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Turning the Corner: The Role of Self Forgiveness in Recovery


Primary Therapist


As a therapist at Turnbridge drug rehab center, I have many times had the privilege of witnessing courageous processes of personal transformation. When a client first enters into the process of change here, he is often times struggling with a strong undertow of shame resulting from harms done though his active addiction. These feelings can feel like an insurmountable burden. Unresolved shame can erode, inform and damage fundamental, core beliefs about one self:  “I am undeserving;” “I am inadequate,” “I am worthless.” Shame often involves negative feelings about the self as a whole and is associated with defensive strategies like denial, avoidance, isolation and relapse. However painful the above statements are, such honest confessions about self-concept are often the platform upon which authentic healing can occur.   I often talk in session about the idea of self-forgiveness as a pathway towards Addiction Recovery and Forgivenessreleasing the burden of debilitating shame. This does not simply mean “Letting Oneself off the Hook.” It means deliberately and intentionally creating a life “plan” that challenges those self-destructive core beliefs. In session, I would typically ask– in response to expressed feelings of guilt/shame– “What can you do in your current life to act AS IF you felt adequate, deserving and worthy?” The answers I often get are creative and heartfelt: “I can help a newcomer.” “When I go home, I can do FOR my family rather than expect them to do for me.” “I can volunteer at a soup kitchen.” “I can speak up for myself.” “I can go back to school.” A fresh map begins to take form and it is now etched with opportunities to challenge self-defeating, constricting statements that leave clients feeling stuck in the pain of the past. Often times, we hold the belief that a feeling needs to precipitate action– but sometimes it is in taking the new action that the feelings about one self ultimately must change.   The path of self-forgiveness can be a path of action as well as one of self- empathy. Learning to apply a less critical voice towards one’s own transgressions– while still maintaining an appropriate level of accountability– helps clients apply similar compassion toward others and breaks the cycle of selfishness, a defining element of active addiction. I tell clients “Pay attention to any guilt you feel today. It is trying to tell you something about the nature of doing right and wrong in your life in this moment. What steps can you take to heed its message?”   It has been said that there is no such thing as a “bad” feeling. Feelings of shame and guilt (especially in early recovery) can be particularly painful. However, when actively attended and carefully listened to, I believe they can be valuable messengers and purposeful facilitators of lasting change.