When people enter addiction recovery, they often come face to face with feelings and memories they were using substances to avoid. And because addiction is a disease in which the substance/s hijack the brain, people in active addiction can find themselves doing some pretty shady things. They may lie to, manipulate, use, or gaslight others, including those they love the most. They may steal; they may become verbally or physically abusive when drunk or high; they may neglect their children.
A lot to feel guilty about, right? Maybe even some good reasons for chronic shame, right? After all, how can you ever make up for behavior that was that bad?
Well, believe it or not, people suffering from addiction aren’t the only people who behave badly, and there are ways to address guilt without letting it lead to a debilitating sense of shame. Worse, both guilt and shame can lead to relapse, undermining your ability to get your life back and feel hopeful again.
Let’s start with some definitions…
What is Guilt? What is Shame? How are They Different?
According to Psych Central, guilt is “the emotional response that accompanies feeling responsible for a negative outcome.” When we do something, directly or indirectly, that we perceive causes harm to someone, we feel guilty. In some ways, guilt is a positive sign–it shows that you understand the hurt caused by your actions and are sorry for it.
The APA (American Psychological Association) defines shame as “a highly unpleasant self-conscious emotion arising from the sense of there being something dishonorable, immodest, or indecorous in one’s own conduct or circumstances.” In other words, shame isn’t necessarily connected to a behavior that caused harm. Instead, it’s a conviction that something about your behavior or yourself as a person is wrong.
Let’s look at how each might come into play in addiction. Someone who is in addiction recovery might feel guilty about how they used to lie to their mother about why they needed to borrow money from her. At the same time, they may also feel ashamed of themselves for becoming addicted in the first place and being prone to addictive behaviors.
Are Guilt & Shame Harmful?
It can be argued that guilt is a helpful emotion if it leads you to correct the wrongs you have caused. If you stole from your friends when you were in active addiction, you can address that guilt by admitting to them what you did, paying them back, and asking for their forgiveness. This, in fact, is step 9 of the 12-step process of recovery advocated by Alcoholics Anonymous (AA): “Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.”
The problem with guilt arises when a person is unable to let it go. Guilt, at its best, is a short-term emotion that prompts us to address the ways we’ve hurt other people. But sometimes we can get stuck in a pattern of guilt. Even after we do what we can to make amends, we still carry the guilt. Or, we begin to believe that we are hurting others when we say “no” to a request or set a boundary or behave in ways that are true to who we are but that might “offend” someone.
In these cases, guilt erodes self-esteem, keeps us from experiencing joy and healing, and becomes a trigger for relapse.
Guilt like this is often a close relative of shame. Shame is never a helpful emotion and never leads to healing. Maybe your struggles with addiction make you think you’re wrong or bad, and maybe underlying the addiction are other shameful feelings that you are “too much” of this or “not enough” of that. The negative thoughts and feelings of worthlessness generated by shame can quickly become toxic, leading to relapse, mental health disorders, and even self-harm or suicide.
How Do You Recover from Shame?
When you’re stuck in cycles of guilt or shame, the best thing you can do is seek professional guidance. A therapist can work with you to trace the roots of your feelings of guilt and shame. They can give you perspective on when your guilt is warranted and when it isn’t. They can help you make plans to face the guilt and do what you can to resolve it, and they can help you develop the self-compassion to combat feelings of shame.
In addition to therapy, certain self-nurturing practices can help to build a stronger sense of self-worth. A family counseling website recommends the following ways to combat shame in your life:
- Embrace your mistakes
Yes, you struggled with addiction; yes, it derailed your life and your relationships in many ways; no, you can’t get those years (or months or weeks) of your life back. But at the same time, the addiction experience is part of your life trajectory. What can you learn from it? How can the recovery process open new doors for you? How can embracing who you are, mistakes and all, help you become more generous and kind to others?
- Notice and counteract negative self-talk
Start to pay attention to the thoughts you have about yourself. When you forget to buy something at the grocery store, do you mentally call yourself an idiot? When someone in your life can’t seem to forgive you for how you treated them when you were addicted, no matter what you do to make amends, do you tell yourself you’re not worth forgiving?
The more you notice negative thoughts like these, the more you can start to replace them with more realistic assessments. Oops, you forgot to buy carrots. No matter–you’ll figure out how to improvise. You’ve done your best to make amends to your loved one; all you can do now is let them have the emotions they’re having. It’s sad, but you’ll choose to focus on the people who support you and enjoy your friendship.
- Talk about your feelings of shame with a therapist or mentor
Know that you’re not alone. Many people struggle with shame, and there’s a way to move beyond it. It will take patience and time, but with help from others, you’ll be able to, bit by bit, feel more compassion for yourself. You’ll be able, eventually, to be your own good friend.
If you’re struggling with shame, guilt, or any other emotions that you fear will lead to relapse, reach out to St. Gregory Recovery Center. We know the power of addiction and how your thoughts can be your own worst relapse trigger. Our compassionate team in Iowa can help.