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Whether you’re in recovery or close to someone in recovery, you know that the past can be haunting. As addicts, we spend our time acting in ways that cause harm to ourselves and those around us. When we get sober, the past doesn’t just go away. Often we’ve built an identity around ourselves as addicts. This may include lying, stealing, self-seeking, laziness, or any number of other qualities. Although we have indeed behaved this way, we also need to allow ourselves room to move forward. Really, we need to recognize that these behaviors and actions don’t have to define us.
One of the first steps toward letting go is working on forgiving ourselves and others. We may begin this process if we work the fourth step of twelve-step programs. But often we really need to make a dedicated effort to forgive. Forgiveness isn’t something that comes all at once always. It can take time and effort, along with some patience.
Forgiveness doesn’t mean we give ourselves or others permission to behave in a way that causes harm. Rather, we can free up our mental and emotional energy. When we hold onto resentments, we create pain for ourselves. Especially when it’s toward ourselves. When we hold onto the pain we’ve caused, we keep it too close. We create ourselves as people that cause harm to others.
With forgiveness, we can recognize that we did indeed cause harm, but that doesn’t mean that’s who we are. Maybe we use some forgiveness exercises or meditations, or perhaps we work with a therapist. I’ve found that as I’ve worked toward forgiving myself a bit more, I’m able to free myself up to move forward and create myself as a kind and caring person.
The past has passed. We don’t really need to hold onto it as tightly as we often do. We can put a healthy distance between ourselves and our pasts. That is, we don’t need to push it away or pretend it didn’t happen. This is something that happens quite a bit. People get sober and they’re really adamant that they’ve changed. This is okay, but the problem arises when the person denies all harm caused in the past. It’s okay to recognize that you had difficulties, caused harm, or weren’t your best self.
We all must find for ourselves what the healthy distance is. It’s not as cut and dry as we might think. What works in one moment may not work in another. We have to remain open and investigating, seeing what feels safe for us. We can acknowledge the past without living in it. We can also be proud of who we are today without completely denying that there was any pain and harm present.
In my experience, a healthy distance is one in which I’m able to acknowledge how I lived my life without too much shame, but also without building an identity around it. The truth is that I caused a lot of harm and was suffering greatly. However, I’m not that person today. By recognizing how we behaved or the pain we experienced, we can understand it rather than judge it.
One of the best things we can do to let go of the past is tune into how we’re moving forward. As the amends process dictates in twelve-step programs, we have to actually change our behavior. One of the difficulties here is that we’re often the last people to truly see the change in ourselves. By making an effort to recognize how we have moved forward already, we can begin to see that we aren’t the person we once were.
We can also tune into how we are continually moving forward. Recognize the intentions you have, your goals, and the action you’re taking. We all have things we want to do or achieve, and by bringing awareness to these things we can see how hard we’re working to grow. This can help us accept who we once were by giving us the faith that we can improve. As we see the ways in which we’re growing, we can see where we started more clearly. It’s like the saying, “The better you get, the sicker you were.” As we get better and seek to grow, we can see the pain we were in and not judge ourselves so harshly.