Buddha is often credited with saying “Holding onto anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else; you are the one who gets burned.” The origin of the quote “Resentment is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die” has been attributed to everyone from Nelson Mandela, to Anne Lamott, to literature from Alcoholics Anonymous. Across cultures and time, it is a widely accepted idea that holding onto a grudge is harmful not to the object of the grudge but rather to the one who nurses it. But what are the benefits of forgiveness? And does the act of forgiving support a sober lifestyle?
The Benefits of Forgiveness vs. the Harm of Resentment
It is common knowledge in twelve step fellowships like Alcoholics Anonymous that resentment and anger are dangerous for people who suffer from addiction and alcoholism. In fact, the text of Alcoholics Anonymous (the “Big Book”) talks about how harmful it is for alcoholics to focus energy toward holding onto these feelings in several places. On page 66, it reads that anger and resentment are “the dubious luxury of normal men, but for alcoholics these things are poison.” That same page also proclaims, “It is plain that life which includes deep resentment leads only to futility,” and calls resentment “grave” and “fatal.” The fourth step is designed for addicts and alcoholics in recovery to confront their resentments and to recognize their part in any event that led them to develop a grudge. These assertions about the harmful nature of anger and resentment are backed up by science. When someone becomes angry, the brain produces the “stress” hormones, adrenaline and cortisol. This provokes a fight-or-flight response in most people. Over a long period of time, holding onto anger and nursing a resentment can have detrimental effects on the body and mind, including:
- Digestion problems and abdominal pain
- High blood pressure
- Eczema and stress-related skin problems
- Heart attack or stroke
Clearly, the benefits of forgiveness for old resentments and anger include improved health and a decreased chance of developing these problems, but for people who suffer from substance dependence, forgiveness is vital to sobriety.
Forgiveness and Sobriety
Besides the physical benefits of forgiveness, people who suffer from addiction and who are trying to get sober can gain a lot from letting go of resentment and anger. In active addiction, many individuals use perceived slights as well as legitimate wrongdoings to justify their behavior. For example, I felt justified in stealing my parent’s money and jewelry because I believed they “owed me” for rough times in my childhood. I felt that it was ok for me to use drugs because I saw myself as a victim. I could easily justify my actions by holding onto my resentments; the classic “if you had my life, you would use too.” It wasn’t until I let go of these resentments, mostly by honestly examining my part in the situations that hurt me, that I was able to take responsibility for myself and truly live sober. The psychological benefits of forgiveness include:
- Reduced tension and stress
- Reduced depression
- Less anxiety
- Feelings of internal peace and serenity
- Increased compassion for others
- Greater ability to forgive oneself
All of these benefits of forgiveness can support sobriety. Working a twelve step program requires rigorous honesty, open-mindedness, and humility, and it’s hard to possess those qualities in any meaningful way for someone who is still holding onto anger from the past. If resentments are a poison for addicts and alcoholics, then forgiveness is the antidote.
Permission to Feel
In my experience of sobriety, I had a tendency to shame myself when I didn’t do something perfectly or when I failed to take a suggestion. But shame is toxic, and arguably just as a counterproductive as resentment. So when I found myself unable to forgive some people in my life and holding onto some of the hurt in my past, I felt guilty for that. But forgiveness is a process, and it’s different for everyone. Sometimes it can take minutes, and other times it takes years. Sometimes, individuals are not responsible for wrongs other have committed against them, and they truly have no part in the situation for which they need to make amends. In these cases, expression of emotion is healthy. It’s normal and beneficial to express anger in healthy ways and to acknowledge its existence. In fact, allowing oneself to feel anger is a critical step in the process of letting it go. In some cases, forgiveness may take years, and it can be slow and difficult. That trajectory is also normal for most individuals, especially addicts and alcoholics. What matters is having the willingness to begin to do the work of letting go of resentment, in order to reap the benefits of forgiveness. This can be done in a myriad of ways, but some steps that can be taken to reach a point of forgiveness include:
- Allow yourself to feel and express your emotions, even uncomfortable ones
- Prayer and meditation, or some form of contact with a Higher Power
- Writing a letter to the subject of your anger (even if you don’t send it)
- Therapy to help process emotional pain and promote healthy coping skills
Rome wasn’t built in a day and letting go of a resentment that has been nursed and developed for years won’t happen in a day, either. Like all aspects of most programs of recovery, what’s important is “progress, not perfection.” The first step toward forgiveness and amends is accepting you wherever you are in your recovery, becoming willing to make a change, and striving for a balance between doing the footwork of sobriety and remaining honest about where you are spiritually, mentally, and emotionally. If you need help getting sober and find that you can’t do it on your own, Willow Place for Women can help. Call us today at 1-888-651-4212.