For many of us, our addiction is filled with thoughts and behaviors that cause harm to ourselves and those around us. Part of the difficulty we face getting sober is that often we beat ourselves up for our behavior, past and present. We are incredibly harsh on ourselves, sometimes treating ourselves worse than we would ever treat others. Although it is beneficial to push ourselves to grow, we must find a way to change our relationship to ourselves. Our habits of self-resentment and self-blame can cause quite a bit of suffering in our lives, and bringing forgiveness, compassion, and acceptance into our sober lives can help us recover.
The Blame Game
We often play the blame game in our using and early recovery. Unfortunately, the nature of addiction is that we often hurt those we care about, including ourselves. These realities can be hard to face when our minds clear and we don’t have drugs or alcohol to subdue the thinking mind. Whether we are recovering from an addiction, a mental disorder like depression, or a co-occurring disorder, we behave in ways of which we aren’t proud. We respond by judging ourselves, holding onto resentment toward ourselves, and even harboring anger.
The harsh self-judgement seems to serve us at times. I have felt like it helps me set boundaries for myself and prevent me from causing harm in the future. Our self-talk can serve as a protector against the truth of what we’ve done in the past, and make us feel like we are preventing ourselves from causing future harm. These adversarial relationships we build with ourselves bring us out of touch with what is really going on, and prevent us from actually feeling what is present.
Self-forgiveness is one of the first steps toward a healthy relationship with ourselves. Self-forgiveness is the ability to let go of resentment toward ourselves for something in the past. Perhaps Lily Tomlin said it best when she said, “Forgiveness means giving up all hope for a better past.” Forgiveness is allowing ourselves to move forward. The Vietnamese Buddhist monk and author Thich Nhat Hanh reminds his students the forgiveness requires us to forgive ourselves for not being perfect.
“Forgiveness means giving up all hope for a better past.”
It’s important to note that forgiveness is not an act of giving ourselves permission to behave poorly in the future. We can forgive ourselves for causing harm without endorsing the behavior or allowing it to happen again. When we work on forgiveness, it becomes a constant attitude, not just a one-time effort. Developing a working attitude of forgiveness can be greatly beneficial in our recovery. A 2005 study by Romero, et. al. investigated self-forgiveness in women with breast cancer and found that an attitude of forgiveness toward self was linked to less mood disturbances and better quality of life.
So how do we jump into a state of self-forgiveness? It takes time. We can’t suddenly change the way our minds work just by making a decision. However, we can start on the path of forgiveness right away. Try noticing how you’re talking to yourself during the day. What happens when you think of your past or when you make a mistake? You don’t need to push down any harsh thoughts. Instead, just notice them and try to bring a little bit of kindness to the thoughts. You don’t have to buy into each and every thought you have!
This is likewise a powerful way in which we can change our relationship with ourselves. Humans, especially those struggling with addiction, have a tendency to dislike unpleasant emotions and experiences. Rather than feeling what is present, we push the feeling down or take ourselves away from the situation. Of course, this can be beneficial if we are in serious danger. However, we often respond with aversion when we are actually rather safe.
Maybe you have a painful thought about some harm you caused a loved one. In the past, you may have taken a drink or used drugs to keep this thought away. Without substances to push these thoughts down, we may turn to process addictions, sleeping, or any number of other behaviors. Instead of finding another way to not feel, we can try responding with some self-compassion. By caring about our pain, we can learn to be with our experience without needing to use drugs or other experiences to run away. A 2007 study by Neff, et. al. found that increased self-compassion led to increased psychological well-being, suggesting there is some truth the power of compassion.
Like we may do with self-forgiveness, self-compassion takes repeated effort. It is not our habit to respond to pain with care and attention, so we may benefit from letting go of expectations. We can forgive ourselves for not being perfectly compassionate! Here’s a practice to try: When you notice that you’re having an experience of pain, offer yourself a phrase of kindness such as “I love you” or “I care about you.” This simple act of trying to care about ourselves can really help retrain the mind to respond with care when we’re in pain.
It feels sometimes like we’re so often focusing on the difficult experiences when we get sober. We do an inventory in twelve-step programs, talk about difficulties in therapy, and have to deal with some wreckage of our past. These are all incredibly useful pieces of recovery, but we mustn’t forget to tune into the happy moments as well. When we experience joy in early recovery, we glaze right over it or feel unworthy. Dr. Mario Martinez has done research on this, finding that joy releases cortisol, the stress hormone, in the brain. If we feel unworthy of the joy, the body physically becomes stressed when happiness is present.
To grow happier, we have to learn to be with the moments of happiness and appreciate the joy we experience. In any given day we go through a number of emotions, pleasant and unpleasant. We unfortunately tend to focus on the unpleasant experiences, and they stick in our minds with more weight. Bestselling author Dr. Rick Hanson points out that we can help ourselves by pausing when joy is present and really taking it in. Whether you’re noticing a beautiful sunset, grateful to be sober, or proud of yourself for the work you’re doing, take a moment and really allow yourself to appreciate yourself and your joy!
The journey away from self-hatred and toward self-love isn’t easy. It takes time and persistence. We don’t just wake up one day with unconditional kindness toward ourselves. What we can do is hold the intention to respond with more forgiveness, compassion, and appreciation, and make an effort to take action to cultivate these new states of being.