Sunday, September 1, 2013


Forgiveness has been romanticized for its powerful effect on wellbeing. But as seductive as getting well and being forgiven are, forgiveness isn’t all that simple to seek.  It is one of the stressors that hit hard the men and women with the disease of Alcoholism because, to recover, we need the healing forgiveness offers.  Every Silver Lining Has a Cloud notes forgiveness as one of four potential barriers to long-term sobriety.

While under the influence of the disease, we do wrong. A lot of wrongs. Mind you not everything was wrong, but our brilliant judgment was impaired, and we did some really inexcusable things while impaired. Alcohol works that way on normal people, too. It loosens lips or inhibitions, or both, even in the man or woman with the most sophistication and integrity or the highest standards. That’s no justification, just a fact, demonstrated at any black tie affair as abundantly as at bar time at the local meat-market bar. It’s also fact that alcohol-fueled interactions leave one or both sides feeling a need to seek forgiveness or a need to say, “I’m sorry.”

One of the greatest reminders of how complicated we tend to make things is right in Robert Fulghum’s All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. (Ballantine Books, New York 2004) It is among his basics: “Saying you’re sorry when you hurt somebody.” That’s the lesson practiced by every Alcoholic at some point in their sobriety. It’s the low-hanging fruit for every Alcoholic, even if they don’t hang around 12-step groups long enough to make amends in the ninth step. Saying “I’m sorry” is a good start but it only nicks the surface of seeking forgiveness.

You can’t seek forgiveness methodically the way you look for a book at Barnes and Noble or toothpaste in the grocery store or a lost sock. Fulghum’s right, apology is that easy . . . but forgiveness is far from being that easy.

Forgiveness isn’t organized. It’s a volatile mix of timing and personality and one critical ingredient: Forgiving yourself. Psychologists call it self-compassion. When an Alcoholic hasn’t started overcoming guilt and forgiven himself for stuff that was actually said or done, he cannot go looking for forgiveness from others. Not forgiving yourself is a sin of pride known as scrupulousity. Not sin as in biblical, capital-S, Sin but a sin as in an infraction against your own well-being.

By the way, when Alcoholics are jailed, this forgiveness-of-self process is stunted, increasing the probability of relapse upon release because self-forgiveness does not happen in that environment. “The experience undermines self-forgiveness on a daily basis,” says Casarjian. “Interaction after interaction fosters shame and reinforces the self-concept of the [Alcoholic] as an inferior person who has not been forgiven and never will be.”

Self-forgiveness is not redefining an offense as a non-offense, or condoning behavior that is hurtful/insensitive/abusive/lacking in maturity. It’s not excusing or overlooking actions or absolving yourself of responsibility. It’s simply not resenting yourself for your actions or your illness.

Think about it this way: If you can’t forgive you, can you realistically expect others to forgive you?