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You have no doubt heard the terms that people use to describe people who are struggling with an addiction. Crackhead. Junkie. Drunk. These words are meant to be scornful and show contempt. They’re throwbacks to a time when the understanding of substance use was very limited compared to today. A lot of people thought that addiction was a failure of morals and should be a cause for shame. Many still do.
The general public tends to brand behaviors that are viewed as different and less desirable than what is considered acceptable. The prejudice relating to substance use and mental health problems causes obstacles to getting care and support for people and their families.
What Are Guilt and Shame in Addiction?
Guilt is a “right or wrong” judgment about your behavior. However, shame is a feeling about yourself. Guilt makes you want to correct or repair the mistake. In contrast, shame is an intense feeling of inferiority, or self-hate in which you just want to hide or disappear. Around other people, you feel humiliated, as if all your flaws are being exposed. The worst part is the feeling of separation from yourself and other people.
Shame can be a destructive force in addiction recovery; there’s no doubt about that. Guilt and shame are connected in a complicated way, even though they are different. Shame is usually pushed upon a person suffering from addiction by an outside party, while guilt is a self-directed type of shame. The key is that shame usually brings about guilt and guilt can bring about shame.
Of course, guilt and shame occur together to some extent. Guilt can trigger a sense of shame in many people because of the difference between the way they want to behave and the behavior that caused the guilt. The connection gets stronger when the behavior was intentional, there were a lot of witnesses, and the people involved were important to you.
Chronic Shame in Addiction
Because of public discrimination, substance use disorders (SUDs) are typically associated with feelings of shame. Eventually, the addict may come to believe it as the truth in their own mind. The name-calling and blame place a sense of shame for individuals struggling with addiction. And it is all because of a disease that has taken control of them physically and psychologically.
Shame brings on unconscious beliefs, such as:
I’m a failure
I’m not important
I’m not lovable
I don’t deserve happiness
I’m a bad person
I’m a phony
For most people, shame passes, the same as any emotion. But for addicts, it sticks around, often just beneath consciousness. Then it leads to other painful feelings and problem behaviors. You feel ashamed of who you are and don’t believe you deserve love, respect, success, or happiness.
A never-ending feeling of unworthiness and inferiority can cause depression, hopelessness, and despair until you feel disconnected from life and everyone else. The use of alcohol and drugs is commonly a form of self-medication for depression. And like a vicious cycle, the use of alcohol and drugs creates more feelings of shame. This cycle can only be stopped by a powerful intervention.
Guilt is the uncomfortable feeling you have when you’ve done something wrong, whether it’s real or imagined–
Guilt is based on a failure of doing something (usually a result of your behaviors and choices)
Guilt is associated with a violation of standards
Oddly enough, guilt can be positive and at times, necessary—
Guilt can motivate you to make positive changes. In other words, when you do something that makes you feel guilty, those feelings can move you to change your behavior, so you don’t make the same negative choices.
Guilt is based on values, morals, and standards which are all necessary and important in guiding behavior in a positive direction.
Guilt in Recovery
Individuals recovering from SUD typically experience a wide range of emotions, especially during the first few months to a year after treatment. Leading among the emotions is guilt. Struggling with our past actions can be an unpleasant and humbling experience. When you think back about all the people you may have wronged while using drugs or alcohol, you may feel there’s no way to make up for that.
It’s normal to have negative feelings about your behavior while you were actively using substances, but you need to learn to process the guilt and regret if you’re going to move on in your recovery. If you continue to relive the negative actions of your past, it will be only a matter of time before you start self-medicating. It can lead to long-term depression, just like shame, and permanently harm the way you see yourself and relate to others.
Guilt is a common part of recovery. However, so is moving past the guilt and doing what you have to do to preserve your abstinence. The more open you are with your feelings and what you’re experiencing, the more roads you can take to fix the problem.
Can You Heal Shame and Guilt in Addiction Treatment?
Healing shame requires a safe environment. You need a place where you can be vulnerable, express yourself, and be accepted. Then, you’ll be able to personalize this new experience and begin to change your beliefs about yourself.
You might need to reexamine shame-causing events or past messages and re-evaluate them from your new viewpoint. It usually takes an empathetic therapist or counselor to create that space so you can get through the temporary feelings of self-hate and shame. As a result, your therapist can help you reflect on the events until the feelings disappear.
After you’re in recovery, it’s important to learn how to deal with guilt in a positive way. This will enable you to throw out the negative emotions that will push you back into addiction. To do this, you need to be able to tell the difference between good guilt and bad guilt. The remorse that pushes you to a positive development in your life is good guilt. On the other hand, allowing the past to weigh you down and take away your self-esteem is a bad type of guilt. This is the type of guilt that brings about emotions that addiction feeds off of.
.9 Suggestions for How to Cope with Feelings of Guilt
Face the feelings of guilt. Release feelings of guilt by talking about them and getting honest.
Learn to forgive yourself. Are you judging yourself too harshly?
Examine where your guilt comes from. Is the reason that you feel guilt rational and reasonable? Inappropriate or unreasonable guilt involves feeling guilty about something that in reality, you had little or nothing to do with.
Change the bothersome behavior to end the action or actions that trigger the feelings of guilt. Simply put: If something you’re doing is causing you to feel guilty, then stop doing it and you’ll no longer have a reason to feel guilty any longer.
Define new values for yourself and take real action now instead of dwelling on the past. Think about positive action you can take in your life to feel better. What can you do to improve things as you move forward?
Practice forgiving others, helping others, and doing good for others. Learning to forgive others can help you to learn to forgive yourself.
Apologize or just seek peace. There is usually something you can say or do to try to show that you are willing to make peace where there has been hurt, conflict, or disagreement?
Letting It Go
Let it go — Even if there are things you have done to hurt others, if you are sorry now, you need to let them go. Or, if you’re truly sorry over something you have done wrong in the past and you tried to make peace or amends, you can still forgive yourself. Even when others do not forgive you. On the other hand, if someone who hurt you is sorry, learn to let it go yourself so you can forget about the hurt and then focus on moving forward.
Was there a justifiable cause for your past actions that were beyond your control at the time? For example, perhaps you hurt others while you were experiencing untreated mental illness or as the result of an active drug or alcohol addiction.
If your behavior was influenced by substance abuse and/or untreated mental health issues, you should give yourself some slack and not judge yourself too harshly. Instead, focus on behavior change which will influence better decisions in the present and the future.
Can You Learn to Forgive Yourself?
Self-forgiveness is an essential key to recovery. For someone who has a lot of guilt and shame, it might seem impossible. And if you have committed many wrongs in your life, it may be hard to find forgiveness. Self-forgiveness in recovery can be even harder. However, if you can’t find forgiveness with yourself, your chances of relapse increase considerably.
Self-forgiveness is considered one of the most powerful weapons in recovery. It not only gives you the strength and confidence you need to overcome your addiction, it also improves self-esteem. And it’s possible that poor self-esteem is why you gave in to addiction in the first place.
No matter how difficult it is, self-forgiveness is important when recovering from addiction. This is the reason the 12-step programs focus on admitting your wrongdoings and making amends for your mistakes. It’s important to face the reality of your past before you can deal with it. Without doing that, recovery will be a tougher experience.
Regret Leads to Relapse
Lack of forgiveness and poor self-esteem can lead to many negative emotions such as
These emotions not only damage your recovery, but they can lead directly to relapse. A person who blames themselves for their mistakes set themselves up for self-destructive and self-sabotaging behavior. And it doesn’t help that there is that social stigma for having a substance use disorder. It can all combine to make you feel like you deserve any shame and blame that you are holding on to.
5 Tips for Self-Forgiveness
Self-forgiveness is about addressing the wrongs made as a result of your addiction. But remember, addiction is a mental illness and not your fault or anyone else’s. There’s no need to apologize for being sick.
Still, your mistakes are a different story and you need to take responsibility for them. Mistakes can be corrected or moved past. Here are 5 tips on how to do that:
Acceptance: Acceptance is a crucial part of recovery. It means admitting you made a mistake, accepting what has been done, and acknowledging your emotions of guilt and shame.
Examination: Take some time to identify, examine, and learn from the situations that bother you. There is probably some underlying belief, rather than the addiction, that caused the behavior. Drugs and alcohol don’t change who you are. But you will do things you wouldn’t do if not for being under the influence.
Sharing: Talking to others is one of the best things you can do. By sharing your thoughts, you might find encouragement and get feedback from others who have been in the same situation. Sharing your troubles can give you an immediate release of the stress you’ve been keeping inside.
Make up for your mistakes: Many times, an apology is not enough and might even be rejected. This can really damage your self-esteem so think carefully before making an apology. Even if the apology is rejected at first, your attempt will be felt more than the words and you will feel better about yourself.
Try something spiritual: Sometimes visualizing or acting out an action of self-forgiveness can help you forgive yourself as you move forward. One example would be to write a letter to someone you have wronged, but don’t send it. Or you could try writing down every mistake you made as a result of your addiction and burning the paper.
Why Do Guilt and Shame Affect Women More than Men?
Due to the changing cultural and social situations, guilt has less power today than it used to. A study has shown that in the West, this emotion is “significantly higher” among women. The experts discovered that the main problem is not that women feel a lot of guilt (they do), but that many men feel “too little.”
Additionally, women are quicker to feel humiliated than men. As a result, women are more likely to feel the negative effects of shame such as low self-esteem and depression. In the study mentioned, researchers questioned almost 300 men and women between the ages of 15 and 50 about the types of everyday situations that left them feeling guilty.
According to the results, the women worried a lot more about hurting other people. By contrast, men were more self-centered. Their most guilt-causing experiences had to do with eating or drinking too much, rather than directly affecting someone else. The women felt considerably higher levels of guilt and were more likely to feel angry with themselves if they thought that they had hurt someone else.
And, we know that too much guilt is not a good thing. Previous research shows that worriers have weaker immune systems and have lower defenses against disease. Even a brain disease like addiction. What starts as a way to self-medicate becomes a substance use disorder.
New Directions for Women Understands You
If you or a woman you care about is suffering from substance use, New Directions for Women is here for you. We serve only women and understand the lives and mindsets of women. Our trained staff has experience in treating any substance use disorder. Our licensed therapists help women regain their confidence and self-esteem.
Don’t wait any longer. Contact us now. Don’t let the guilt and shame of addiction send you deeper into your depression. We’re waiting to hear from you.