The Key to Overcoming Hurts in Recovery … and Maybe it’s not Forgiveness

When people have hurts and struggles in relationships, they tend to work on resolving them by focusing on forgiveness. There’s nothing wrong with forgiveness, but sometimes it’s hard to get there.

Maybe we should be talking more about compassion instead. Let me explain.

We all know that we’re supposed to forgive people who hurt us, but we get hung up on what it means and how to do it. We struggle to make sense of the jumble of emotions we still feel, even after we’ve made that seemingly momentous decision to forgive. The focus of forgiveness is often on what amounts to quasi-legal/moral decision – to pardon someone, or “let them off the hook.” Then we often struggle to sort out what happens internally after we make that “decision to forgive.”

A Different Way

I want to suggest a different approach. If you’re struggling to let go of some hurt, forget about forgiveness for now, and instead just focus on compassion.

Webster’s defines compassion as: “sympathetic consciousness of others’ distress together with a desire to alleviate it.” Compassion is what happens when we focus (ie. maintain consciousness) on the suffering that someone else has experienced. This awareness then allows us to be more sympathetic towards them.

The great thing about compassion is that it doesn’t ask us to make a decision or judgment about someone, in the way that forgiveness does. All it does is help us to view other people in a new way. You might think of it as a pair of glasses, or lenses, that you put on as you view someone. The lens of compassion allows you to see other people from the vantage point of their own suffering, not just your disappointment or hurt.

Relationships Where we Need Compassion

When I work with people in recovery — whether one-on-one or in groups — we often unearth great pain from past relationships. Many people struggle to honestly face the ways in which they have been wounded by parents or siblings. It somehow feels wrong to acknowledge that. Other people have no trouble acknowledging that pain … in fact they struggle with just the opposite: they can’t let go of it. They feel a burning resentment towards the family members who hurt them.

I also see this with marriages. Many addicts struggle at some level with feelings of resentment towards their spouse, which gets mixed in with feelings of guilt and shame for how they’ve hurt them. They struggle with this mixture of feelings, and have a hard time sorting out in our minds how they can love someone, yet hurt them so deeply, and also feel sad and angry about certain aspects of the relationship.

People also struggle to come to terms with the hurts done by other people: old lovers, business partners, fellow church members, ex-friends. They’re not sure how to relate to them, or if they’re really ready to forgive them.

An Invitation for You

I invite you to set aside questions about whether you’re ready or able to forgive these people. For now, just focus on compassion. Think about how they may have been hurt in the past. Some of the suffering in their lives may be known to you, some not. The important thing is to intentionally hold these people in your mind as fully human … trying to do their best, but not having the tools to be the best parents, spouses, or friends that they want to be.

Recognize that these people were quite likely scarred by disappointments and mistreatment in their lives. It doesn’t take them off the hook, but it does enable you to bear with their failures with a little more openness.

Compassion for Yourself

While we’re at it, there is one more person you need to demonstrate compassion to: yourself. We are usually our own worst critics. The loudest voices of condemnation we hear are usually the voices in our own heads … it’s the things we are telling ourselves.

Many of us are merciless on ourselves when we slip up. Maybe we struggle with feelings of deep shame because of how our addiction has hurt other people and damaged our lives.

Forget about forgiving yourself for now. Can you at least show yourself some compassion? Can you at least remind yourself that the choices you have made were often the result of misguided coping strategies? You did the things you did not because you’re an awful person, but because you were a wounded person, looking for love and validation.

So today, have some compassion: for others, and for yourself.


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9 thoughts on “The Key to Overcoming Hurts in Recovery … and Maybe it’s not Forgiveness”

  1. Mark, thanks so much for this article! The issue of forgiveness has been a sticky one for those of us in Recovery because it’s hard to forgive someone who has hurt you emotionally or physically. But if we can just get to understanding that that other person is also wounded and that is possibly an explanation for why they hurt us, it makes it so much more possible to feel compassion for them. I’m not sure some things can be forgiven, but we certainly can offer compassion—which is totally in our power—to others. I appreciate that you make this distinction. I will work on remembering this in my own life.

  2. Catherine,
    I appreciate your comment … thanks a lot! I don’t mention it in the article, but die-hard 12 Steppers will probably recognize that what I’m talking about here is actually written about in the Big Book of AA when it talks about Step Four. In the section where we’re encouraged to deal with our resentments (the word forgiveness is not used, but that’s essentially what the author is talking about), the process is suggested that amounts to what I’m advocating in this article: we let go of our resentments by systematically working out in our minds a new way of viewing the person we’ve been hurt by. When we remind ourselves of their human-ness, how they’ve probably been wounded in their past, etc., we can find a way to overcome our resentment towards them. In other words … we can move to forgiveness by way of intentional compassion. 🙂
    – Mark

  3. It’s a good article and can be applied to many life situations. However, I am finding that, for me, it is better to limit my contact with certain people who have hurt me. Especially ones who cannot admit that they have done me harm. I have before, and will continue to show compassion toward someone who has caused my heart deep sadness. I believe that when God looks at each one of us, he sees his son, Jesus. I can see and treat a person as a worthy human being and still not want to be all buddy-buddy with them. I feel sadness, not resentment toward them. Knowing that they will never reach out in true reconciliation toward me, I believe the best I can do for myself in this one instance, is to once again put lots of distance between myself and them. The way I see it, once you know your hand gets burned when you put it over a flame, you don’t keep holding it there. I know I have forgiven and do not hold resentment, but the pain is there and makes me sad. So I make every effort to surround myself with true friends. I hope my words can help some others.

    1. Irena,

      It’s a good point you bring up in your comment here … just like with forgiveness, so too with compassion it’s true that sometimes we still are prevented from being in relationship with who hurts us. Some people just are not safe people, and we have to deal with that. We can have compassion for them, but that doesn’t mean we will be reconciled with them, or that we will be friends. Surround yourself with true friends, as you say. Compassion helps with that too. Thanks for the comment.

      – Mark

      1. Thank you, Mark. I also wonder, if a person still is hurting, many years later from things done to them, should they be ashamed? I have to admit, I really do not feel ashamed of the pain. It is very real. I only feel ashamed to admit that it still hurts because people often say it means I have not healed from it at all, and that I have not forgiven the person who hurt me.

        1. Well I suppose it depends somewhat on the nature of the hurts. I would say that in general if someone is still attached to the pain of the past, it would be an issue of concern. It would be something to work on to let go of … probably with the help of a counselor. Some things are so egregious that we can never “get over” them, but at the same time we have to find some way of moving forward with our lives.

          1. I have actually had a lot of help from counselors with this matter. ALL have said that if I choose to be around that person, it needs to be resolved WITH that person. However, that person never wanted to hear my side of things. That person, along with 2 others, told me repeatedly, “Move forward!”, “What’s done is done!”, and the worst thing this one in particular said was, “You brought this on yourself!” Ironically, that person had been one I considered “safe” and I trusted her on a level I had not trusted many in my entire life. I risked a lot to open up to this person, who encouraged me to do so. What hurts now is seeing this person nodding along with truths about Christ and about recovery, when those same truths were disregarded back then. I continue to be nice to those who hurt me but I cannot get close to them again. If that makes me bad in any way, so be it. May God forgive me for hurting and may God forgive those who hurt others without first allowing them to explain what is really going on before taking extreme action. Christ died for this.

  4. Mark, I have been trying to delete my last post because I think I have made too many posts here. You are tired of me, no doubt! 😛 I am unable to find a way to delete it, so if you do not want to reply, it’s ok. I’m sorry! 🙁

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