Before we explore the role of forgiveness in relation to your recovery, it will be important to ensure that you are in the right frame of mind. This means that you will not be filtering what is being shared through defensive, aggressive, defiant or otherwise emotionally tortured feelings. For the remainder of this skill development area, empty your mind of all predetermined feelings regarding whether you should or should not forgive those who have wronged you, forget about the nature of the wrongs and let go of any pressure you may feel towards the expectation you may feel to forgive someone. Consider only how forgiveness (or the decision not to forgive) can be used to further your own transition towards a stable, balanced life.

Everyone —every single one of us —has been mistreated by another person at some point in our life. We may have been abused, treated unfairly, lied to, abandoned, neglected, molested, humiliated, dominated, withheld love, etc. Or, the issues may not have involved us directly, but the consequences still had a tremendous effect on our lives. Situations like parental infidelity/promiscuity, parental divorce, the abuse of a sibling, careless behavior of a family member/spouse that led to their death (or the death of another), incarceration, etc. No matter who we are or what our backgrounds, we all have lingering issues that require the need to make decisions as to whether we should forgive or not forgive the person that perpetuated the wrong. This is especially true in addiction recovery, as it is often these very wrongs that precipitated the development of the destructive patterns to begin with. Now, we have already discussed the role of family in the development of addiction, but there are others that can play just as significant a role —your spouse, your friends, a teacher, yourself (most of us, as we begin to assess the consequences of our actions, develop a self-hatred for who we are, the opportunities we have wasted, the pain that we have caused others, etc.) As you explore the issue of forgiveness, begin by examining your life in the context of your life span. That is, instead of referring to behaviors that occurred in the past in terms of how they have affected your life as it is now, see these behaviors as they occurred at the time they occurred.. This is a critical part of learning how to forgive, as it allows you to forgive with understanding and compassion; or should you choose not to forgive, to do so also with an understanding and compassion (for yourself). It is only through a brave, honest, open look at all of the elements involved with a particular harmful act that personal closure can be achieved.

Another important realization to grasp before going forward, is the understanding that forgiveness is not a moral absolute. You do have a choice as to whether or not to forgive someone —as both choices offer significant benefits (and potential pitfalls) on the road through recovery. Many religions teach that it is not for you to sit in judgment of others...that your role ends with forgiveness and mercy —that God is the only acceptable source for judgment and vengeance. This is a rather simplistic view of such a complicated aspect of human nature. Keep in mind that there is a difference between judging someone's behavior and determining the consequences for that behavior. Judging the behaviors of others —especially as they relate to you —is a natural, healthy and necessary way to develop your own boundaries —as well as to recognize the boundaries of others. And while society may teach that the noble person offers mercy when there is no compelling reason to do so, it is almost always taken out of context, as reality dictates that you must develop an awareness of the effects that others have on your life in order for you to grow. Judging others is a natural part of the life experience. When that judgment includes wrongs that have a direct influence on you...the skill of forgiveness comes into play.

Many, when it comes to forgiveness, have become blinded by hate, shame, helplessness, love, etc. They look back on certain people or events as being all bad (or all good). In turn, they have positioned themselves to never forgiving a particular person (or completely forgiving them when this is not warranted). In order for true forgiveness to take place, there must first be an accurate perception of the situation that has created the need for forgiveness. This is a must, and yet it is the most frequently neglected aspect of learning how to forgive. Yes, learning how to forgive. Because forgiveness is a skill that must be learned...and chances are, nobody has ever taught you how to forgive —it has just been an expectation that you were supposed to forgive. It doesn't work that way. The goal then, will be to explore three types of forgiveness commonly associated with addiction: forgiving yourself, forgiving others and allowing others to forgive you. By perpetuating a sincere understanding and implementation of these three areas of forgiveness, you will likely end/avoid the negative consequences that are associated with forgiveness that is contrived, insincere or forced.

When is the right time to forgive?

There is no right answer to this. There are, however, wrong answers —times when forgiveness should not be pursued (or expected). These include:
  • You should never feel compelled to forgive someone as a result of others using guilt, power or the thoughts that there is something wrong with you if you aren't able to forgive.
  • You should never feel compelled to forgive someone simply because the person who has wronged you has repented and made changes to his/her life. (Though this is something that should definitely be taken into consideration.)
  • Closely related to the above, you should be extremely wary of ever offering forgiveness based on words and promises. Look instead towards the actions of those who have wronged you. The saying, "words are cheap" have never been so applicable as to those attempting to apologize. Even the sincerest apologies need to be backed up with action. Because it is only through action that real change occurs.
  • You should never feel compelled to forgive someone in an effort to stabilize, encourage or motivate their behavior. This is especially common in a committed relationship where a rush to forgive the partner is used as a Band-Aid to avoid having to face otherwise painful feelings. If you are committed to this relationship, take the time to work through these painful feelings when the time is right. Otherwise, you will most likely find yourself experiencing them again later...after wasting many more valuable years. It is important for the person to know the effects that their behavior has had on you, and not simply be forgiven without further developing their recognition of boundaries (both yours and theirs).
  • Don't forgive someone out of curiosity or because you don't know what else to do (i.e. "Nothing else is working, maybe this will."). That is, don't use forgiveness as a "last resort" to salvage your relationship.

The above list is directed at the act of you forgiving others, but it is just as relevant to your own expectations of forgiveness. Forgiveness is a very precious, personal thing that can significantly assist you in your own healing and growth. It allows you to gain back control over situations where you previously may have felt none. Take forgiveness very seriously and never for granted.

The "Skill" of Forgiveness

As mentioned above, forgiveness starts with gaining a complete understanding of the situation that surrounded the wrong. It means courageously exploring all of the elements that were involved in a particular act (or a particular person) —rather than focusing solely on the negative parts that make it easy to hate. This is the "all or nothing" principle rearing its ugly head again. Of course, it may not always be possible to understand or gather the facts in all situations —dealing with being gang-raped or having your child murdered by an unknown assailant are some extreme examples, but it should still be attempted —for your sake. Especially when the perpetrator is a family member, friend or plays some other active social role in your life.

Integrating the information that you have already learned in the first stage of the workshop, such unresolved emotional extremes can rarely be balanced through a healthy value system —mainly because behaviors such as neglect or abandonment would have disrupted the ability to develop such a value system. So, rather than having a healthy support system to assist an incest survivor with being molested, they instead plods along with this extreme imbalance in life —possibly describing it as an emptiness; possibly disguising it as self-hatred; possibly balancing it through destructive behaviors —with no hope of resolution. No hope of ever feeling the joy and fulfillment that comes from living a life that is free from such hatred towards their father, or brother, or...

Early in the recovery workshop, we discuss at length the need to let go of the guilt and shame that is so frequently associated with addiction. There were two reasons for this. The first was to begin to stabilize the emotional roller-coaster that such feelings often trigger. As we know by now, the majority of compulsive behavior takes place in an effort to either stabilize emotional chaos, or to trigger emotional stimulation. By eliminating the guilt/shame, this chaos is reduced and many are able to focus more directly on the patterns that led to the acting out behavior. The second reason for this was to begin the process of understanding forgiveness as it relates to yourself —which is what we will be doing now.

Forgiving Yourself

It was stated above that forgiveness is not an absolute. That you have the choice as to whether or not to forgive others for the influence that they have had on your life. This is not the case with forgiving yourself. When it comes to yourself, you must pursue forgiveness in a healthy way. Why? Because true forgiveness opens the door to true understanding, and it opens the door to allowing yourself to be forgiven by others. Life skills such as intimacy, compassion, self-esteem, social interaction...these are skills that cannot be integrated into a healthy set of values when self-loathing and self-hatred persist. And just to mention it one more time: your ultimate goal here is to develop such a broad foundation of values and skills —rather than to rely on a mere two or three.

With few exceptions, people who have struggled with compulsive behavior have many regrets. Depending on the severity of these compulsions, significant amounts of time and potential may have been wasted in the pursuit of these compulsions. For you, it is important to gain an accurate perception of these losses, and put them into the context of your life. Most of this has already been done in the first stage of the workshop. You should already have a pretty good idea of the consequences of your behavior...and so there is no need to relive it. What is important now is for you to have a clear understanding of those behaviors in the context of your life. You should be far enough along in recovery not to get too distracted by what you are going to be asked to do. This is not an exercise that is meant to conjure up extreme emotions, with the noted exceptions of compassion, understanding and forgiveness, so do not allow yourself to become overwhelmed.

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