There is a lot of talk in addiction recovery about letting go of resentments. I think this means releasing bitterness towards people we think wronged us. But resentments against ourselves can be just as persistent.
For my first year of sobriety, I carried strong resentment towards a person who had hurt me the year before I got sober. After years of work in sobriety, I realized that a lot of that resentment was towards myself.
I felt hurt by this person, sure, but I also felt guilty and ashamed for the anger I had brought to that relationship. I’d framed it as resentment towards the person because in early sobriety, I wasn’t ready to take responsibility for my self-conception. In many ways, forgiving yourself is harder than forgiving someone else.
In active addiction, many of us hurt people or do things we regret. That doesn’t make us bad people. Substance use is notorious for promoting black-and-white thinking. In recovery, you can start to realize that you are just as complex as everyone around you and are allowed mistakes.
If you are stuck in a place of guilt and shame, you are stuck in the past. The process of forgiving yourself helps you move forward with the motivation to be better.
Tara Brach—a psychotherapist and meditation teacher who has explored meditation as a therapeutic modality for treating addiction—has a talk on self-forgiveness. In it, she calls forgiving ourselves the “portal to healing.” She also says it’s an area where many people have the most resistance. Listening to that talk is a good starting place.
Another important place to start is to remember that you are not at fault for your addiction. Addiction isn’t a moral failing. Even when we know this, a lot of us might have an overarching sense of guilt for our addictions. Continually reminding yourself that it is not your fault will ease feelings of guilt about individual actions you took while you were drinking or using.
Forgiving yourself doesn’t mean shirking responsibility for the ways you harmed others in active addiction. Self-forgiveness and personal responsibility are not mutually exclusive. In fact, it helps no one—even the people you wronged—to constantly beat yourself up for past actions. It keeps you stuck. The best way to atone is to be better, which means acknowledging your actions and then moving forward in a more mindful way. The times I’ve taken responsibility for ways I’ve hurt people and took steps to change have been the moments I’ve forgiven myself the most.
Feelings of guilt and shame are toxic. They make people more likely to relapse. This creates a cycle of repeated use and continuous guilt. If you have trouble forgiving yourself, try reaching out to a supportive person in your life who can help talk you through your shame. That person probably forgives you.
If you are struggling with a substance use or mental health disorder, there is nothing to be ashamed of. It is okay to ask for help. TruHealing Centers is open throughout the COVID-19 crisis, with hospital-grade sanitization of our facilities and telehealth options. At our recovery centers across the country, our staff—many of whom are in recovery themselves—will help you build healthy coping skills and a life you can feel good about. To find out more, call an admissions specialist at 410-593-0005.