Content Medically Reviewed by:
Dr. Patricia Sullivan, MD MPH
Learning to Forgive Yourself in Recovery
Breaking the Cycle
Forgiveness is freeing, and you deserve to be free and forgive yourself. Everyone in recovery has dealt with guilt and shame, and understanding the two is important in recovery. The importance of these two emotions centers on the discomfort they lend, which motivates us to adhere to the value system to which we prescribe.
As humans, we have a moral code taught from day one, which helps society function. Some believe morals and values are divinely inspired, but regardless of your view of their origin, these guidelines allow millions of people to live peacefully side by side.
First, the two concepts must be distinguished from each other. The two definitions are as follows:
Guilt: the fact of having committed a specified or implied offense or crime.
Shame: a painful feeling of humiliation or distress caused by the consciousness of wrong or foolish behavior.
Guilt means you have done something wrong, whereas shame is the emotional state that arises from knowing one’s own guilt.
Shame can continue indefinitely if not addressed, and chronic negativity is nothing but destructive. Moving forward becomes especially difficult in an atmosphere of shame, as the intense negative state can lead people to behave in such a way that creates more guilt, and thus, more shame.
To overcome this, the relationship between guilt and shame should be determined. For instance, when I steal candy from the corner market, I feel bad. This example may be simplistic, however other instances that commonly arise may not be as obvious.
Maybe you’re procrastinating at work or with school or eating things that make you feel terrible. Whatever the case may be, finding the source of shame is the first step to stopping the cycle.
The Importance of Learning to Forgive Yourself
If you never forgive yourself, the weight of all one’s mistakes over a lifetime is enough to break anyone. We all make mistakes. The key is not to hate or shame yourself for mistakes made but instead to learn from the past and use that knowledge in the present and future.
Successful and healthy people don’t destroy themselves every time they make a mistake. Instead, they learn to work through the situation while continuing to move forward.
Say, you bomb a test, for example. Don’t beat yourself up or call yourself names like “stupid.” Instead, realize that everyone does badly on a test at times, find where you misunderstood the material, and plan a better study schedule before the next test.
The critical component is that you forgive yourself for the bad grade and move forward. Staying in the past will not make anything better. On the contrary, remaining stuck in past experiences where you were not the person you aim to be will create feelings of insecurity and low self-worth.
Negative mental states, such as low self-worth or self-esteem, are ingredients for disaster. Such negativity leads to relapse and other self-destructive behaviors that, in turn, create more guilt and shame. The cycle must stop. If you are in recovery from addiction and attending school, check out our blog about going to school in recovery.
Steps to Forgiving Yourself
1. Write it out
Writing is a fantastic therapeutic tool. In fact, the 12-steps specify that resentments must be written down because thoughts swimming in our heads can spin out of control. Putting thoughts on paper gives your mind a rest and allows you to let go of whatever it is that is bothering you. Instead of constantly keeping the thought present, it is not forgotten. Jot it down.
Write down why you are upset, your feelings, and anything else that comes to mind. Writing is expressive and provides much-needed relief. Once you have written everything down, you will find that your mind is far more peaceful and clear than before you started.
2. Remember, you can’t change the past, but you can take control of your present and future.
The past is gone. It’s that simple. You can learn from the past, but you cannot change it. The good news is that the present and future are unwritten stories that you control. You can do anything you want if you work for it. Who will you be in 5 years? Challenge yourself to see the innumerable possibilities.
3. Have compassion and love for your past self.
Nobody is perfect. You have made mistakes, true, but you’re only human and cannot expect yourself to live a life free from mistakes and missteps. The only thing to do now is to have compassion for yourself, as you would have for a dear friend who has made mistakes.
4. Recognize morals and values now and act on them.
Perhaps you’ve violated your own morals and values in the past. Again, no one is perfect. What matters is that you recognize those morals and values now and adhere to them to the best of your ability.
Maybe you stole while you were using. Now, you recognize that stealing is wrong and hurtful. From now on, don’t steal and forgive yourself for your past mistakes and transgressions.
5. Remember every day is a new start.
Every day is a new beginning, and that it’s never too late to change or start over. Staying in the past is a conscious choice and not a very advisable one. Realize that today you can be the best version of yourself.
6. Learn to love the person you have become.
You wouldn’t be the person you are now without everything that has happened up until this point. As difficult as the past has been, it has made you who you are today, and that is a great thing!