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Forgiveness: Why It’s Necessary for Sobriety

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Forgiveness. It can be a loaded word. For some, it comes easily but for others, it can be very difficult to forgive. However, according to years of ancient wisdom as well as current research, forgiveness is not only the right thing to do but is also good for your body, mind, and spirit. When it comes to recovery from addiction, forgiveness is vital. 

The evidence supporting the importance of forgiveness comes from many sources. Religious and spiritual teachers have long touted the important benefits that forgiveness brings—particularly peace of mind. From Buddhism to teachings in the Bible, the forgiveness of others and one’s self is essential to living a more peaceful, happy life. 

Addiction and Resentments: Letting Go

When it comes to recovery from addiction to alcohol or drugs, forgiveness and letting go of resentments is of paramount importance, particularly for long-term sobriety. In fact, Alcoholics Anonymous, a 12-Step program and one of the longest enduring support groups for alcoholics, talks extensively about the damage of carrying resentments and the healing that comes from letting go and forgiving. 

Forgiveness in The Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous

According to Bill Wilson, co-founder of AA and author of the Alcoholics Anonymous book or The Big Book, as it’s known, forgiveness, or the letting go of resentments is necessary for sobriety. 

In Steps 8 and 9 of the 12-Step program, making amends and asking forgiveness from others is the focus. For many who have completed the 12-Steps, these two steps are where the darkness of addiction finally began to lift. 

Step 8: Made a list of all persons we had harmed and became willing to make amends to them. 

Step 9: Made direct amends to such people wherever possible except when to do so would injure them or others.

In these two steps, asking for forgiveness is the focus. When others are able to forgive us for our mistakes and transgressions, we are set free. It’s important that we too are able to forgive others for their transgressions against us, even when they don’t ask. This also sets us free. Freeing one’s self from resentments and doing ongoing work to stay free of resentments is a key component of the AA 12-Steps program. 

In fact, according to The Big Book authors, living with resentment is the number one problem for alcoholics and those with other addictions. 

“Resentment is the number one offender. It destroys more alcoholics than anything else. From it stem all forms of spiritual disease, for we have been not only mentally and physically ill, we have been spiritually sick. When the spiritual malady is overcome, we straighten out mentally and physically.”  (p.64, Alcoholics Anonymous Big Book)

Going through the 12 steps of AA or another 12-Step group such as Narcotics Anonymous (NA), helps to reveal the resentments we are harboring. When we are resentful at a person, institution, or situation, we are not accepting and not forgiving others who have harmed us. The 12 steps, as they are laid out, help to not only reveal possibly deep-seated resentments but also discover forgiveness. 

Forgiveness of one’s self and of others. Often, self-forgiveness is the most difficult for someone with an addiction issue. Addiction, whether to alcohol or another substance, more so than not comes with shame, guilt, and regret. A person who has an addiction blames themselves for any issues in the family, for any problems their children may have. They blame themselves for not being able to ‘beat’ or ‘control’ their alcohol or drug use. 

The amount of guilt and shame connected with addiction is usually significant. Therefore, self-forgiveness is one of the first and most vital steps to healing in any addiction recovery program. Whether the work is done at an addiction treatment center or in a 12-Step program like AA, it can be painful. However, you gain a life free from addiction, shame, and guilt. And forgiveness is the key. 

Forgiveness in the Bible

In the Bible, forgiveness is mentioned nearly 100 times. It is also taught in both the Old Testament and the New Testament. Rabbis from as early as the first century taught that a person should forgive, forgive, and forgive. These three times of forgiveness were based on words from the Old Testament prophet, Amos. 

The New Testament talks about forgiveness as well. 

In Matthew 6:14-15, the following is stated, 

We are to trust God for justice and forgive the person who offended us. That does not mean we must forget the offense, however; usually, that’s beyond our power. Forgiveness means releasing the other from blame, leaving the event in God’s hands, and moving on.”

And even while dying on the cross, Jesus forgave not only his betrayer but also those who crucified Him. Forgiveness is shown to be important throughout the Bible and emphasized as the way of life which leads to happiness and the ultimate reward of entering heaven. 

Buddhism and  Forgiveness

Buddhists believe that forgiveness one’s oneself and others along with atonement help one on the path to enlightenment. Atonement, or making reparations for a wrong, is much like making amends in AA’s Step 9. 

For those who practice Buddhism, giving up hatred and forgiving others for any harm they have done to us is key to achieving peace of mind. In fact, the Buddha went so far as to say, 

“Holding onto anger, is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die.”

When anger is held onto, it becomes a resentment. The longer held, the harder to let go. 

There’s no doubt, forgiving someone who has harmed you or someone you love can be very difficult. But as anyone who has been able to overcome such a challenge will tell you, the relief that comes with forgiving one’s self and others is immeasurable. 

And according to research, that relief someone feels when they have forgiven and moved on, is physical too. 

Health and Forgiveness

There continues to be emerging data and research into forgiveness and the health benefits. Research shows that forgiveness helps with numerous health issues such as lowering the risk of heart attack to reducing pain and helping with mental health issues like anxiety and depression. 

Living with resentments and being chronically angry puts the body under enormous ongoing (chronic) stress. When the body is under this kind of ongoing stress or living in the ‘fight or flight mode’, there is an increased risk for conditions such as depression and heart disease. Letting go of anger and forgiving helps to increase peace of mind and lower stress levels. 

A study published in 2016 in the Annals of Behavioral Medicine linked increases in forgiveness with decreases in stress over time. In addition, the study found that decreases in mental health symptoms also occurred as forgiveness levels increased. 

It was also found that those individuals with higher levels of lifetime stress who reported engaging in acts of forgiveness more had lower levels of mental health issues. This was from a study published in 2016 in the Journal of Health Psychology.

Neda Gould, a clinical psychologist and assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine talked about the health benefits of forgiveness, 

“Anger is a form of stress, and so when we hold on to anger it is as though we are turning on the body’s stress response, or fight or flight response, chronically. We know that turning on this response chronically leads to wear and tear on the body,” she said. “It may not be surprising that when we engage in the act of forgiveness, we can begin to turn off the stress response and the physiological changes that accompany it.”

These health benefits of forgiveness are just one more reason why forgiveness is essential, especially for anyone in recovery from addiction to drugs or alcohol. 

In 2015, the American Psychological Association published a study that supported what AA had said for so long. After evaluating 21 different studies on forgiveness, it was found that in 19 or 90% of those studies that forgiveness is meaningful and possibly essential in substance abuse treatment. It also noted that forgiveness of self was the most important. 

Forgiveness of one’s self and others seems from all perspectives to offer peace of mind and a release from stress. However, despite these studies and statistics, it can still be very hard to forgive. 

There may be some things that are easier to forgive than others. So how do you go about learning to forgive? As mentioned, 12-Step programs lay this out in digestible pieces throughout the 12 steps. In addition, the REACH approach to forgiveness has been helpful for many.

How to Practice Forgiveness (Even When It’s Hard)

Everett L. Worthington Jr., a psychology professor, and licensed clinical psychologist at Virginia Commonwealth University developed the REACH process for forgiveness. Originally developed for his students, this program has now been tested, studied, and is one of the two most used approaches to forgiveness. 

Here are the tenants of the REACH program:

Recall

This first step is to recall the person and/or situation which is causing you to be upset, angry, hurt, or resentful. The event should be recalled in not just memory but also in how it made you feel. It’s important in this first step to really tune into the emotions felt. 

Empathize

For this next step, it’s important to try to put yourself in the other person’s shoes. While you are not excusing the behavior, it’s essential to try to see where they were coming from at the time. For example, maybe they are under enormous stress at work or just received bad news which caused them to lash out at you. Even though the behavior isn’t acceptable, it’s good to understand where they may have been coming from. 

In 12-Step programs, this too is an important part of the forgiveness and letting go of resentments process. 

Altruistic gift

As an extension of putting yourself in the other person’s shoes from the previous step, this one encourages you to think of when you acted in a similar way as the person at whom you are resentful or angry. Did you ever lash out at someone after getting some bad news or being under a lot of stress at work or at home? Most of the time when we stop to take a look at this, we find that we also have acted in similar ways. 

This may not always be true. For some people, there are outrageous crimes that have been committed against them—actions they themselves would never do. In these cases, it’s good to work with an appropriate mental health professional to help overcome these harder to let go of resentments. 

Commit

It’s also important to commit to forgiving others. As shown in the above examples, there isn’t a downside to forgiveness. Forgiveness sets you free from pain and transgressions of the past. Being committed to becoming a person who forgives is essential to achieve ongoing forgiveness, peace of mind, and long-term sobriety. 

Hold

Hold on to the forgiveness you find. When you forgive someone for something they have done to you it doesn’t just erase the memory. Recollections of the past and the situation will resurface again, however, it’s vital to not get back into harboring resentments but rather look at the situation with forgiveness. If needed, repeat these steps for the same person or situation you are trying to forgive. 

When we look at people and events from a different perspective, forgiveness can be easier. Forgiveness is an essential part of recovery and long-term sobriety, no matter what your addiction is or how you learn to forgive.

Forgiving ourselves and others isn’t easy. It can take time, it can be painful. However, as many in recovery have learned, it’s vital for sobriety and much sought-after peace of mind. 

If you or a loved one are struggling with an addiction issue or mental health problem, Futures Recovery Healthcare is here for you. Futures offers three different addiction treatment programs each aimed to help with specific addiction and relapse issues. In addition, Futures offers an inpatient mental health unit for adults over the age of 18 struggling with anxiety, depression, and other mood disorders. 

Contact us today online or by phone at 866-804-2098

WE ARE ALWAYS READY TO HELP

Call us now to schedule an in person or online consultation.


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