Shame, Guilt, and Recovery

The beginning stages of recovery are a trying time for all addicts. For most, the path to sobriety will be a grueling one, ripe with fears and struggles. Whether you have made the decision to enter treatment voluntarily or at the urging of friends or family, you will surely face difficulties as you begin to navigate your way through detox and recovery. However, this new phase of life can also be the most rewarding and gratifying experience that you have ever had.

With these new changes comes time for reflection and contemplation. During this time, recovering addicts may find themselves feeling shame or guilt about the choices that they have made and about having hurt others while they were deep in the troughs of their illness. Shame and guilt are common feelings among those in recovery. While abusing drugs and alcohol, addicts tend to lose sight of their goals and values. Following detox, the dark veil cast by substances begins to lift, and addicts gain a clearer picture of the damage that has been left in the wake of their illness. It is completely normal for recovering addicts to begin to feel intense shame and guilt regarding their substance abuse. For some, this realization may come quickly. For others, it may take months of continued pondering before these feelings begin to manifest.

Managing this shame and guilt is a hefty task in and of itself. Forgiving yourself for your wrongdoings and letting go of the past does not come easily. However, while in recovery, it is of paramount importance to recognize the damaging effects that negative emotions can have upon the healing process. These unhealthy emotions can limit your ability to forgive yourself, make amends with others, and achieve inner peace.  

In order for recovering addicts to begin to resolve their feelings of shame and guilt, they must first start the exhaustive but rewarding task of processing and acknowledging their emotions. It is imperative that you gain an understanding as to why you are feeling guilty or ashamed. This can be achieved by participating in group therapy, individual therapy, or even by working through the 12 Steps in your spare time.

As is a necessary part of treatment, recovering addicts are urged to take moral inventory. Taking moral inventory refers to honestly looking at oneself and recognizing your faults, shortcomings, and character defects. Examples of this might include that you often lied or stole while you were abusing substances and are now recognizing how those behaviors were harmful. Naturally, you may begin to feel ashamed as this clear and honest image of yourself emerges. Once you have acknowledged your shame and guilt, you may begin to attempt to make amends.

We are able to make amends with others regardless of whether or not they are open to receiving an apology. We may be lucky enough to be forgiven by some, but others will undoubtedly be resistant to our efforts. The important thing to understand about making amends is that we are not seeking forgiveness from others. Instead, we are clearing our conscience of our shame and guilt. There is not a single person who is capable of removing our shame and guilt besides ourselves. We are solely responsible for choosing to forgive ourselves and accept the past. Remember that we can also make amends with those who have passed away as well as those who we have lost contact with. Expressing our feelings through writing, prayer, and meditation are just a few examples of how we are able to communicate our emotions with those that we are unable to speak with.

Processing shame and guilt is an important endeavor for all recovering addicts. Like every task throughout the recovery process, resolving feelings of shame and guilt takes time, perseverance, and diligence. Focus your sights on the wonderful benefits that will come as a result of your hard work to help motivate you when your patience wears thin. With vigorous effort and determination, you will soon be living a happy and healthy life free of the demons from the past.

Reflection Questions:

1. Is holding onto shame and guilt helping you or hindering you during your recovery process?

2. What does it feel like to hold onto shame and guilt?

3. How might letting go and freeing yourself of your shame and guilt help you throughout your recovery? How might it help improve your physical and mental health?