How Forgiveness Can Help You and Your Family Heal

Portrait Placeholder No Profile Image By Gabrielle Wynschenk
Closeup shot of two unrecognizable people holding hands in comfort

Are you struggling to forgive a loved one experiencing addiction or in recovery? If so, you are not alone. Forgiveness is a challenging aspect of the human experience, and for families touched by addiction, a crucial concept to navigate. Why is forgiveness such a powerful force? Many great philosophers, theorists, and writers have attempted to tackle this very question. As a marriage and family therapist, I first turn to the family systems theory for insight.

Family Dynamics and Forgiveness

The family systems concept of cybernetics suggests that when one aspect of a system changes, equilibrium shifts, causing the entire system to reorganize. Change creates a ripple effect and shifts that occur at one level of a system then reverberate outward, changing other parts of the system in the process. The act of forgiving a loved one struggling with addiction has the power to heal your own resentments towards yourself and the loved one. It can also assist in healing the entire family, and can potentially inspire change and forgiveness within the loved one themselves.

Research supports the notion that forgiveness of others has been shown to cause self-forgiveness. Humans can learn to release internalized shame, pain, and resentment that affects self-worth through forgiving others. This research seems particularly striking when thinking about families touched by addiction. Shame is a common barrier to long-term recovery and can lead to relapse if not resolved. Engaging in the forgiveness process with your loved one struggling with addiction could inspire their own forgiveness of self, allowing them to move past shame and break the relapse cycle to sustain long-term recovery.

What is Forgiveness?

The definition depends on who you ask. To me, the act of forgiveness includes changing one’s relationship with the pain that still lingers after a relational rupture. The nature of the rupture can vary in severity and subsequently leave more or less pain behind. I believe forgiveness means deciding to release some of the energy that we spend on pain as a means of healing. In his book, The Book of Forgiving, Archbishop Desmond Tutu says forgiveness is when “we take back control of our own fate and our own feelings. We become our own liberators.” By this definition, forgiveness can become a gift of freedom given to oneself and the entire family.

The Four Steps to Forgiveness

Tutu outlines a “fourfold path” which includes these four steps to forgiveness:

    • Telling the story: telling the facts to a trusted friend or professional first, and eventually to the person who inflicted the harm (either directly if safe to do so or through a letter, email, or text).
    • Naming the hurt: identify the feelings involved in the experience and accept them without judgment of ‘good’ or ‘bad’. Invite someone to listen to your feelings, holding and validating them without attempting to fix.
    • Granting forgiveness: making the choice of growing and moving past the experience through rewriting our narrative where we are the hero instead of the victim. The mark of healing is experiencing and telling the story differently than the first draft of just facts.
    • Renewing or releasing the relationship: renewal is preferred unless there is a safety issue. Renewing includes discovering what you need from the person who inflicted the harm, and asking for them to give that to you.

Going through these steps entails a rebirth, both of the self and the relationship. Through telling the story first in facts and then in feelings, you can deepen your understanding of your role in the situation. The act of choosing to grant forgiveness allows you to have agency and autonomy over the experience, which in itself is healing. Renewal spans beyond repair. This means forgiveness often looks like starting a new relationship together rather than trying to recreate the “normal” one that existed before the rupture.

The Power of Forgiveness

A common barrier to forgiveness is the thought that ‘if I forgive, I am excusing the behavior that hurt me?’, or ‘forgiveness takes my power and my experience away’. This is not the case. In the rooms of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), the phrase “what we resist persists” is often mentioned, and I think of that phrase when thinking about forgiveness. If we resist reauthoring our narrative of our experience, we stay trapped in a story where we are the victim of a horrible act with no access to the full range of emotions. That means no room for joy, pleasure, or lightness. The relationship is frozen in the negative feelings, and so are we.

In my most often utilized theoretical approach, Narrative Family Therapy, it is thought that people integrate meaning moment-to-moment through a story. Within our narrative, particular themes emerge that become the lenses we experience the world through. If your narrative is the broken relationship and the person who has hurt or failed you is a monster, the relationship will remain broken until you reauthor that story. In each interaction, you focus on what is not working and what is painful rather than refocusing on what is working and feeling the love and joy that exists.

While the path of forgiveness varies from person to person and within each relationship, the implications are universal. Forgiving your loved one opens the possibility of forgiving yourself. In the context of addiction, inviting forgiveness into the family could facilitate your loved one’s efforts to stay sober. Forgiveness means choosing to move forward and repair things. Once you learn to forgive after a relational rupture, you allow yourself to build a culture of fondness and admiration within the relationship where barriers of resentment and pain previously stood in the way. In this way, forgiveness becomes the ultimate gift of peace and serenity that you can choose to give to yourself and your family.

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