Self-Forgiveness in Recovery

When you’re in recovery from alcohol abuse, you may still be reeling from your past experiences. You may not fully understand some of the things that happened, and you may be plagued with memories of things you did that you regret. Above all, you may wonder how you let things get to that point. And you may feel angry at yourself for it.

These difficult feelings are common in recovery. But while some amount of short-term guilt may motivate you to make amends for past mistakes, long-term recovery also means sorting through these feelings, and making peace. In the big picture, forgiving yourself is a crucial part of overcoming addiction for good, and moving towards the next chapter in your life.

Here’s a look at self-forgiveness, and how it relates to recovery.

What Is Forgiveness?

woman standing by window clutching flower
Photo by Sarah Wolfe on Unsplash

Forgiveness is often defined1 as giving up strong negative emotions connected with a person or past situation, to make it easier to heal and move forward. When it comes to forgiving others who’ve harmed you, this can be a loaded topic.

Some people believe forgiveness is simply a choice. You decide to no longer hold resentment, anger, or ill-will because it will feel less burdensome, or is simply the right thing to do.

From this perspective, you can forgive even if you don’t understand or condone someone’s actions. But if you’ve ever tried this, you may have found forgiving easier said than done.

While not everyone agrees, some experts believe there is a level of understanding involved in forgiveness. Research suggests that those who forgive often experience empathy2 towards the other party. This deeper understanding may help relieve resentment and anger about what’s occurred, and make it easier to let things go.

How To Forgive Yourself

When it comes to self-forgiveness, this empathy is especially relevant. While forgiving others doesn’t necessarily mean reconciliation, when you forgive your own self you must rebuild that connection and inner trust.

This often involves sitting with uncomfortable feelings, and can take some time. But once you come out the other side of this process, you may feel more whole, and more at peace with yourself than you have in years.

But how do you start this process? The details and the journey can look different for everyone, but here are some steps that can help:

1. Identify specifics

Many people (if not a majority) have a constant self-critic in their head that is always judging them. The critic says unhelpful things like, “You can never do anything right,” or “You messed this up again.”

This critic often revolves around specific themes. These might relate to relapsing, mistakes you’ve made, or regrets from when you were younger. Take some time to journal and reflect, and identify which themes come up most often. Once you’ve identified some common self-criticisms, begin to challenge and investigate them.

2. Answer your own accusing questions

When people haven’t forgiven or accepted themselves, self-deprecating questions may frequently arise, such as:

  • Why did I let things get out of control?
  • Why am I always messing things up?
  • Why do I drink so much?
  • What’s wrong with me?

Instead of just letting these questions hang out there, answer them until you get a more balanced response from yourself. For example, people don’t simply develop a drinking problem on purpose, or by choice. There was likely something going on biologically, emotionally, or situationally that led to this difficulty. What struggles have been out of your control?

If your thread of thinking continues down a road of self-blame, don’t allow your thoughts to end there. Keep asking questions and digging until you come to a better understanding and acceptance of yourself. This may not happen all at once, but keep working at it over time.

3. Recognize why you care 

If you were really a horrible person with no regrets, who didn’t care if you harmed others, you wouldn’t have a need for guilt. You likely wouldn’t even read this far into this article. That fact that you care shows that you have a conscience. Recognize that no one is perfect, including you, and that you are already working on changing past patterns.

4. Make amends

older couple embracing
Photo by Gus Moretta on Unsplash

In some cases, you may believe you’ve harmed others due to your struggles with alcohol. If so, first work on understanding yourself better through the previous steps. When you’re ready, consider making amends where you can. This might be through apologizing to a family member, or thanking a friend who helped you when you were struggling.

If others have set boundaries around contact with you, you don’t have to force an apology. You can wait until they come to you, or send a brief note that you’d like to talk to them when and if they’re open to it. They may still be working through their own issues and not ready to talk, and that’s okay.

5. Care for yourself

If you’re angry with yourself, or resentful of your past, self-care may be the last thing you feel like doing. But it’s often actually the most important. Rather than helping, the cycle of self-blame and shame can isolate you, and even encourage relapse. Taking care of your own needs is a central part of healing.

Here are some ways to support yourself on the road to self-forgiveness:

  • Find a recovery program. This can give you needed structure and stability as you adapt to drinking less or quitting. It can also give you tools to understand your drinking patterns, and make lasting changes.
  • Develop a support system. Feeling lonely or disconnected3 from others is a common factor in alcohol addiction. This is one reason why support groups are so popular in recovery programs. Finding such a group, or rallying friends and relatives, can give you much-needed support, and make it easier to forgive yourself.
  • Take time for your emotions. Many people in recovery feel guilt or shame over their emotions, which leads to avoidance. It can take guts, but sitting with your feelings, and meditating or journaling about them, can help you resolve them over time.
  • Make wellness a priority. Sometimes alcohol misuse, depression, or guilt can make it difficult to take care of your daily needs. You may feel like you don’t deserve to look after yourself. Try to start viewing self-care as maintenance, rather than indulgence, and establish habits that support your well-being.

Help with Self-Forgiveness

Forgiveness can be a long process in any situation. Depending on what you’ve experienced, it can be especially complicated to forgive yourself for your alcohol use. But remember—by working towards this, you are continuing to heal, and that’s helpful both for you and those you care about.

If you’d like some support with forgiving yourself in recovery, joining a program can help. Ria Health is one online option you can access from anywhere, without putting your life on hold. Our expert coaching team uses techniques like cognitive behavioral therapy to help you learn new habits, and improve self-talk around your alcohol use. We also offer anti-craving medication, digital tools, medical support, and more—all from an app on your phone.

Get in touch with us today to learn more about how it works.

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Written By:
Licensed therapist, writer, and published author, with a focus on trauma recovery.
Reviewed By:
Content Writer/Editor
Writer specializing in targeted, informative content. Dedicated to making the abstract accessible.

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