The Role Of Forgiveness In Addiction Recovery

For centuries, religious leaders, philosophers, and thinkers have proposed forgiveness as one of the ways we can overcome anger, bitterness and psychological distress. It is much healthier than being preoccupied with getting back.

Confucius once said, “Before you embark on a journey of revenge, dig two graves”.

Cutting the emotional ties with close friends and family can cause a lot of emotional distress. You end up getting caught up in a cycle of bitterness, anger, resentment and even at times self-pity. It is a rollercoaster of emotions that often leaves you worse off than the person you’ve made the object of your resentment.

Stanford University is one of the few institutions that have put resources into studying the importance of forgiveness. In what they refer to as “largest interpersonal study on personal forgiveness”, the Stanford Forgiveness Project found that letting go off feelings of resentment can help improve your physical and psychological well being.

Whether you are struggling with eating disorders, alcoholism, having to detox from drugs or mental health issues, letting go may be just what you need.

How Forgiveness Helps Recovery

Revenge Breeds More Negativity

Revenge is an idea that is as old as human civilization. It is an instinct that often comes naturally when we are hurt.

It represents our need to see justice done on those who harm us and often we hope that it will serve as a deterrent. This way the perpetrator will think twice before they try again.

However, it is important to remember the old adage: revenge is like taking poison with the hope of hurting someone else. When we are preoccupied with getting back, resentment tends to intensify with time.

Break the Loop of Negative Thoughts

Negative thoughts such as bitterness, regret, and anger, are just as bad as self-pity or lack of self-esteem. We stick with these thoughts because we hope we can get justice.

These negatives thoughts cause mental distress that prevents us from thinking clearly even when trying to overcome addictions such as binge eating or alcoholism.

The research findings from the Stanford Forgiveness Project indicate that college students, who went through forgiveness training, showed signs of improved mental well being. They were less stressed and more content and optimistic of the future.

Even though there are no studies that conclusively show the physical benefits of forgiveness, the researchers found that trainees experienced less back pain, fewer stomach upsets, and other physiological signs of stress.

Improved Social Skills

Another positive benefit identified by the study is improved social skills. Once you come to terms with your past and let go, you not only have a more positive outlook on life, but you can also see things more clearly.

You are in a better position to take decisive steps regarding your relationships with friends, family, and choices you make whether at home or at work.

Myths That Are Obstacles to Forgiveness

If forgiveness is so good for us why do we hold onto resentment? The answer is in our flawed perception of what it really entails. Here are some common misconceptions you should be aware of:

  • Believing forgiveness means condoning wrongdoing: Realize it is for your psychological and psychosocial benefit than for the other party. You are definitely not a wuss for embracing forgiveness.

  • Believing forgiveness means reconciliation: You don’t have to restore the relationship you had with the one who hurt you. It simply means coming to terms with the pain and anger and going past it.

  • Equating forgiveness to not feeling angry: Even after you choose to forgive, you will still experience anger. Anger is a natural emotional expression in reaction to disappointment. However, the problem is when anger degenerates into bitterness and resentment.

Steps to Forgiveness

Before you can embrace forgiveness fully you need to understand yourself. More specifically, establish why you have been holding onto resentment.

Another common feeling is that you may end up looking like a wimp to either the one who hurt you or those around you especially those who look up to you.

Because resentment can prevent you from seeing things clearly you need to take deliberate steps in order to find forgiveness.

Find Healthy Ways to Express Feelings

You may need to talk to a counselor or someone you trust so that you can come to terms with your emotions. If you are not ready to share, write down how you feel in a journal. Keeping a journal is a healthy way that is effective for relieving mental distress.


You need to accept that what happened is now behind you, rather than hoping that things were not as they are. This puts you in a better position to learn from your past and ensure that it doesn’t happen again. For example, are there boundaries that were crossed that you need to reinforce to avoid the same thing happening?

Understand the Perpetrator

Put yourself in their shoes and try to find out why they hurt you. This may be difficult because it appears like condoning their actions. However, you may gain insights into their nature and be in a better position to avoid the same situation in the future.

Forgiveness Is a Process

Don’t expect that you will not have feelings of anger and resentment from time to time. The important thing is that you make progress –one step at a time– so that you can live a more fulfilling life in the future.

Overcoming negative emotions through forgiveness is for your own good. It will help you restructure your life, detox from drugs, and overcome challenges such as addiction and stress. Be clear that you are taking this step for yourself and you may be surprised at how liberating forgiveness can be.


Medical disclaimer:

Sunshine Behavioral Health strives to help people who are facing substance abuse, addiction, mental health disorders, or a combination of these conditions. It does this by providing compassionate care and evidence-based content that addresses health, treatment, and recovery.

Licensed medical professionals review material we publish on our site. The material is not a substitute for qualified medical diagnoses, treatment, or advice. It should not be used to replace the suggestions of your personal physician or other health care professionals.

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