Forgiving Ourselves

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By Jim Seckman, CACII, MAC, CCS

“We simply pay too high a price when we refuse to forgive. Lingering resentments are like acid eating away at us. Rehearsing and re-rehearsing old injuries robs us of all that is precious.”
How Al-Anon Works, p. 86

If we truly want the fullness of recovery, and really, the fullness of life, forgiveness is essential. Over the next two months, we are going to be exploring the idea of forgiveness as an essential element of recovery. Next month, we will be looking at how to forgive others. This month, we are taking a look at how to forgive ourselves.

There seems to be a tendency in all of us to hold ourselves more accountable than we do others. Perhaps we believe that forgiving ourselves is not even a consideration. Perhaps we believe there is an endless price we must pay for what we’ve done, or even that we are beyond forgiveness. Whatever the reason, it takes a great deal of energy to continue to hold resentment against ourselves. The burden becomes so heavy that we become paralyzed by our past and are prevented from receiving the abundance that is available with recovery and life.

Now, I know what some of you must be thinking, “Yeah, this is all fine and good, but you don’t know what I did.”  As we discussed last month with the topic of shame, we have a tendency to believe that these powerful negative emotions are the core of who we are and cannot be changed.

But, and stick with me here, when we allow shame to combine with the unwillingness to forgive ourselves, we enter a place of selfish pride. We start to believe that we are the “worst” person that ever lived and we are more powerful than God’s and others’ forgiveness, and therefore beyond hope. This particular “insanity” will keep us in our disease and isolated. While the process of forgiveness certainly may take time, there is hope. If you are struggling with forgiving yourself for something you did or left undone in the past, here are some things to take into consideration:

What Is Important to You Now?

What principles, values, and beliefs guide your decisions and behaviors now? In other words, if you could do it all over again, what would you do? For most of us, we would absolutely change some of our decisions and behaviors. Rather than continuing to chastise yourself over the memories, consider it good news! The fact that we would do it differently lets us know that we have grown and changed. Our feelings and decisions regarding past wrongs inform us as to what is important to us now.

Separate What You Did from Who You Are

What influenced you and controlled you then versus your current principles and values? The disease of addiction robs us of our very selves and what we hold most dear. All of our principles and values are reduced to the object of our disease, making everything else secondary. This creates situations in which our decisions and behaviors will hurt others and ourselves. But, who we are is different from what we did, particularly when our lives and wills were controlled by addiction. When we confuse what we’ve done with who we are:

  • We keep reliving what we’ve done.
  • We let it affect our decisions.
  • We feel paralyzed by our past.
  • We verbally abuse ourselves.
  • We make ourselves feel unworthy.
  • We don’t make things better because we don’t think we deserve better.
  • We struggle to trust ourselves.

Acknowledge What Was Done in the Past

Accept the responsibility for what you did. Forgiveness does not let us off the hook or justify what we have done. Forgiveness is a choice that takes courage and gives us the opportunity to heal rather than remain a victim of our own scorn. Forgiving yourself is not about forgetting. It is simply about not bringing up the offense in negative ways. It is about letting go of what you are holding against yourself so that you can move on. Don’t take away a dearly bought experience.

We Can Own It, but Not Be Owned by It!

At this point, we may find that we have powerful feelings of grief over what was lost, both with others and within ourselves. The difficult task at this point is, to be honest with our feelings and grieve the losses. Allow the feelings to come out with someone supportive. (By the way, beating yourself up is not a requirement of grief.)

Make Amends Where You Can

If we have caused damage we should do everything we can to make amends. This is where Steps 8 and 9 become critical. What if the damage cannot be undone? Well, we can make sure it doesn’t happen again, including not continuing to shame ourselves. If others continue to shame us, it is because of their inability to practice forgiveness and they want to continue to give their distress to us. We can take responsibility for our actions while affirming who we are.

Act on Your Current Principles

Begin to replace the old, negative behaviors with positive, life-giving behaviors. Work the Steps! Give it the time it needs to be effective. Practice gratitude! By the way, don’t set yourself up with unrealistic expectations. In other words, don’t set perfection as your goal. You’re not perfect, and that’s perfect!

Practice Affirmations

What happened does not define who you are now. You cannot control how others define you, but you can control how you define yourself. Create a list of affirmations that directly counter the shaming messages you have been giving yourself and repeat those to yourself every day.

Help Others

One of the things I love about the 12-Step program is that this issue of forgiving ourselves is directly addressed as we begin to look outward and help others. While we cannot restore the past we can make a difference in the lives of others now. What is promised to us, in pages 83-84 of the Big Book, is that as we work the Steps: If we are painstaking about this phase of our development, we will be amazed before we are halfway through.

  1. We are going to know a new freedom and a new happiness. (Perhaps this is freedom from the shame and regret that has so controlled us.)
  2. We will not regret the past nor wish to shut the door on it. (We can let go of the victimization of self-hatred and use the memory as experience, strength, and hope.)
  3. We will comprehend the word serenity and we will know peace. (We will understand what we’ve been seeking.)
  4. No matter how far down the scale we have gone, we will see how our experience can benefit others. (Maybe we’re not the worst. And, no matter what we have done, our experience can help others heal.)
  5. That feeling of uselessness and self-pity will disappear. (The victim stance will leave us.)
  6. We will lose interest in selfish things and gain interest in our fellows.
  7. Self-seeking will slip away.
  8. Our whole attitude and outlook on life will change.
  9. Fear of people and economic insecurity will leave us.
  10. We will intuitively know how to handle situations which used to baffle us.
  11. We will suddenly realize that God is doing for us what we could not do for ourselves.

And it is hard work. But, as you work the Steps and put into place the items above, you will find that these are not extravagant promises and that they are being fulfilled among us – sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly. They will always materialize if we work for them. 

Read additional installments of Spirit Matters by Jim Seckman:


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