Forgiveness is a loaded word. It has religious connotations and is associated with words like sin and repentance, both of which can feel problematic for many people. No one can tell you to forgive someone who has hurt you. Only you know the level of hurt and whether forgiveness will be possible or helpful.
However, living with unresolved hurt is stressful. For someone in addiction recovery, unresolved hurt is an invitation to relapse (and the drive to avoid the pain might have led to the addiction in the first place). Unresolved hurt is like an open wound. Open wounds get infected, they ooze, and they can easily undergo further damage. Someone with an open wound closes themselves off as a way to protect themselves from infection. They may easily become angry and defensive in an effort to not get hurt again.
But is forgiveness the only path to healing? If not, how can you care for these wounds when you’re not quite ready for forgiveness?
“Small” Wounds Versus “Big” Wounds
Sometimes people hurt us in small ways: not including us in a gathering, snapping at us for no apparent reason, overlooking our good work, etc. Sometimes these small hurts can fester, and it’s important to quickly assess the damage and deal with it. This can be done by confronting the person to explain how you feel; boldly asking for what you need from them; or setting a boundary.
In these cases, forgiveness as a regular practice might make sense. Express your feelings, protect yourself when you can, but then let the hurt go so you can focus on enjoying yourself and your relationships.
But sometimes the hurt is big: emotional, verbal, physical, or sexual abuse in all of its forms. In most cases, “big hurt” like abuse results in trauma. And trauma, when unresolved, can cause problems in a variety of areas. In the case of trauma, forgiveness may not always be the best option, at least not at first.
First, Acknowledge the Trauma
Chances are, if you’re in recovery from addiction, you’ve experienced trauma in your life. This may make it harder to withstand any form of mistreatment, even when it’s unintentional. When trauma goes unresolved, it can affect many areas of life:
- Relationships – unresolved hurt can make it hard to trust or be vulnerable with people. If you’re carrying a sense of hurt, you might avoid intimacy by keeping to yourself or by lashing out at people who try to get close to you.
- Physical health – when we carry a sense of hurt (and a fear of getting hurt again), our bodies are more quick to go into “fight or flight” mode when a threat is perceived. The rush of hormones when none are actually needed can lead to many problems: muscle tension and headaches, hypertension, respiratory issues, chronic fatigue, a weakened immune system, and more.
- Emotional health – Having unresolved hurt or trauma takes a toll on emotional health; it can make it difficult to regulate emotions like anger, anxiety, sadness, or shame. It can lead to extremes of either feeling overwhelmed by emotional reactions or feeling numb to everything.
Next, Work to Heal the Trauma
If you believe you’re suffering from trauma or post-traumatic stress disorder – or if you’re just really struggling with a deep sense of hurt but aren’t sure if it “qualifies” as trauma, talk to a professional therapist. Treatment is effective and can help you regain a sense of control over your life and your reactions.
Talk therapy and self-care techniques are both very helpful in learning how to release the stress associated with traumatic memories, set boundaries, and rebuild self-esteem. A big part of healing from past hurts is to forgive oneself. Often, people tend to blame themselves when they get hurt, as if they deserve it or have brought it on themselves in some way. With therapy and practice, people develop respect for and kindness toward themselves.
Finally, Consider Forgiveness
When you have forgiven yourself for your past–both for being hurt and for the times when you hurt others–you might be ready to consider forgiving those who hurt you. If you don’t like the word “forgiveness,” replace it with “letting go” or “releasing,” or something else that makes sense to you.
Forgiving someone doesn’t imply that they did nothing wrong. It simply means that you are releasing the anger you hold against them. You are choosing peace, because, after all of your hard work, you’re ready to embrace a sense of calm and joy, the rainbow after the storm. At this point, the other person doesn’t really matter anymore. You are at ease with yourself.
Forgiveness doesn’t mean you need to be friends with the person who hurt you. Maybe the relationship is worth rekindling, but that requires some level of trust that the person wants to heal with you. The more you are at peace with yourself, the more you will be able to discern who you can trust and who will remain untrustworthy. For those, you can release your anger toward them but then move on and focus on people who truly support you.
Healing from hurt can take a long time, even a lifetime. But just as in addiction recovery, progress can be steady, and you can surround yourself with friends and mentors who support your journey. If you are struggling with addiction or afraid that the hurt you carry will lead you to relapse, reach out to St. Gregory Recovery Center in Iowa. We will meet you where you are and walk with you on your path to healing.