Amazing Grace: How Unconditional Forgiveness Assists Recovery
Written by: Melissa Franklyn and Rita Milios
Understanding that you, too, like everyone else, are entitled to be granted grace – an ability to receive an unmerited favor from your Higher Power to assist you when you cannot assist yourself – this is perhaps the most powerful insight you can gain from a Twelve Step program. In Step Seven it is written that “We would like to be assured that the grace of God can do for us what we cannot do for ourselves.”
Coming to believe and accept that you are worthy of grace can be a real turning point in your recovery. Shame, guilt and remorse often hinder the progress of recovering individuals. Forgiveness is recognized as a key factor in working the Steps. Unconditional forgiveness is a deeper, more compassionate forgiveness of self and others that can only come from connecting with your Higher Power and asking for its grace. But when you do, you free yourself from the self-destructive spiral of feeling unworthy and then seeking relief from the pain through the use of drugs or alcohol. If you unconditionally forgive yourself as well as others, you can experience both health and emotional healing.
…you free yourself from the self-destructive spiral of feeling unworthy and then seeking relief from the pain through the use of drugs or alcohol.-RITA MILIOS
Health and Emotional Rewards of Forgiveness
According to an article by the Mayo Clinic staff, Forgiveness: Letting Go of Grudges and Bitterness, forgiveness can lead to healthier relationships, greater spiritual and psychological well-being, lowered blood pressure, reduced symptoms of depression, and improved heart and immune health. Research suggests that forgiving reduces the stress caused by harboring negative emotions, and also encourages stronger and more supportive social networks. Both of these are factors are known to improve physical as well as mental/emotional health.
Compassionate self-acceptance involves coming to accept, without resistance, the reality of where you are right now—warts and all—and choosing to commit to and focus on positive behavioral options instead of pain, guilt, shame or perceived inadequacies. Compassionate self-acceptance allows you to distance yourself from self-defeating behaviors and avoidant coping styles. It frees you to acknowledge, and therefore address, rather than run from, your mistakes. When you remove self-induced shame and disappointment, you automatically increase your commitment to change.
Acceptance and Commitment Therapy
…you take some time to objectively view both your weaknesses and your strengths and make an informed decision about the best action to take to lead you toward positive change and greater self-acceptance.-RITA MILIOS
One tool for addressing denial and resistance to change is Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. This psychological approach is based on mindfulness, or the moment-by-moment awareness of one’s own thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and immediate environment. In this process, you choose to be present with and accept thoughts and feelings as they arise, but do not automatically act on them. (Otherwise, you would likely engage in pre-programmed, habituated and self-destructive “auto-pilot” responses.) Instead, you take some time to objectively view both your weaknesses and your strengths and make an informed decision about the best action to take to lead you toward positive change and greater self-acceptance.
Mark Atkinson, M.D., author of True Happiness—Your Complete Guide to Emotional Health says, “An important part of the work you must do is to accept what was previously unacceptable…Embrace your shadow (negative traits) and free yourself to make choices about your life, or you will remain owned by your shadow and it will direct your life.”
Allow Yourself to Forgive
Forgiveness is integral to self-acceptance, but it is often hard to forgive those we feel have wronged us, and even harder to forgive ourselves for not living up to our own aspirations or expectations. We need tools to help us manage this difficult process. You may resist forgiving someone (or yourself) because you believe that in doing so you will be exonerating a wrongdoing. But actually, forgiveness is not about validating a wrongdoing. Accountability is still required. Forgiveness is about releasing the negative emotions and suffering that you are experiencing, and which are harming your physical and emotional health.
Below is a Forgiveness Imagery Exercise adapted from my book Tools for Transformation. I have used this imagery many times with clients, and have seen amazing transformations result from its use.
Forgiveness Imagery Exercise
Find a comfortable place and relax your body completely. Place all your attention on your breathing, noticing how your lungs expand and your diaphragm recoils as you relax into a quiet meditative state. Once you are relaxed completely, imagine on your mental screen a stage like actors and actresses use. On this stage picture both yourself and the one you need to forgive. (This may be another person or it may be an aspect of yourself, one of your “shadow” parts.)
First state the reasons for your non-forgiveness to the other person/part. Take as much time as you need. Let out all your frustration, anger, and hurt. Get your feelings fully out into the open, and be perfectly clear about how you feel.
Then let the other person or part of you have a turn. Stand quietly as the other tells his or her side of the story, the reasons he or she acted the way they did. Do not interrupt; just listen, and you may be surprised at what you hear.
When the other has finished, send him or her love. Imagine it as a large pink cloud (representing unconditional love) emanating from your body and passing between the two of you to envelop the other. As the pink cloud surrounds the other (person or part of yourself), see their image begin to fade and dissipate into the cloud, until they become just a part of the cloud itself. Then see the pink cloud dissipate completely, until there is nothing left of it. As the cloud dissipates, say to yourself, I forgive you. I release you from my life. Say this three times. Feel the weight lifting from your shoulders. Feel the exhilaration and freedom gained by no longer being bound to this person or shadow part. Feel the peace of mind this release brings, and bask in these positive emotions for a few moments. Then say emphatically to yourself, I love and approve of myself.
Take in a few deep breaths and slowly return to your normal, fully conscious state. Open your eyes, feeling refreshed and rejuvenated, peaceful and full of loving energy.