man sitting outside in thinking pose, dealing with guilt in addiction recovery

man sitting outside in thinking pose, dealing with guilt in addiction recovery

Guilt, shame, and remorse are common experiences for people new to recovery. Life in active addiction can be fraught with poor choices, neglected responsibilities, and decisions that you would never make with a clear mind. These past decisions could keep you up at night overcome with guilt, but these emotions can be overcome. 

Are Shame and Guilt the Same Thing?

Guilt and shame in addiction recovery are two distinct reactions that can have dramatically different results. Guilt refers to feeling bad about specific behaviors, whereas shame refers to feeling bad about yourself. The same event could cause someone to feel either guilt or shame, but shame is a truly dangerous emotion.

Guilt is:

  • Adaptive
  • Accountable
  • Focused on others

In comparison, shame is:

  • Self-destructive
  • Self-centered
  • Associated with substance use and relapse

To give an example, imagine that you missed a day at work. A person who feels guilty about this might think “I feel terrible for not showing up. My coworkers probably had a hard time being down an employee for the day.” Yet if you feel ashamed, you may think “I’m such a failure, I can never make it to work. I don’t know why I even try.” Both emotions lead to negative feelings and could lead to substance use as a form of coping.

People who feel guilty for their actions are more likely to change their behavior in the future to avoid feeling bad again. They are also more likely to make amends with the people they’ve wronged in an attempt to forgive themselves. In contrast, people who feel shame are more likely to turn to substance use to cover their shame, don’t try and set things right, and get caught in a vicious downward cycle of shame and unwanted behavior.

What Roles Do Shame and Guilt Play in Addiction?

People who suffer from addiction experience more internalized shame and guilt than the population at large. This shame can be from early childhood experiences that predate substance use, or from adult experiences that people still carry with them. Those that turn to substance use to deal with shame can fall into a destructive spiral:

  • People use drugs or alcohol to cover their feelings of shame
  • They act out while intoxicated
  • They feel ashamed for their actions, or for using drugs in the first place
  • The cycle repeats indefinitely

In addition, the great social stigma against people with substance use disorders can contribute to feelings of shame. This stigma can prevent people from seeking addiction treatment, lead to denial about substance use problems, and poses a substantial barrier to recovery. 

Why You Experience Guilt and Shame in Addiction

The reason people feel guilt and shame is because they see themselves as good people, but know that they have hurt others, acted inappropriately, or embarrassed themselves in some way. After achieving abstinence, you may still have lingering shame and guilt from the actions you took during your addiction, the trauma you experienced, or the events you missed. Addiction can lead people to behave in ways they never would while sober and facing these actions with a clear mind can lead people to regret and embarrassment.

Why Shame Is Dangerous in Recovery

More than guilt, shame is the true danger in addiction recovery. Guilt has been described as a “failure of doing”, whereas shame is a “failure of being”. Things that we’ve done are more easily overcome – we can do better, make reparations, and accept that we aren’t perfect. But feelings of shame can seem more permanent and personal and can be much harder to break. 

Feeling shame for our actions can quickly lead to returning to substance use – and the severity of shame is directly linked to the severity of relapse. Shame can be overcome, but some people will need the help of a trusted mentor or mental health professional to be able to break free of its grip.

How to Deal with the Guilt in Addiction Recovery

Guilt in addiction recovery is not necessarily a bad thing. If you look back at your past and feel remorse for the things you’ve done, that is a sign of growth. You are no longer that person, and you can make better choices in the future. 

Dealing with shame is essentially the process of turning shame into guilt, then working to do better in the future. It requires accepting the past exactly the way it is, without judgment, then learning to forgive yourself for your previous actions.

There are a few strategies that work remarkably well for overcoming guilt and shame in addiction recovery:

Therapy

Seeking a therapist is an excellent way to learn how to deal with the guilt in addiction, as they can provide an outside perspective free from judgment. Individual therapy or group therapy can help you to learn to accept the past and work towards doing better in the future.

Giving back to others

 If you want to regain your self-esteem, the best path is to do estimable acts. Just as guilt and shame come from seeing yourself do actions that conflict with your character, doing good works for others will conflict with your feelings of shame and guilt. Try volunteering your time at a cause that you’re passionate about, helping other people trying to break free from addiction, or simply being available when people need help.

Make amends

Going to the people you’ve harmed and trying to set things right can lift a huge weight off your shoulders. Making amends is about more than just apologizing – it’s an honest effort to fix the damage you’ve caused and take personal accountability for your actions.

Know When to Seek Help

If guilt and shame are guiding you towards relapse, or have already pushed you over the edge, seeking help at an addiction treatment center can help you regain your footing. ELEVATE Wellness Center in Pasadena, California can help you to overcome the intense emotions brought about by substance use disorders and teach you how to manage these feelings in the future. Contact our professional addiction treatment team at 855-778-8668 to get started with a holistic addiction treatment program and begin the path to long-term recovery today.