One of the hardest parts of sobriety is having to confront unpleasant emotions without recourse to drugs or alcohol. This is often how addiction begins in the first place. When your feelings, thoughts, and memories are persistent and painful, any kind of relief is welcome. You may have done things during active addiction that only add to the burden of shame and guilt you feel when you get sober. These feelings can be hard to deal with and often lead to relapse.
Guilt is a useful emotion when it prods us to do the right thing, but it can also torture us for having done the wrong thing. You may feel like you deserve to be tormented for the terrible things you’ve done. Perhaps you feel that forgiving yourself is as good as saying you’ve done nothing wrong. Perhaps you’re even afraid you’ll behave badly again the moment you stop torturing yourself.
In reality, carrying that shame and guilt is counterproductive. Think of it this way: When you’re happy, when your life is going well, and when the inside of your head is a pleasant–or at least tolerable–place to be, relapse is the last thing on your mind. Obsessing about things you can’t change, like past mistakes, is a good way to keep yourself miserable. If you insist on being miserable, you are likely to have a hard time with sobriety.
Carrying guilt and shame also isolates you. If you go around feeling like a rotten person who doesn’t deserve love or forgiveness, you will have a hard time connecting with people. You won’t want to open up. You will be less likely to even try to make new friends. You may become guarded and angry. All of this only makes recovery harder. One of the most important parts of staying sober is having a strong sober network. You have to feel connected to other people and that is very difficult if you see yourself as a uniquely awful person.
Finally, guilt and shame are just two of the challenging emotions you will have to face in recovery. You may have to confront anger, fear, anxiety, despair, and any number of other emotional challenges. Dealing with emotions we would rather not experience is one of the most important skills to develop in recovery. You have to learn to acknowledge these emotions without letting them overwhelm you. Guilt and shame are just emotions like any other and you can use them to practice emotional regulation. It wouldn’t make sense to work hard to master your anger or anxiety while allowing guilt and shame to run amok.
Of course, letting go of shame is easier said than done. Some people don’t remember what it was like to not feel shame and some people even take a perverse sort of comfort in it. Forgiving yourself and letting go of shame takes practice and help. Here are some suggestions for how to do it.
See a therapist.
Shame and guilt can be complicated. You may not even understand the full extent of how they affect your behavior. You may wish that you could forgive yourself, but find it nearly impossible to actually let go of the guilt. A good therapist can help you untie the knots. Shame and guilt make it very hard to see your situation objectively and you often need someone to show you the way out.
Work the steps.
Part of working through guilt and shame is built right into the 12 steps. A searching and fearless moral inventory, making a list of people you’ve wronged, and attempting to make amends to those people, are all helpful in moving past shame and guilt. You first acknowledge your mistakes, then you do whatever you can to correct them. You can’t always fix the damage, but usually you can do something. Taking action, rather than just making an apology demonstrates your commitment to settings things right.
Take a friend’s perspective.
We’re often harder on ourselves than we are on others. Imagine how you would react to a friend having done some of the things you feel so guilty about. You may not approve, but you probably wouldn’t think your friend was a horrible person or that she deserved to suffer for the rest of her life. Try extending some of that same compassion to yourself. Think of the person who made the mistakes you feel so guilty about, a person who felt hurt, angry, and confused, and feel that that person deserves forgiveness and happiness.
Don’t neglect the good you’ve done.
The problem with guilt, and especially shame, is that you fixate on the bad things you’ve done to the exclusion of the good. If someone points out something good you’ve done, you may reply that it doesn’t count. If you only accept evidence in support of your being a bad person, you will believe you are a bad person who doesn’t deserve forgiveness. If, on the other hand, you accept yourself as a flawed person who has made many mistakes, but is also capable of good things, you can forgive yourself for your mistakes and try to do better in the future.
If you’re struggling with addiction or mental illness, The Dawn Medical Rehab and Wellness center can help. We are one of Thailand’s most respected addiction treatment and wellness centers. We use cutting-edge treatment modalities to provide personalized care to treat addiction, depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, personality disorders, PTSD, and executive burnout. See our contact page to reach us by phone or email.