“Resentment is the “number one” offender. It destroys more alcoholics than anything else… In dealing with resentments, we set them on paper. We listed people, institutions or principles with whom we were angry… The first thing apparent was that this world and its people were often quite wrong. To conclude that others were wrong was as far as most of us ever got. The usual outcome was that people continued to wrong us and we stayed sore. Sometimes it was remorse and then we were sore at ourselves. But the more we fought and tried to have our own way, the worse matters got…It is plain that a life which includes deep resentment leads only to futility and unhappiness…If we were to live, we had to be free of anger. The grouch and the brainstorm were not for us. They may be the dubious luxury of normal men, but for alcoholics these things are poison…We saw that these resentments must be mastered, but how?… (1)”
Later, p.77, it suggests “a helpful and forgiving spirit.”
In the 12 Steps and 12 Traditions, p.78, in reference to step 8 it suggests “why shouldn’t we start out by forgiving them, one and all?
These truncated passages from the Big Book (1) and the 12 and 12 (3) illustrates how resentments cause relapse and that they need to by treated with the antidote of forgiveness.
We suggest also that the myriad of resentments which swirl around our minds in early recovery are also negative emotions unprocessed and thus unregulated from the past. They continually haunt us because we have not put them “to bed” in long term memory.
We have not dealt with them, by clearly identifying, labelling, sharing via verbalising them with others and then by letting go of them via forgiveness. “Letting go” is another emotional regulatory strategy that healthy people use.
Instead of constantly holding on to memories and incidents from the past, endlessly ruminating on them we maturely face up to them and consign them to the past.
We were thus interested in a study which was not using 12 step recovery but which came to the same conclusion but via another route (2).
“Anger and related emotions have been identified as triggers in substance use. Forgiveness therapy (FT) targets anger, anxiety, and depression as foci of treatment. Fourteen patients with substance dependence from a local residential treatment facility were randomly assigned to and completed either 12 approximately twice-weekly sessions of individual FT or 12 approximately twice-weekly sessions of an alternative individual treatment based. Participants who completed FT had significantly more improvement in total and trait anger, depression, total and trait anxiety, self-esteem, forgiveness, and vulnerability to drug use than did the alternative treatment group. Most benefits of FT remained significant at 4-month follow-up.
The levels of anger and violence observed among alcohol and other substance abusers are far higher than the levels found in the general population.
Alcohol and other substance abusers administered the State-Trait Anger Expression Inventory typically have been shown to have higher state and trait anger, to be more likely to express anger to others, and to have less control of their anger.
Reducing levels of anger and its related emotions is now seen as an important feature of recovery programs. For example, according to the Project Match 12-step facilitation therapy manual, “Anger and resentment are pivotal emotions for most recovering alcoholics. Anger that evokes anxiety drives the alcoholic to drink in order to anesthetize it. Resentment, which comes from unexpressed (denied) anger, represents a constant threat to sobriety for the same reason” (Nowinski, Baker, & Carroll, 1999, p. 83).
Marlatt (1985) emphasized the importance of anger and frustration as triggers for relapse in both the intrapersonal and interpersonal domains. He noted that 29% of relapses are related to intrapersonal frustration and anger and that 16% are related to interpersonal conflict and associated anger and frustration.
Litt, Cooney, and Morse (2000) reported that those alcoholics who had urges to use after treatment had higher degrees of alcohol dependence, anxiety, and trait anger than those without such urges.
Forgiveness is an important way to resolve anger and restore hope (Enright & Fitzgibbons, 2000). In helping clients move toward forgiveness, it is essential to differentiate forgiving from condoning, pardoning, reconciling, or forgetting.
Forgiveness is a personal decision to give up resentment and to respond with beneficence toward the person responsible for a severe injustice that caused deep, lasting hurt. FT helps the wronged person examine the injustice, consider forgiveness as an option, make a decision to forgive or not, and learn the skills to forgive.
Findings – Our clients came to the program with trait anxiety and trait anger scores substantially above the published norms for adults; after treatment, however, FT participants exhibited scores comparable to the average. In other words, the treatment did not lead simply to a change in anxiety and anger (particularly the reportedly more stable trait anxiety) but to a change toward normal profiles. In contrast, patients in the alternative treatment condition had anxiety scores well above average, especially in terms of trait anxiety, which showed little change at post test and only minimal improvement at follow-up.
FT did not focus on drug vulnerabilities, whereas the alternative treatment did. Urges to use substances are not necessary for relapse, they are important indicators.
FT treatment is centered more on clients’ thoughts, feelings, and behaviors about someone other than themselves: an offender who hurt them deeply and unfairly. In FT, a potential reason for substance use is examined, that of avoiding painful memories of betrayal, violence, or abuse. When patients are allowed to heal, their motivation to abuse substances may be substantially reduced…(it) is worth considering as a way to address core issues of emotional pain.
This can lead to a reduction in negative emotions and increases in self-esteem and forgiveness… it moves to the heart of the matter for some clients. Deep hurts borne out of unfair treatment seem to play a part in substance use and abuse. Even when clients have many people to forgive…we find that they seem to know which person is most crucial to forgive first before moving to other offenders. Substance use, from this perspective, is a symptom of underlying resentments and related emotional disruptions.
If we fail to realize this, we may end up treating only symptoms rather than underlying causes. ”
This process seems practically the same as the inventory of Step 4 and the forgiveness implicit to steps 8 and 9. This study also highlights that we through forgiveness we actually tackle the underlying condition of emotional dysregulation. It is this emotion dysregulation (or spiritual disease) which appears to drive addiction so needs to be fundamentally addressed. By addressing these issues via the steps especially step 4 we begin to see how it works!
It was interesting that forgiveness led to higher self esteem, as if being tied to the past was akin to being tied to a former negative self schema, that people from our pained past did actually have the power to control us! Especially how we feel about ourselves. We change how we feel about ourselves and our past by simply forgiving, it is such a powerful tool in recovery.
Importantly by viewing studies like this (2) we get beyond negative views of 12 step recovery to show that the recovery program’s effectiveness is clearly highlighted by the success of other psychological treatments getting the same positive results by using exactly the same strategies.
12 step groups provide a battery of the most profoundly effective psychological therapies for addiction ever contained within one treatment philosophy.
Don’t we all need to re-appraise how we see 12 step recovery?
Can’t we all benefit from stepping to one side and looking via a different angle to see why 12 step recovery is effective?
1. Alcoholics Anonymous. (2001). Alcoholics Anonymous, 4th Edition. New York: A.A. World Services.
2. Lin, W. F., Mack, D., Enright, R. D., Krahn, D., & Baskin, T. W. (2004). Effects of forgiveness therapy on anger, mood, and vulnerability to substance use among inpatient substance-dependent clients. Journal of consulting and clinical psychology, 72(6), 1114.
3. Twelve steps and twelve traditions. (1989). New York, NY: Alcoholics Anonymous World Services