How to Find Self-Forgiveness in Recovery

Embarking on a recovery journey of any kind is courageous and something to be proud of. Recovery can be challenging at times, which is why it requires perseverance and trust in oneself. It’s also why experts recommend engaging in treatment and accountability tools. A common phrase you’ll hear at Monument and in my support groups is ‘non-linear journey.’ This phrase describes the reality that you can be making significant progress and still experience setbacks. Although challenges are to be expected, it can sometimes feel like you are taking two steps forward and one step back. This experience can be discouraging and affect our trust in our ability to progress. To break this cycle, I encourage all of my clients to practice self-forgiveness. 

Self-forgiveness is a crucial tool for reframing experiences throughout the recovery journey as learning opportunities. It also serves as a tool for building sustainable growth that extends beyond changing your relationship with alcohol. More generally, it’s a great way to help practice self care in recovery. So, it’s easy to agree that self-forgiveness is a gift we all hope to give ourselves. The harder question is: how do we find it?

These are a few ways to start cultivating self-forgiveness in recovery as you continue to navigate your journey of sobriety or moderation. 

Challenge your thoughts 

When we’re in a cycle of self-blame, resentment, and shame, we’re likely navigating negative feelings and untrue thoughts about ourselves. Negative emotions may stem from co-occurring mental health conditions or trauma, and can hinder the healing process. They cause us to repeat fight or flight patterns if they’re not acknowledged and worked through to some extent. To address these thought patterns with a self-forgiveness mindset, I recommend using the T.H.I.N.K approach. T.H.I.N.K. is a mindfulness exercise for breaking down thought patterns and approaching the situation from a place of compassion. 

Stop and T.H.I.N.K. about these questions. Ask yourself, ‘Are these thoughts…’:

  • True?
  • Helpful?
  • Insightful?
  • Necessary?
  • Kind?

person on a dock

Take your time examining your thoughts through the lens of these questions. Try writing out your thoughts and then rewriting them without judgment, shame, or guilt. The goal is to reframe and sit with an experience in order to create an active awareness of what is really going on. 

Here are additional self-reflection questions to consider as you practice T.H.I.N.K.:

  • What evidence do you have that this negative thought is always true? Can you find any exceptions? 
  • If you’re feeling ashamed about a past action or past ‘mistakes’, what would be helpful to focus on to rectify what happened and take actionable steps to move forward?
  • What insights have you gathered from this experience? How have you gotten to know and accept yourself more fully in this process?
  • What do you need at this moment? What can you do to satisfy this need? 
  • Is this the kindest way you can make sense of who you are or what happened? 

Finding these new perspectives will enrich your understanding of how you respond to stressors. 

As I mentioned, T.H.I.N.K. is an exercise in mindfulness, something I recommend to all of my patients. (In fact, I lead a support group dedicated to mindfulness in recovery). When practicing mindfulness, you recenter yourself in the present moment. You can expand your awareness of what you are experiencing, listen to your mind and heart, and take action as your truest and most grounded self. 

Honor the “ands”

Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) is a modality that is often used at Monument as part of a specialized alcohol therapy program. The premise of DBT is to embrace multiple truths at once and honor all parts of a situation. In the case of self-forgiveness, it means finding a way to both forgive yourself for whatever you have done and realize that you can do things differently. Common phrases in DBT work are: “I’m doing the best I can and I can do better” and “I can forgive myself and hold myself accountable for the changes I want to make.” You may want to try writing a few of these yourself to get comfortable with the “ands” of healing from a situation. 

Embracing opposing truths means holding them on the same plane, as opposed to invalidating one or the other. When we look at things as one or the other, we start thinking in black-and-white and shut ourselves off to all of the different possible outcomes. In recovery, this might look like experiencing a setback and then thinking, ‘oh, this setback means I’m not making progress.’ 

Instead, let’s honor the ‘and.’ That might look like recognizing the times you may have reverted to old drinking patterns and all times you’ve made new healthier choices. It means recognizing that drinking has been a way to cope and it also leads to negative side effects that are unsustainable for a happy, healthy life. It allows for both flexibility and boundary setting as you continue to learn about what works for you. 

person in mountains at morning

Recognize that it might take time

Just like how we can’t rush a loved one into automatically forgiving us for something, we can honor our own hesitations about practicing self-forgiveness. Noticing when this hesitation comes up is a helpful guide to understanding what emotions and experiences might need to be processed. Engaging in online alcohol treatment is a great way to work through these barriers to self-compassion and learn how to accept forgiveness from yourself. This, in turn, helps to change your relationship with alcohol. Your therapist can help you navigate these challenges and process complex emotions that arise along the way. Practicing self-forgiveness over time allows for a new pattern of thinking to develop alongside a new pattern of behavior, like sobriety or moderation. 

Self-forgiveness can be an amazing tool for overcoming obstacles and connecting with your genuine self. Reframing experiences as teachers instead of regrets can help illuminate our path to recovery and contribute to personal growth. When guilt or self-judgement arises, try to redirect your focus on small, consistent steps you can take to care for yourself and honor your goals. In moments of self-doubt, prove any negative thought you may have wrong and recommit to your journey. Forgiving yourself creates a powerful openness to new growth and honors all of the valuable progress you’ve already made.

Disclaimer: Our articles and resources do not constitute clinical or licensed therapy or other health care services. If you need counseling or therapy services please contact a licensed provider. If this is a medical emergency, call 911.

About the Author

Avatar photoMonument is an online platform for those looking to change their relationship with alcohol. We connect members to a free anonymous community, therapist-moderated groups, and a collection of resources to provide the support and information they deserve. Members seeking medical treatment are introduced to a licensed physician and a specialized therapist to develop a personalized treatment plan specific to their goals. Monument is affordable, accessible, and research-based, so a healthy relationship with alcohol is attainable and celebrated by all.