Forgiveness for Addicts, ACoAs and Codependents: Two Types of Forgiveness Studied, Empathy and Making Amends

In a way, forgiving is only for the brave. It is for those people who are willing to confront their pain, accept themselves as permanently changed, and make difficult choices. Countless individuals are satisfied to go on resenting and hating people who wrong them. They stew in their own inner poisons and even contaminate those around them. Forgivers, on the other hand, are not content to be stuck in a quagmire. They reject the possibility that the rest of their lives will be determined by the unjust and injurious acts of another person.

— Beverly Flanigan

Forgiveness is a process, not an event. It is often motivated by some kind of recognition that recycling our pain and blame is doing us more damage than those we’re angry with and it just isn’t worth it anymore. If it’s ourselves we’re forgiving we may have come to the realization that we’re keeping ourselves glued to pain from the past and we acknowledge that we want to find some way of letting go of it. We may benefit from just considering forgiveness, even if we only entertain the idea. After all there may be no magic moment when all is forgiven; we may always carry some residual feelings of hurt or resentment toward ourselves or another.But considering forgiveness as simply a way to lighten the load a day at a time, to live toward a solution even if we never fully get there, makes it feel less daunting. In having a goal of forgiveness in other words, were motivated to process all of the feelings inside of us that are blocking it.

When we hold on too hard to past hurts we relive them as if they were happening over and over again in our present and our bodies can’t always tell the difference between then and now; we tighten up and rev up for a fight even if there is really nothing bad happening in the present. We produce damaging stress chemicals in our bodies that undermine our health in the here and now.

Blocks to Forgiveness

There are a few stumbling blocks that I see people struggling with the most. One is the feeling that if we forgive we’re in some way condoning wrong actions. Another is the finality of it, releasing forever the hope of ever righting the wrong, or getting retribution. Still another is the idea that forgiving means that we wish to continue having a relationship with the person we’re forgiving. Here are these myths surrounding forgiveness that I have observed plague people the most when considering forgiveness.

If I forgive, my relationship with the person I’m forgiving will definitely improve.

If I forgive, I’ll no longer feel angry at that person for what happened.

If I forgive, I forgo my right to hurt feelings.

If I forgive, it means I want to continue to have a relationship with the person I’m forgiving.

If I forgive, it means I’m condoning the behavior of the person I’m forgiving.

If I haven’t forgotten, I haven’t really forgiven.

I only need to forgive once.

I forgive for the sake of the other person.

Forgiveness is not a one-time event and it doesn’t mean we relinquish our right to continued feelings about an issue. Sometimes we feel that if we forgive we have to eradicate any residual feelings of hurt and anger or we haven’t really forgiven, but in my experience this is not realistic.

Forgiveness is recognition within the self of a need to place a particular issue into a different internal framework; moving something from the foreground to the background. It’s recognizing that we want inner peace more than a grudge to nurse. We’re forgiving to free ourselves and to restore our own equilibrium and sense of joy. Forgiving for this reason, to free the self, is virtually always a good idea. However, reconnecting or staying connected may or may not be desirable depending on the situation. If, for example, someone else is going to continue to hurt us over and over again, maybe due to drug use, violence or abuse, it may be wise not to reconnect until the person has managed that behavior.

Ken Hart of the Leeds Forgiveness for Addiction Treatment Study (FATS) says, “Controversy often arises because people fail to understand that forgiveness is always desirable, but attempts at reconciliation may sometimes be ill-advised.”

Making Amends (Working the Ninth Step)

The Twelve Steps stress the importance of addicts to make amends in order to stay sober, both physically and emotionally. In alanon, codependents anonymous, (CODA) and adult children of addicts (ACoA) meetings these steps are also followed. They have built an amends process into the Steps, which they encourage all to work. Addicts for example have often hurt those who love them throughout their addiction and can carry a deep sense of shame and guilt for their actions. They need to do what they can to make it right, if the situation permits, so that they take responsibility for their own actions. Otherwise they risk feeling very bad about themselves, plagued with self loathing and other negative feelings that can make them want to self-medicate to make that pain go away — to relapse, in other words.

Dr. Hart’s study is testing two different approaches to forgiveness: secular and spiritual.The secular approach aims to speed up the growth of empathy and compassion so that addicts can better understand the imperfections and flaws of those who have hurt them.

The second type of forgiveness tested is spiritually based Twelve-Step-oriented forgiveness used by Project MATCH in the United States. In this approach, addicts who have harmed others are encouraged to apologize for their wrongdoing, thereby making attempts at restitution. According to Hart, “Seeking forgiveness through the amends process requires incredible humility; the assistance of a Higher Power or God helps people to transcend their ego, which normally balks when asked to admit mistakes.” He goes on to say, “We think the two treatments can help people in addiction recovery drop the burden of carrying around pain from the past.”

These two approaches to forgiveness — gaining empathy if we’re the hurt party, and making amends if we’re the offending party — are useful cornerstones in our own practical approach to forgiveness. Twelve-Step work has long recognized the need for addicts or those who have perpetrated wrongs to do the Ninth Step: “Made amends to those we had hurt except when to do so would harm them or others.”

I feel taking responsibility is important for anyone, if we don’t take responsibility for our mistakes or wrong doings, the kinds of defenses we erect to not see these darker sides of ourselves, become very rigid and embedded, they twist our insides up and keep us from vulnerable, open and honest intimacy and connection. Our denial and avoidance of pain makes us want to nurse grudges because we can’t come to terms with our side of a problem and let it go. Instead we project our disowned shame onto someone else in the form of chronic blame, we always need someone in the doghouse; or what psychologists call a “negative object” to project the pain that we cannot stand to feel outwards and make it about someone else rather than us.

When I wrote Forgiving and Moving On which became a recovery best seller, it was for two reasons, (1) to provide a user friendly, first person, day at a time guide for readers of the myriad of issues that come up as an inevitable part of the process of forgiving and (2) to work through my own adult children of addiction (ACoA) issues.

There are many ways that the pain of growing up with addiction passes down through the generations, I see it all the time. ACoA’s internalize their parents’ disowned shame and self loathing and it puts them at risk for self medicating or other acting out behaviors. They project rather than process pain, they haven’t seen parents who can argue and get over it through heart to heart talking then letting go and moving on, they haven’t seen forgiveness modeled. So they form a habit of hanging onto pain through projection and blame and this vicious cycle becomes a snowball rolling along through the generations gathering size and velocity as it gos and grows.

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