Can I ask you a question?
Is there someone, or perhaps more than one person who pops into your mind unexpectedly from time to time, and when they do, a fresh wave of resentment washes over you? A fresh stab of the hurt, betrayal or unkind words reappear like it was yesterday, and as much as you wish you could let it go, you just can’t. The problem is, it eats away at you every time you think about it. How can you, and why should you forgive someone who wronged you?
Forgiveness is one of the most powerful weapons when trying to get sober and keep it that way. Why? Because drinking excessively is very often fuelled by the hurtful actions of others or being unable to forgive ourselves. Regardless of how much time has passed since someone hurt or wronged you, it can be really challenging to genuinely forgive. This is not just something that will affect someone’s sobriety but something that will affect everyone’s mental health in general.
The reason why it is such an important part of long-term sobriety, however, is because holding on to resentments is toxic. Reaching emotional sobriety is where you are no longer having to rely on alcohol to deal with negative feelings. This means letting go of all past hurts. Holding onto grudges will only ever stunt personal growth. Forgiving someone does not always mean you have to keep that person in your life either. We need to separate reconciliation and forgiveness from one another entirely. I have forgiven people I have no desire to see again, I just chose to stop being angry and wasting energy that perpetuates that pain.
Forgiving someone is something you do for yourself, so that you can move forward. This is a conscious and deliberate decision to release feelings of resentment regardless of whether this person or people actually deserve your forgiveness. You are doing it for you. Whether it is a family member, close friend, work colleague or stranger, forgiveness will require releasing unhealthy emotions that may have been harbored in the past.
If you are unable to forgive others it can cause emotional turmoil which is a major relapse trigger and often a reason to stay stuck in unhealthy drinking patterns. Remember that when you decide to quit drinking you are beginning a new phase in your life which all starts with your sobriety. To truly start anew, it’s really important not to have negative emotions stored beneath the surface that will only stand in your way. I know this is not an easy thing to do, I have been guilty of getting stuck in my memories and have found it hard to let go of certain things.
I guess I started to realise that forgiving people doesn’t mean excusing their behaviour but more about releasing the unhealthy emotions that are attached to that person. When someone hurts us, forgiving them might feel like a free pass for their actions. In reality, what you are doing is giving yourself the power back. It is impossible to heal when you are tied to negative energy so by forgiving you can replace hurt with healing.
It is a misconception that forgiving means forgetting, it is about being able to remember without feeling any pain. This does not mean condoning hurtful behaviour. The other important thing to remember is that forgiveness is a strength not a weakness and when we can forgive wholeheartedly and also without expecting anything in return, it is actually the most empowering and liberating feeling.
Feelings of bitterness and resentment absolutely sap your mental, physical and emotional health and well-being but when you let it go, you can be the best version of yourself. You can free up all your energy and concentrate on the person who really needs all your love and attention right now, You! I also found it really helpful to hold a mirror up to myself and be honest about my part in past events. It became less important whether the other person was 95% responsible, there was still my 5% and it was important to acknowledge that I did have some part.
Of course, we must understand that the act of forgiveness can sometimes be completely one sided. This is a tough one. The person you are forgiving may not even be apologising, in fact they may not even be acknowledging their behaviour at all. The way I look at this is having a choice between being left with this feeling of injustice and carrying it with you throughout your lifespan, or forgiving and so re-establishing a sense of peace. Forgiveness is a lesson for you only, not anyone else, so no need to wait around for an apology, it’s irrelevant.
I can honestly say that for me, forgiving felt like a weight being lifted. I found that on the very rare occasion certain people did pop in to my mind that had hurt me in the past, the thoughts were now like a cloud passing by and floating quietly away. I felt nothing. No anger, no resentment. There was only a sense of strength, that I could forgive even when someone wasn’t sorry, and able to accept an apology I never actually received. I didn’t forgive because they deserved forgiveness, I forgave because I deserved to feel peace.
Something that can be even more important to health, happiness and sobriety is self-forgiveness. While it is important to take responsibility for mistakes we make, it’s just as important to acknowledge what you did wrong and accept it without continuing to punish yourself. We all make mistakes and have said or done things we wish we could undo. When we have hurt others, we can try to make amends by reaching out and apologising if appropriate, but try and have some self-compassion too.
Remember that today you are working hard to lay the foundation for a better future, and that you are not perfect. Nobody is. So many people will blame and judge themselves for alcohol addiction and the mistakes they made but this can result in being caught in an endless cycle of self-blame and prevent the changes needed to sustain sobriety.
I would say, if possible, try and make up for mistakes that have impacted others but be prepared for some to reject your apologies. This is more about you doing the right thing, despite the response you may get. No doubt there may have been broken promises, lies and misplaced priorities but it is unhelpful to dwell on what has been and gone. Sobriety is a time to recognise what has been accomplished and move beyond the troubles of the past.
Forgiveness is a process that takes time, so be patient. Learn to forgive yourself as this is the only way to start again. All the bad decisions and choices that hurt others are now lessons that have been learnt, so don’t beat yourself up for not knowing what you know now. Don’t keep reviewing and reliving these mistakes.
Forgiveness does not change the past but it can change the future.