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Forgiveness in the Recovery Journey


“Bring it up, make amends, forgive yourself. It sounds simple, but don’t think for a second that it is easy. Getting free from the tyranny of past mistakes can be hard work, but definitely worth the effort. And the payoff is health, wholeness and inner peace. In other words, you get your life back.” ― Steve Goodier

There is something very concrete and measurable about giving up drugs and alcohol. An addict is either using or he isn’t. But it’s often the less quantifiable aspects of recovery that prove most critical in long-term success. While concepts like forgiveness and self-love can’t be measured, the majority of addicts would agree that they are a necessary aspect of the healing journey and can be promoted in various ways.

Developing Emotional Intelligence

Psychology Today defines emotional intelligence as “the ability to identify and manage your own emotions and the emotions of others.” Oftentimes, it is the inability to cope with negative thoughts and feelings that leads addicts to patterns of numbing with substances. As an addict’s illness progresses, his emotional IQ deteriorates. Eventually, the addict’s ability to control his feelings and impulses leads to behaviors that are uncharacteristic of the person he was prior to the onset of the substance abuse.

Not only do unhealthy choices impact relationships with loved ones, but they also impact the relationship that the addict has with himself. Through the course of an addiction, an addict loses trust in his ability to engage in safe and productive behaviors which further perpetuates the cycle of numbing with drugs or alcohol. In early recovery, it’s normal for an addict to feel overwhelmed by the damaging decisions he made throughout his illness. While his instincts will likely discourage him from exploring these feelings, a comprehensive treatment program will encourage that he face the guilt and shame head on.

Accepting What You Cannot Change

“All the mistakes you made during active addiction are things you can’t undo. If you continue to hang on to anger and resentment and shame for former behaviors, there is no hope for healing. Addiction is not a moral weakness. It is a chronic illness. You are not a bad person. You are a sick person who deserves a chance to recover.” –

Once an addict acknowledges that his emotional IQ requires a tune-up, he can begin to assess the “damages”. With the support of a recovery group or treatment professional, it can prove quite useful to create a written catalog of past wrongs. This allows the addict to concretely identify those behaviors that can be remedied. Whether the offenses were financial (stealing, failing to repay a loan, damaging property) or emotional (verbal abuse, manipulation, lies), there are often ways to make amends.

After issuing repayments and apologies for those choices that can be remedied, the addict must then consider ways to process the guilt over situations that cannot be changed. For this phase, the support of a sober community can prove imperative. In many cases, simply stating the regrettable choices in the presence of understanding individuals can kick start the healing process.

Adopting a Forward Focus

“A clean slate is required for true progress, and the only way you can achieve that clean slate is through forgiveness. Think of all those resentments and issues you’ve eliminated from your conscience. There’s no blot on it once you have achieved the state of forgiveness in your mind. That’s the clean slate that you need to go forward.” – Promises Treatment Centers

An appropriate way to initiate healthier self-talk patterns is for the addict to ask himself, “What do I gain from holding on to this guilt and shame?” Exploring that question within a sober support network or through journaling often leads addicts to recognize that remaining in the emotional prison of guilt thwarts the emotional progress that is necessary to successfully recover.

This actualization can prove a critical turning point in treatment, because the addict is shifting from self-destructive thought patterns to a more productive, forward-focused mindset. While he might be unable to make amends for past wrongs, the addict can commit to making healthy choices as he moves forward. Claiming this new sense of hope and control carries the addict from survival mode to action mode. And with an ever-growing emotional IQ, the addict can begin to design the future he’s always hoped for.

Acknowledging the Domino Effect

“Addiction is a family disease that stresses the family to the breaking point, impacts the stability of the home, the family’s unity, mental health, physical health, finances, and overall family dynamics.” – National Council on Alcohol and Drug Dependence

Once an addict has forgiven himself, he will feel more equipped to address his strained relationships with others. Inevitably, the addict’s loved ones have been impacted by his illness, leading to anger and resentment from both parties. With the input of his support network, an addict can begin to address these strains in productive ways.

One effective means of mending burned bridges is through family therapy sessions. A trained addictions professional can facilitate the discussions in ways that allow both the addict and his loved ones to feel heard. Healing can take time and it’s important that all participants recognize that the hurt caused by the addiction can run quite deep. Over time, however, trust can be re-established and family functioning can resume in a healthier way.

Guilt and shame perpetuate the addiction cycle. The more negative decisions that an addict makes, the more likely he is to turn to the numbing effects of drugs and alcohol. This is why addressing these emotions in early recovery is so critical for long-term success.

For addicts, feelings of trust and self-love are buried by the damaging effects of the illness. While researching treatment options, it’s important that family members seek comprehensive programs that will address both the physical and underlying emotional aspects of the addiction.
While the act of forgiveness can’t be measured or quantified, it is one of the most critical steps in a successful recovery.

“When you slip up and let yourself back into old, toxic patterns of thinking, forgive yourself before you try to fix yourself.” ― Vironika Tugaleva

jen-anderson-addiction-counselorJen Anderson is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW), Sobriety Coach, and former alcohol enthusiast living in Florida with her husband and son.

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One thought on “Forgiveness in the Recovery Journey

  1. I love the principle of forgiveness in recovery. Forgiving allows our hearts to be open to change. If we don’t forgive, we hold onto things that make our hearts harder and they don’t allow us to love ourselves, love others, and they definitely don’t help us to move forward in our healing.

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