finding Freedom In Forgiveness

Recovering alcoholic Jane, who chose to remain anonymous, was able to realize the power in the act when she began to see the other person’s point of view. “It took me several years to forgive my family for not forgiving me [for bad blackout behavior], if you can believe that,” she says. “But, once I forgave them, I felt free. I was able to see that whether or not they forgave me for what I did and said, it wasn’t my concern. It has nothing to do with me. I can’t force them to think or feel anything. What I would say to them is, go ahead and forgive—you have no idea how good it will make you feel.”

Another recovering alcoholic, Paul, who writes a popular sober blog called “Carry the Message,” says, “For me, [forgiveness]means letting go, first and foremost. Letting go of harboring resentment towards someone. Letting go of the need to exact revenge or harm or suffering on someone. Letting go of the reenactment of being hurt by someone.”

Health Benefits Of Forgiveness

Harboring negative emotions, especially unexpressed or lingering anger, creates a state of chronic anxiety, which leads to increased production of adrenaline and cortisol; in excess, these chemicals compromise immune system function. Research has shown that “unforgiveness” is linked to increased incidence of cancer and heart disease. Holding a grudge, as they say, hurts you more than it hurts them.

Research has also found a link between anger and self-forgiveness. Ann Macaskill of Sheffield Hallam University in the UK recently conducted a series of studies examining this. In one, Macaskill found that people who were unable to forgive other people had no declines in life satisfaction or mental health. However, those unable to forgive themselves experienced reductions in both psychological well-being and life satisfaction. Macaskill also discovered that anger was directly related to a person’s ability to forgive others but not themselves. Shame, guilt, anxiety, and anger were all predictors of self-unforgiveness.

Forgiveness Is For You, Not Them

“When you’re asking for forgiveness, it’s for you, it’s not to get it from the other person—that’s really the core,” says Chuck Fenigstein, an addiction counselor at The Sundance Center in Arizona. While timing is important—asking for forgiveness too early or too late can hurt people even more—“you’re doing this for you so that you can clean up the past and learn from it and not have to live there.”

“When I made amends to those I hurt in my life, I also released the negative feelings I had to those people, even though it was I who did the harming,” Paul says. “Having said that, there are those who also harmed me, but I am only taking responsibility to my part and my part alone. So in forgiving, I am claiming my part in things, and that clears the air, and that gives me room to let go and move on.”

Ryan Howes, a professor at the Fuller Graduate School of Psychology in Pasadena, California, and writer of Psychology Today’s “In Therapy” column, regularly counsels addicts. He applies what he calls a “forgiveness model” that is made up of the four elements of forgiveness (as he sees them): expressing the emotion, understanding why, rebuilding safety, and letting go. “The extra hurdle for addicts has to deal with the first element, expressing the emotion,” he says. “I find that emotions are very challenging for people who are addicted. In order for someone to forgive, whether themselves or [another], they have to come to terms with the fact that, ‘I’m going to have to feel something here.’ That’s very hard work.”

Fenigstein emphasizes the importance of forgiveness being a process; it’s not going to happen overnight, and addicts need to learn to “trust the process.” While most addicts struggle with forgiveness for a variety of reasons, in early recovery it’s a risk factor. “It’s a lot easier to ask for forgiveness from others,” he says, than it is for addicts to forgive themselves. And it puts them at risk of relapse if they’re not properly counseled through what can often take more than a letter or phone call asking for grace. “If someone is dead-set on not forgiving themselves, they’re highly likely to use.”

“The more forgiveness and lightening of the emotional [or]mental load in our hearts and minds, the less likely we are going to be having things churn in our souls,” Paul says. “It’s that churning and grinding of unresolved resentments and fears that is grist for the alcoholic mind to return. Our emotional sobriety falls apart long before our physical sobriety does.”

Fenigstein likes to distinguish between guilt—which can spur addicts to make changes in their lives—and shame—which can trigger a relapse because they hold onto the belief that they’re bad people. Sometimes, it just takes time. For deeper wounds, it might take more: validating the other’s point of view while apologizing and then, doing better. However, if an addict has reached out and cleaned up her side of the street, as 12-step programs call it, then she shouldn’t continue to feel shame. “Forgiveness is a deeper concept, [and]I don’t think that people in recovery give it enough attention,” Fenigstein says. “People want it to be quick, simple and easy, but it’s not. It doesn’t work that way.”

But HOW Do I Forgive?

Fenigstein believes that a key to recovery is disciplining oneself to focus on what can be learned from past mistakes, rather than continuing to feel bad about them. “[It’s about] assisting people to mindfully be in the present,” he says. “Addicts struggle a whole lot with giving themselves credit for what’s working because they feel so much shame and guilt about the past.”

Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) draws from the Buddhist tradition of mindfulness practice, and it incorporates elements of cognitive-behavioral therapy with mindfulness-based stress reduction techniques. MBCT was initially used for preventing relapse in depressed patients, but it has since been applied to various psychiatric conditions, including obsessive-compulsive disorder, anxiety and addiction. Mindfulness practice encourages patients to accept their thoughts and feelings without trying to change them. In this way, they are more apt to deal with stressors and distressing feelings with a flexible and accepting mindset, rather than avoiding and prolonging them.

Fenigstein encourages the addicts he counsels to simply accept what and how they feel—“whatever you resist will persist.” He stresses the importance of support groups, prayer, guided meditation and forgiveness education.

Paul says he tries to imagine how the other person is feeling. “I tend to switch places with the person,” he says. “What kind of day are they having? What could be going on with them? Taking a moment to be in their shoes often helps.” Jane says that she likes to imagine the person she is trying to forgive in their best light. “We did have some good times, so I try as much as possible to focus on those instead of the bad,” she says. “It helps me let go, and reminds me that things are never black-and-white, or either-or.”

Howes suggests writing a letter to the person who hurt you; or, speaking to an empty chair, pretending the person is sitting there listening. “That can be really powerful in ways that people don’t even understand,” he says. “The purpose is to not stay stuck in that anger.”

Moving on From Mistakes And Self-Destructive Behaviors

When it comes to forgiving oneself for bad behavior during a blackout or while in active addiction, it’s hard to take responsibility because it’s almost like it wasn’t you. However, Howes says, “An addict can take responsibility for getting to that point.” He explains that we are all made up of parts, and for addicts, that means, “a part of you that wants to be in recovery, and a part of you that wants to self-destruct or self-sabotage.” So, instead of making a global statement like, ‘I messed everything up,’ he says to look at the parts of a whole—“what part of you made that choice and set you down that road to the blackout? I have good parts, but there was a part of me that I’m not proud of.”

Paul believes that if he has made amends, then his work is done. “If [the other party]decides to hold something over me, or to continue suffering through their anger towards me, then that is their business,” he says. “It’s not about not caring, it’s about caring what is important to me. And festering on about someone else’s inability or unwillingness to forgive me—or whatever I think they should do to make me “happy”—is wasted energy. Energy I can use to help others, or be of service.”

In asking for forgiveness, an addict can also empower himself. “I think you do whatever you can to make the most sincere apology, and then you accept that everyone is on their own path, you can’t really control other people’s responses,” Howes says. “All you have control over is your behavior…[so]if you’ve asserted yourself in that way, that’s your victory. Whatever fear was holding you back, you’ve conquered that.”

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