Guilt can tear you up inside. It is a demon that some people fight for the rest of their lives.
Guilt will creep up in your life, wrapping around and strangling you, leaving you drained and crippled emotionally.
For those fighting addiction, guilt is just another layer on top of a struggle that is big enough on its own.
Appropriate and Inappropriate Guilt
It’s normal and appropriate to feel guilt when you have done something wrong. If you have harmed someone, done something that violates your personal moral or religious values, or have done something you swore you’d never do again, guilt is the appropriate response.
In fact, if you didn’t feel guilty for wrongdoings, it would be a sign of psychopathy. Antisocial personality disorder is characterized by no guilt or remorse for bad behavior.
Antisocial Personality Disorder:
A mental condition in which a person consistently violates and exploits other people’s feelings and rights, shows no regard for right and wrong conduct and has no remorse or guilt for wrong actions.
Guilt is not necessarily a destructive emotion when experienced for the right reasons; however, when it becomes an all-consuming emotion, it will impede your healing and recovery from addiction.
It’s a Shame
Shame can be just as debilitating as guilt. Shame is a powerful feeling that often arises from guilt. However, it can be experienced independent of guilt. If someone bullies you or pressures you into feeling inferior because of what you did or what someone else did, that is shaming.
If you have an external locus of control — you blame outside forces for the events of your life — you will take to heart what others tell you about yourself and can easily be guilted or shamed.
Shame can produce numerous negative feelings in a person. Here are a few examples of what someone dealing with shame might feel:
Feeling ashamed is not helpful in recovery, since it can hold a person back in achieving happiness and personal growth. Any focus on negative thinking about yourself reduces self-esteem and inhibits positive change.
Shame and Guilt in Addiction Recovery
Nearly everyone that enters rehab believes they won’t have to worry about encountering these feelings of shame, guilt and remorse. However, during detox and the initial phases of treatment, it is very common to suddenly experience an onset of these emotions.
Much like depression and anxiety, guilt and shame seem to come out of nowhere and are two of the biggest psychological symptoms of withdrawal an individual will face during the first six months of recovery.
Self-Punishment Inhibits Recovery
Instead of motivating you to change and be a healthier person, dwelling on the self-tormenting emotions of addiction shame and guilt propel you into a pattern of negative thinking. Living in those feelings of worthlessness causes depression, which can cause relapse.
Oftentimes, negative feelings make people want to turn to drugs or alcohol. Feeling bad about yourself and struggling with depression and anxiety are common triggers for starting or relapsing into an addiction.
Punishing yourself by focusing on the mistakes you’ve made or the negative beliefs someone else has about you only hurts you. It does no good for anyone else, even someone you know you’ve hurt.
Overcoming Feelings of Guilt and Shame
Addiction shame and guilt occur in nearly every single case of substance abuse and alcoholism. As people enter rehab and become and remain sober and clean, they realize the damage they’ve done to themselves and their loved ones. It’s natural for this process to bring up negative feelings.
The key to overcoming this darkness is to learn new addiction coping skills and be able to work through your feelings, creating something positive instead.
Behavioral Therapy in Addiction Treatment
A set of psychotherapies using techniques based on behaviorism, the belief that all behaviors are learned and can be changed.
The behavior therapies used at Reflections Recovery Center can help men struggling with negative feelings like guilt and shame. The foundation of behavioral therapy is to eradicate irrational thinking and replace it with rational thinking.
When a client at Reflections Recovery Center can open up to a trusted counselor and find camaraderie with his peers, who have an intimate understanding of what he’s going through, great relief and healing occurs.
The amazing therapeutic work in drug and alcohol addiction treatment addresses the negative feelings of guilt and shame, and it helps individuals understand their feelings and let go of resentments so true recovery can begin.
Here are just a few behavioral points on how to cope with shame and guilt when you’re dealing with addiction and trauma:
One roadblock that keeps us holding onto shame is a lack of forgiveness. When we cannot forgive ourselves and others, we fixate on the pain and judgment instead of releasing ourselves and our loved ones from the merciless grip of guilt.
When you forgive someone, you let the pain of his or her wrongdoings go. It doesn’t mean you condone their behavior. It does mean you are willing to let their mistakes go because you don’t want that hurt to eat you up inside.
Forgiving the people in your life that have wronged you helps you heal. Perhaps you need to make amends for things you’ve done wrong to them as well; and, if so, making amends can be cathartic.
But maybe the pain you hold onto can’t be healed by amends because that person is no longer with us or because re-establishing a relationship with them would be more destructive to your life. In those cases, writing a letter you may or may not send can aid in forgiveness.
People in recovery often confess that forgiving themselves is harder than forgiving someone else. Oftentimes, we are our worst critics. So, being able to treat ourselves kindly and compassionately can be just as much of a virtue as forgiving other people.
Progressing into Self-Worth
The opposite of shame is self-worth. Valuing, believing in and loving yourself comprise a healthy self-image and increase your self-esteem.
These are some qualities of high self-worth:
- Inherent sense of value as a person
- Independence from external approval
Feeling proud of and appreciating yourself increases well-being. There will always be people who will judge and criticize you, and there will be people to praise and encourage you. But learning to see yourself realistically, knowing your own strengths and weaknesses, and being proud of the traits you possess bring you to your own sense of self-worth.
Don’t let shame or guilt hold you back from getting the tools you need to recover. You need healthy addiction coping mechanisms to help you work through emotional issues like guilt, remorse and shame for a successful recovery.
“Each new day is an opportunity to start all over again…
to cleanse our minds and hearts anew and to clarify our vision.
And let us not clutter up today with the leavings of other days.”
– Author unknown, compiled by Jo Petty