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Guilt, Shame and Self-Blame in Addiction Recovery

Why is it that we feel those awful feelings of guilt, shame and self-blame in the months and years after stopping the use of drugs and alcohol? When one makes the decision to “clean up” and get sober, it is a good decision.

If anything, we should feel happier, and feel like what we are doing – by getting sober – is the right thing to do. Yet still, so many struggle with the feelings of guilt in recovery, and often it hampers a full mental recovery because we feel so tied down by these negative feelings.

Is Feeling Guilty Part of Addiction Recovery?

In early addiction recovery, you are going to feel a wide range of emotions in varying intensities. Often called “a roller coaster of emotions,” the feeling you get in the first weeks and months of recovery from addiction can make you feel like an emotional mess.

These are feelings that every human being experiences whether drunk, high or sober:

  • Anger
  • Sadness
  • Loneliness
  • Fear
  • Guilt
  • Shame
  • Elation
  • Joy
  • Disgust
  • Pity
  • Envy
  • Love
  • Hate
  • Indignation
  • Compassion
  • Empathy

These are the feelings that make you a living, breathing, feeling person. All humans express these feelings and emotions at varying levels throughout their lives.

It is no secret that drugs and alcohol alter the natural feelings and emotions in the body. This effect may even be one of the reasons someone starts using drugs or drinking…to feel more or feel less.

Feelings and Emotions While Using Drugs and Alcohol

What we perceive as feelings and emotions are really just chemicals in our bodies and brains. The emotions and feelings that we feel are simply a certain balance of chemicals, chemical receptors and neurotransmitters.

Drugs, alcohol and other chemicals can change the balance of the chemicals in our bodies and brains, and this is a reason why so many use chemicals like drugs and alcohol: to gain a desired emotional effect. Euphoria is often the main desired effect from drugs and alcohol – meaning that we tend to use drugs and alcohol to gain a higher level of the chemicals that cause positive feelings like joy, elation, empathy or compassion.

When the elevated level of chemicals starts to decline, the positive balance dips and often dips low enough to cause negative emotions, or our perception of our emotions turn negative. This is why almost all drugs and alcohol will have a “crash” period after the initial peak.

MDMA (Ecstasy/Molly) and Emotional-Chemical Balance

Love the Addict Hate the Addiction Quote - Reflections Recovery Center

The drug MDMA, also known as ecstasy or Molly, provides an extreme example of this effect. Serotonin and other “positive” chemicals flood the brain with MDMA use, making people on the drug feel extreme poles of positive emotions.

Ecstasy users will say that the drug makes them feel happier than they have ever felt, more elated than ever, and more compassionate and empathetic than ever experienced before. These extreme feelings can be connected to the high amount of “feel-good” chemicals in the brain that are released in response to the chemical MDMA.

MDMA is also known for having an extreme crash period after the drug wears off, with many feeling “lower” than ever before afterward for days or weeks.

Alcohol and Emotional-Chemical Balance

Alcohol shows us another great example of this effect. Alcohol changes the chemical balance in the brain, and lowers inhibitions. It tends to numb us to the negative feelings of guilt, shame and fear – temporarily.

Again, the body needs to keep the balance of positive and negative feelings, as well as the chemicals attributed to them. Thus, after alcohol causes a swing in one direction, the balance will swing the other way – leading to many people feeling increased guilt, shame and fear when the alcohol wears off (usually next day).

Feelings and Emotions After Stopping the Use of Drugs and Alcohol

After stopping the use of drugs and alcohol, the body will attempt to re-balance itself chemically. In essence, this means that the body and brain will increase or decrease a number of chemicals that cause positive and negative feelings.

The change upward and downward may not be perfect, as the body is trying to find the perfect balance again. These minor fluctuations could be reflected in a person and cause them to be “a bit moody.”

With greater fluctuations, the range of the changes in mood increase. When the fluctuations are great enough, it can move beyond simple changes in mood and into severe variations in mood and emotion. Such great changes can mirror the symptoms of bipolar disorder (where the body permanently has trouble balancing).

Emotional Symptoms of Acute Drug and Alcohol Withdrawal

Some of the greatest fluctuations in the balancing of chemicals that affect mood in the body are seen during the acute withdrawal phase. This is within the first 24 hours to seven days of stopping the use of drugs and alcohol, but the time frame varies depending on the type of drug and how long the drug or alcohol abuse happened.

During the initial acute withdrawal, the balance of chemicals is going to be wildly low, high or have extreme fluctuations. In this stage, the fluctuations may be so severe that they can be life-threatening – as is the case with withdrawal from alcohol, benzodiazepines and other types of drugs.

During this time, a person may feel the highs and lows of many emotions, including guilt, shame, anger, fear and the entire spectrum. However, because of all that is going on throughout the detox period – mentally and physically – the guilt and shame feelings tend to take a backseat to nausea, anxiety and more serious symptoms.

Often, it is not within the first few days or weeks that guilt, shame and self-blame really start to make an impression in the mind of the recovering addict. Rather, this tends to happen in the first six to 12 months of early recovery.

Feeling Guilty, Ashamed and Blaming Yourself Within the First Year of Sobriety

Within the first year of sobriety, well after the acute withdrawal symptoms have begun to subside, it is common to experience a “honeymoon period.” Also called the “pink cloud,” this phase is marked by a newly sober individual feeling incredibly good – so good that he or she might actually feel “high.” This is caused by the body and brain once again trying to find balance and going a little overboard, releasing numerous feel-good chemicals that cause a pleasurable feeling.

Some feelings of guilt or shame may be felt during this time, but the overall outlook during the honeymoon period remains positive, and the individual feels good and has a positive outlook on his or her sobriety. However, this is not a level that the body can sustain for long, and eventually the balance will be set lower.

Feeling Guilty for No Reason While Sober

It can be incredibly difficult for newly sober people to understand what is happening to them when they start to feel shameful or guilty in recovery. This onset of negative emotions may even trigger other negative emotions such as fear. When this happens, it is important for the individual to understand that this is just another round of the re-balancing of chemicals and emotions, and that it won’t last forever.

Help from support groups or an addiction counselor can be beneficial during this time, at least to get the emotions out and have someone to talk to until the balance flips back the other way.

Past Actions and Feelings Causing Self-Blame When Sober

When feelings of self-blame, guilt or shame are spurred by more than just a natural recovery fluctuation in the mind and body, these feelings can be more intense and grow into other negative emotions. Sometimes, our own actions in life or things we did while drunk or high can cause negative feelings in recovery.

Sometimes – even though we are healing and growing as a person and making good strides in recovery – we can feel very negative about ourselves. To address these feelings, it is especially important to have the help and guidance of an addiction counselor as well as support from a group of peers, family and friends.

How to Let Go of Shame in Recovery

When negative emotions like shame get you down in recovery, you have to recognize this as a pivotal point in your recovery and sobriety. This is the point that makes or breaks many people in recovery and can determine if you are to remain sober or if you are pushed toward relapse.

The most important things you can do at this point are to:

  • Let go of the shame
  • Realized you are not to blame
  • Reject guilt

Achieving this is easier said than done; we will be the first to admit this. We could list a multitude of practices to try and achieve this, such as 1) remind yourself of the good things you have achieved in recovery, 2) concentrate on the positives, 3) focus on your good qualities…however, overcoming certain feelings in a person with a wide spectrum of emotions and experiences does not have a one-size-fits-all answer.

Each individual is different, and finding what helps you let go of the shame and guilt has to be done individually. The one thing we can say for certain is that every individual does have the power within them to overcome these negative emotions. You just have to figure out how to swing your emotions back to the positive side – without using artificial stimuli like drugs or alcohol.

Again, we want to stress the benefits that support from others can yield in this process. Talk to a trusted friend or family member at the very least, but ongoing support from an addiction counselor or group is often the best way to start to tip the balance back to the positive side of things.

Continue Practicing Relapse Prevention

Sobriety has its ups and downs, but what so many recovering substance abusers find out for themselves in recovery is that what they were really searching for in drugs and alcohol was control over their emotions and control over the positives and negatives in their lives. While drugs and alcohol cannot offer you this control, you can take charge of your happiness and the positives and negatives in your life with sobriety.

Read Our Relapse Prevention Tip Sheet