Learning from our past and letting go of shame
Regret can be transformed into a learning opportunity.
If you attend a 12-step meeting, you are sure to hear individuals freely share their stories and journey through addiction. Many have been through instances of extreme trauma and been involved in horrible crimes. Others will talk about the depth they fell in active addiction without missing a single detail of how they compromised their dignity and health.
This is an example of recovery without regret and the freedom from the shame we are promised if we follow a program of recovery.
The pain of regret
In recovery, many will wish they could change their past. Some feel significant shame about the lies they spun to loved ones, deeply hurting those we were closest to. There may be frightening memories that will creep in from times gone by. At times these will cost the individual a good night’s sleep and will have an effect on them for a day or two as they struggle to come to terms with the havoc wreaked by their addiction.
Though painful, the individual can turn regret into an excellent tool for healing with the right support. We can consider disappointment to be the sign of preparation for change. Life is full of lessons, and regret can be a lesson that may be revisited to process and progress.
As the individual embarks on a program of recovery, they will become increasingly aware of the negative consequences of their days in addiction. The impact of addiction not only on themselves but on broader society will increase feelings of regret. Regret will drive those in recovery to ponder what can be done differently, not only to right the wrongs of their past but to also learn from them to ensure personal development.
Here are several steps the individual can take to ensure that regrets don’t stifle recovery and but strengthen it toward further growth:
Make responsible amends
When promoting accountability, those in recovery need to make amends where possible.
The emphasis on where possible is highlighted in step 9 of the 12 Steps of AA (Alcoholics Anonymous). It states only‘to make amends wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others’. The individual needs to seek guidance from their therapist or sponsor before rushing out to make amends.
It is usual for those in recovery to wish they could tackle this step with vigour and hastily contact all those who have been harmed to apologise. Making amends responsibly is more than just saying sorry. The individual must understand the exact nature of their wrongs; for this, they will need guidance and fresh perspective. More significant harms have been created by those looking to make amends but not appropriately prepared.
Many will want to make amends to ease their own shame. However, this is selfish behaviour as the individual thinks more about getting rid of the uncomfortable feeling within themselves as opposed to making amends.
There is reason amends are stated in Step 9 and not in Step 1. Recovery is a process. Be patient and consult your sponsor first.
Focus on what is in your control
Sometimes we can get caught up with how many amends remain on our 12 Step’s Step 8 list. However, as long as you have air in your lungs and an open mind, there are daily opportunities to put things right.
However, it is true that despite our best efforts, it is impossible to mend all past wrongdoings. The Serenity Prayer serves as a useful reminder that some things are within our power to change.
Focus on what you can control, namely yourself, your actions and words, and you will see that opportunities will unfurl daily to ease your feelings of shame, caused by regret.
A good therapist or sponsor will offer creative alternatives to making amends when direct amends are impossible. It might be that you use what you can control to make amends in a roundabout way.
We must remember that mistakes are part of life. At the same time, it is important to accept responsibility for the wrongs committed. Be generous with your forgiveness of self, and importantly others, so that you can be free to move on.
Discover your assets and apply them daily
Everyone has something to give, even if they feel like they have not been in a position to offer anything for a while. During the 12-Step process, one of the most healing aspects is highlighting what skills we have and, in turn, using these skills as a platform for good.
These assets are the key to long-lasting self-esteem and a sense of healthy pride. No one chooses to become an addict, but it is important to remember that we some learn lessons on our journey into recovery. For instance, recovering addicts often have more empathy for others. By being of service and sharing honestly, they can embrace their imperfections and have a new appreciation for life, while providing identification to newcomers.
Troubling events from the past can be instructional, but they cannot be undone. Once you’ve learned the lesson, focus on who you are and what you can do better today. These lessons you learned can be turned into assets like courage and discipline. In turn, your story that once filled you with shame and the fact you survived and thrived, can be a source of inspiration for someone in a time of crisis.
Here are three assets you might not recognise in yourself, which you can practice daily by just being committed to recovery:
- Courage — It takes courage to change an ingrained habit. To embrace life without the substance that is causing significant harm and dulling the pain, and facing your fears head-on takes courage.
- Honesty — To admit daily that your alcohol or other substances are an issue for you and will never be within your control is an example of honesty.
- Open-minded — To ask for help and to be open to guidance shows you are open-minded. By turning up daily for your therapeutic sessions and peer, support groups, we remain teachable and therefore, open-minded.
There are promises to recovery but give time a little time; they might not be fulfilled immediately but remember, each day in recovery is another day of healing. Your opinion of your past will change in time. Remain committed and continue to share and care.