Whether or not you celebrate Easter or another Spring holiday, spring is a time for renewal and change. It is a time for healing, moving on, and fresh starts. We often associate “Spring cleaning” with tidying up our homes, but this is also a perfect time to focus on self-care and spruce up our well-being. And one of the most important aspects of recovery that often gets overlooked, or is simply difficult to achieve, is that of self-forgiveness.
While our New Year’s resolutions plant the seed of a new life into our minds, Spring is the logical time for that seed to sprout. For someone in recovery, the spirit that Spring brings can be extremely powerful or discouraging.
While this season can inspire people to make changes, it can also highlight the difficulties of making those changes. In particular, we speak of self-forgiveness.
Why is Self-Forgiveness in Recovery So Important?
Self-forgiveness is a crucial key to recovery. For someone that holds a lot of guilt and shame, it may seem impossible to achieve. There is no doubt that if you’ve committed many wrongs in your life, forgiveness can be hard to find. Self-forgiveness in recovery can be even harder. But if you cannot find peace with yourself, your chances of relapse will increase greatly.
Considered one of the most powerful weapons in recovery, self-forgiveness not only gives a person the strength and confidence they need to stand above their addiction, but it also improves self-esteem.
Poor self-esteem may be one of the reasons why you were overcome by addiction in the first place.
No matter how difficult the journey may be, self-forgiveness is very important when recovering from addiction. There is a reason why the highly successful 12-step programmes focus on admitting to your wrongdoings and amending your mistakes. You have to face the reality of the past before you can deal with it. Without this, recovery will likely be a rougher journey.
Regret Leads to Relapse
Poor self-esteem and lack of self-forgiveness can fuel many negative emotions, such as sadness, loneliness, fear, guilt, grief, shame, and regret. These emotions not only sabotage recovery but can lead directly to relapse.
Someone who blames themselves for their mistakes sets themselves up for self-destructive and self-sabotaging behaviour. It doesn’t help that there is also a social stigma for being an alcoholic, or addicted, which can make you feel judged. It can make you feel that you deserve any shame and blame that you carry with you.
If you feel angry at yourself because of the things you’ve done, you may end up taking it out on someone else. This will fuel your self-hatred even further and lead you to lash out again and again. Where is the progress here?
Alternatively, you may end up stuck in a spiral of shame, where your guilt lowers your self-confidence, leading you to make actions which lower your self-confidence further, growing your guilt, until you finally give up and relapse altogether. The attitude of “I’m no good, why should I bother to change” is familiar to many struggling addicts.
5 Tips for Self-Forgiveness in Recovery
Self-forgiveness is about addressing the wrongs made as a result of your addiction. Not your addiction yourself. Remember, addiction is a mental illness and not your or anyone else’s fault. There is no need to apologise for being sick.
However, your mistakes are a different story and it is important that you take responsibility for them and not blame someone or something else. Mistakes can be amended or moved past. Here are some tips on how to do so:
Acceptance is a vital part of recovery. Coming to terms with ourselves and our lives is the essence of acceptance and without it we will struggle to find true serenity.
It means admitting that you have made a mistake and accepting that what has been done is done. It also means acknowledging your emotions of guilt and shame, which can be hard if you’re used to living in an invalidating environment.
Dwelling on your mistakes is pointless unless you learn from them and resolve to do better in future. By accepting that you’ve made a mistake, it will help you move forward.
The concept of acceptance is beautifully stated in the serenity prayer, heard at the end of every 12-step fellowship meeting:
“God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can and the wisdom to know the difference”
Take the time to identify, examine, and learn from the situations that trouble you. It’s not only about what you did, it’s about why you did it. While your addiction may have influenced you to act badly, it is probably some underlying attitude or belief, rather than the addiction itself, that prompted the behaviour.
Drugs and alcohol do not change who you are. Rather, they unleash a hidden part of you that would never come out without the lowered inhibitions. For example, think about when you’ve drunk-texted someone. You would never do that when you’re sober. However, under the influence of alcohol, you may not be able to control any anger you feel towards that person, prompting you to lash out.
Analysing your feelings at the time will help you put the situation into a logical perspective and make it easier to forgive yourself.
Speaking to others is one of the best things you can do. This is why support groups can be so helpful in recovery. By sharing your thoughts, you may not only find the much-needed encouragement, but you may also get another person’s feedback. You may be surprised that others have been in the same situation. In this case, they can offer advice.
Getting feedback from others may also help you realise that you have been too hard on yourself. It’s normal to exaggerate a bad situation in your head and make it worse than it actually is.
Sharing your troubles can also give an immediate release to the stress you’ve been holding inside. That alone can help you forgive yourself.
Make Up For Your Mistakes
Often, an apology is not enough and may even be rejected. This can be very damaging to self-esteem. For this reason, people in early recovery are advised to think very carefully before attempting to make amends by way of apology. Actions speak louder than words.
One thing that can help yourself is volunteering or doing something good for the community. Even if a person doesn’t immediately accept your apology, your efforts will shine more than words ever will, and you will feel better about yourself.
Try Something Spiritual
It may seem silly at first, but it can help to try a trick that many complementary therapies use. Sometimes, visualising or acting out an action of self-forgiveness can help you forgive yourself down the road.
For example, try writing a letter to a person you’ve wronged, but don’t send it. Or try writing down every mistake you’ve made as a result of your addiction and burning the paper. It might give you a sense of closure.
Even if you’re not religious, try saying a prayer, the serenity prayer, for example, using the word God to mean any kind of higher power that you can imagine. After all, addiction is a very powerful affliction and we need the help of something even more powerful if we are to overcome it.
Putting Yourself Down Is Self-Defeating
The act of forgiveness, to others or to yourself, is always beneficial however hard it may be. The opposite feelings of anger, resentment and self-hatred are invariably toxic.
It is crucial to tell yourself that you are fundamentally a good person. Addiction may have led you to do bad things, but behaviours can be changed and attitudes can be altered. The only thing that can’t be undone is the past.
For many, believing that they are fundamentally good people takes time but it can be achieved, a step at a time. Self esteem comes from the feeling that we are doing our best in everything that we try to do. Doing our best means following our conscience and being true to ourselves and our values. After the chaos of addiction, many people need time to sort all this out. So give yourself time and watch your self esteem build ‘A day at a time’.
Whatever you addiction is, it was a way to numb your emotions, and an excuse to act like someone you’re not. You are not that person anymore. Others may not recognise this right away, but you have already been witness to the progress you’ve made. If you want to earn someone else’s forgiveness, you have to forgive yourself first. If you cannot forgive yourself, how can you expect someone else to?
Page last reviewed and clinically fact-checked | July 27, 2021