“You forgive yourself for every failure, because you are trying to do the right thing. God knows that and you know it. Nobody else may know it.” – Maya Angelou
Coming into recovery from addiction, most of us feel a lot of guilt and shame for “what we’ve done” or “how far we’ve fallen.” We often direct other emotions at ourselves, too: blame, anger, bitterness and resentment. But since forgiving ourselves is an essential part of our healing, and can be difficult—taking time and understanding to accomplish—it’s important for us to get clarity about the role of self-forgiveness in our recovery.
(An added note, before proceeding: For doctors, lawyers, health service providers and other professionals, trouble with forgiving oneself is often amplified, since there’s a tendency to hold ourselves to such strict standards, we don’t see any reason or justification to forgive ourselves.)
When we were drinking or using, many of us did things we felt ashamed of: lying about what we were doing, cheating on our spouses or employers, stealing from family, friends or strangers, perhaps even doing criminal acts.
Not feeling forgivable for these past mistakes, we replay the feelings of guilt, shame, self-blame and anger over and over, in a repetitious cycle that keeps us from moving forward and healing emotionally. And it’s nearly impossible to “get better” and recover from the disease of addiction while holding onto the belief or sense that we’re unforgivable.
The fact is, once we’ve made a decision to seek treatment for our addiction, to begin a life in recovery, each of us has a “second chance” to amend our behaviors (and attitudes) and live a new life. However, it requires us to learn, among many other things, how to forgive ourselves.
Here are some helpful tips you can use to begin (or enhance) the process of self-forgiveness:
- “Let go” of past mistakes. You can’t do anything to change what you did in the past (no one can). Don’t dwell on bad choices you made while you were drinking or using.
- Stop punishing yourself, both mentally and emotionally. Cut yourself some slack. Yes, you made mistakes, but now is the time to heal, to give yourself some compassion.
- With courage, openly explore and seek to understand how and where you “went awry” in the past toward others or yourself. Clarity about this will help keep you from making the same mistakes, as well as assist you in making better, healthier choices going forward.
Identify new values, morals and principles, ones which you feel resonate with who you want to be and how you want to live. This way, you won’t be carrying “old” patterns and baggage along with you, and you’ll see opportunities for relating with others and yourself in new, healthier, more desirable manners.
Two final points are worthy of noting:
- Forgiving yourself doesn’t necessarily mean you “forget” what you did. Instead, it’s learning how to move forward with new ways of thinking, feeling and acting; and,
- Forgiving ourselves doesn’t make us weak or justify what we did. Rather, with greater understanding and courage, we’re making new choices, overcoming obstacles that used to hold us back, and moving in the direction of healing and living a new life.
Alcohol problems or drug addiction do not have to be a “life sentence.” Treatment is available and we can find freedom from what had previously enslaved us, including our inability to self-forgive. If we continue, to the best of our ability, remaining honest, open-minded and willing to forgive ourselves for past mistakes made and wrongs done, we can continue progressing forward on our paths of recovery, one day at a time.