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Overcoming Shame and Guilt in Recovery

by Rini Foxworthy, M.S.


The beginning stages of recovery are a trying time for all addicts. For most, the path to sobriety will be a grueling one, full of challenges 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 throughout recovery. Working to overcome feelings of shame and guilt will undoubtedly be one of those challenges. These negative emotions have the power to obstruct the path to sobriety. In order to promote growth as a recovering addict, shame and guilt must be addressed.

The Birth of Negative Emotions

Being in recovery brings many changes, including time for reflection and contemplation. As recovering addicts begin to reflect on the past, they may find themselves feeling shame or guilt. Shame and guilt are common emotions for those in recovery. These feelings may be in regards to the choices that they have made or about having hurt others while trapped in their addiction.

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. 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 feel intense shame and guilt regarding their substance abuse. For some, this realization may come quickly. For others, it may be months before these feelings manifest.

After having spent years avoiding their emotions, it can be difficult for those in recovery to confront their feelings. However, it is a necessary task in order to achieve and maintain sobriety.

Taking Steps in a Healthy Direction

Make no mistake–overcoming shame and guilt is a hefty task. Forgiving yourself for your wrongdoings and letting go of the past does not come easily. However, it is of paramount importance to recognize the damaging effects that shame and guilt can have upon the healing process. These unhealthy emotions can limit your ability to forgive yourself, make amends with others, and achieve inner peace. Taking the following steps will assist you in conquering your shame and guilt.

1. Process and Acknowledge Your Emotions

In order for recovering addicts to begin to resolve their feelings of shame and guilt, they must first being to process and acknowledge their emotions. Addicts commonly abuse substances to escape uncomfortable or painful feelings. However, 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.

2. Ask Yourself Whether Your Shame and Guilt Is Helping or Hindering You

It is unlikely that holding onto shame and guilt is benefitting your health. Honestly ask yourself whether your shame and guilt is helping or hindering you during your recovery. If it is indeed causing more harm than good, acknowledge the need to remove those negative emotions from your life. It might also help you to consider how the quality of your life might improve should you overcome your shame and guilt. Picturing a life without these negative feelings may help you to continue along in your path toward recovery.

3. Take Moral Inventory

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. For example, you may have commonly lied to family members in the past and are now recognizing how that behavior was harmful. Naturally, you may begin to feel ashamed as this clear and honest image of yourself emerges.

As uncomfortable as it may feel, allow yourself to sit with these emotions briefly. Rushing through moral inventory is a mistake many recovering addicts make. Remind yourself that your recovery is not a race– it is a journey. The more time and energy that you put into your recovery, the better your results will be.

4. Make Amends

After taking moral inventory, you may begin to attempt to make amends. When making amends, we are not seeking forgiveness from others. Instead, we are clearing our conscience of our shame and guilt. Because we are responsible for our emotions, we are also responsible for forgiving ourselves and accepting the past.

We are able to make amends with others regardless of whether or not they are open to receiving an apology. We may be lucky to be forgiven by some, but others will undoubtedly be resistant to our efforts. Try your best to be prepared for the possibility of being shut out or snubbed. Remember–forgiveness is not your motive. What is important is that you have recognized and acknowledged your wrongdoing.

We can also make amends with those who have passed away or those we have lost contact with. Expressing our feelings through writing, prayer, and meditation are just a few examples of how this can be achieved.

Be Kind To Yourself

Letting go of shame and guilt is no simple task. Keep in mind that change doesn’t happen overnight and allow yourself time to work through these tasks. If you are having a hard time exploring your emotions or taking moral inventory, take extra time to unwind and de-stress. Avoid beating yourself up when you feel discouraged or experience setbacks. You are a work in progress, and that is something to be proud of.

Processing shame and guilt is an important endeavor for all recovering addicts and takes time, perseverance, and diligence. Focus your sights on the wonderful benefits that will come as a result of your hard work. This may help to 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.