Whether a person is actively living in recovery, has yet to attempt sobriety or has been sober and recently relapsed, battling the disease of addiction comes with a lot of emotional baggage, most notably guilt and shame.
When dealing with guilt vs. shame, it’s important to address these feelings head on so they have less power to negatively affect the choice to stay as healthy as possible.
What’s the Difference Between Guilt and Shame?
Although they are very similar to each other, there is a distinct difference between guilt and shame.
Guilt is an internal struggle about having done something wrong or failed in an obligation to oneself or someone else.
Shame, guilt’s neighbor, is feeling like a bad person, particularly when poor choices or bad behavior is out in the open for everyone to see and judge.
What’s important to remember is that these are completely normal feelings in reaction to a complex, chronic disease. The best route forward is to learn what aspects of these feelings are useful and which ones are better left behind.
6 Ways to Overcome the Guilt and Shame of Addiction
1. Embrace Your Self-Worth
Unbridled shame and guilt are destructive and have almost no upside. We won’t ever be able to change the past, but we can accept responsibility for our actions, learn from our mistakes and focus our energy into living a more productive, healthier lifestyle.
Part of embracing self-worth is self-care and it’s critical we all take care of ourselves so we can be of value to others too.
A good way to improve self-worth is to keep promises, not only to ourselves, but to others too. It’s much easier to hold our head high when we know our word has meaning and value, than when we can’t be trusted to do as we say we will.
2. Cultivate Positive Relationships
It’s hard enough being nice to ourselves, much less spending time with a person who’s constantly re-litigating our past choices.
Spending time with people who love us unconditionally, who may have dealt with similar experiences and can identify with us, is key in letting go of guilt and shame.
These might be family members, long time friends or other people working to stay sober and live a life in recovery.
For those who find it difficult to relate to people, dogs and other pets are tremendously good at unconditional love and might be a good place to start. They’re excellent for improving mental health too.
3. Work at Staying in the Present
Constantly thinking about past mistakes, big or small, only worsens the negative emotions of guilt and shame. Left unchecked, it can increase levels of depression.
If you are depressed you are living in the past.
If you are anxious you are living in the future.
If you are at peace you are living in the present.
This has been attributed to Lao Tzu many times online, although the true origins are actually unknown. This concept has much merit and encourages us to focus on the present to be at peace with ourselves and to keep depression and anxiety at bay.
Remember, each new day is an opportunity to accomplish the tasks right in front of us. Even if that task before us is accepting the consequence of a past mistake, we are that much closer to forgiveness.
Meditation is a powerful tool for learning to stay in the present and lessen the feelings of guilt and shame.
The basis of meditation is focusing on an anchor point, such as breathing, and keeping the breath at the center of attention.
It is difficult to do for beginners for even 10 or 20 breaths, as the mind naturally wanders for all of us. But over time with practice, it becomes easier to do and will help teach ways to avoid the feelings of guilt or shame.
Devoting just a few minutes each day, as simple as it is, helps regulate our emotions and focus our attention on positivity and productivity.
5. Turn Guilt Into Motivation
There’s no sense fanning the flames of guilt, so address whatever is making you feel guilty head on. This might be as simple as apologizing for hurting someone.
It may also be admitting to a relapse, or it can be finally admitting that there is an actual problem when it comes to addiction issues.
Facing the situations that make us feel guilty usually go a long way in helping us feel less shame as a result.
6. Seek Professional Help if Necessary
Guilt and shame run deep, especially when these emotions are from past trauma, such as domestic violence, sexual abuse, survivor’s guilt or other issues of post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD).
Often, people dealing with depression, anxiety or other mental health issues depend on drugs and alcohol to cope with these feelings, what’s known as a dual diagnosis.
Through addiction treatment and counseling, many people are able to overcome the underlying causes of their guilt and shame and go on to a full recovery.
Guilt and Shame are Not Just Reactions to Addiction
Many of us feel guilt and shame for reasons other than addiction. We feel guilty about not doing homework, the growing inbox at work we’ve been putting off, or not spending enough quality time with family and friends.
It’s human nature to have these feelings when we have done something we perceive as being wrong. But by following some of the tips provided above, we can move past the negative thoughts and feelings to a more positive place.
Embracing self-worth, cultivating relationships, meditating, and staying focused on the present are easy enough to do for everyone, and they contribute to increasing happiness and well-being. And being happy beats worrying every day of the week and twice on weekends.