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Working through Shame in Recovery: How to Heal

“Shame corrodes the very part of us that believes we are capable of change.” ~ Brene Brown, I Thought It Was Just Me: Women Reclaiming Power and Courage in a Culture of Shame Drug addiction and alcoholism each carry a stigma. Even individuals who are practicing sobriety and inactive, successful recovery feel the weight of society’s scorn, disdain, and distaste. Those who are unfamiliar with the idea that addiction is a disease have prejudicial and erroneous believes about its sufferers:

  • Addicts are morally weak – WRONG. Addiction is a disease, just like diabetes, cancer, and heart disease.
  • Addicts are dysfunctional – WRONG. Many people who abuse drugs and alcohol are successful in life until the disease of addiction continues its progress.
  • Addicts are criminals – WRONG. There is a growing movement among professional specialists that addicts deserve treatment, rather than punishment.
  • It’s easy to spot an addict – WRONG. Some reports estimate that up to 1 out of every 10 Americans will be will have a problem with drugs or alcohol at some point in their life. That means anyone can suffer from addiction.

These stereotypes are so pervasive that many addicts and alcoholics also believe them.

The Stereotypes about Addiction Are Wrong

Many so-called “normal people” never stop to consider that struggling addicts and alcoholics are also normal people, just like them. People with the disease of addiction have the same needs, desires, hopes, and dreams as everyone else. There is only one big difference – addicts/alcoholics suffer from a disease that causes them to act in ways that they never thought possible. According to most experts, addiction is caused by several factors, many of which are outside of the sufferer’s control:

  • Genetic Predisposition
  • Childhood Environment
  • Peer Pressure
  • Personal Behaviors

Drinking and Drugging As a Failed Coping Mechanism

Often, an individual abuses drugs or drinks to try to cope with some past pain or trauma. At some eventual point, the self-medicating – which was never very successful, to begin with – spirals out of their control and makes them say and do things that are self-destructive and harmful to anyone around them. That past hurt, combined with the current damage caused by their addicted/drunken behavior can have a significantly negative effect on an individual’s sense of self-worth. Over time, a person suffering from an alcohol or drug addiction will begin to subscribe to the false belief that somehow, they “deserve” the Hell in which they are living – a Hell created by the disease of addiction. While they were in active addiction, the addict believed that they deserved all of the horrible things that were happening. In their addiction-controlled minds, every pain or terrible consequence was justified:

  • They were unlovable, so their marriage failed.
  • They were stupid, so they dropped out of college.
  • They were worthless, so they abused themselves, and allowed others to treat them without respect.
  • They deserved to be alone – so they rejected any offers of help.

Experiencing Shame in Early Recovery

These feelings do not automatically go away just because the individual enters drug or alcohol rehab. Even when a person enters recovery, achieves a period of sobriety, and begins to regain a modicum of self-worth, they can hit a wall when they begin to ask themselves – “If I am a truly good person, how could I have done all of those horrible things?” Without an adequate answer, the person begins to become overwhelmed with feelings of guilt and shame. Guilt occurs when the person in recovery starts to feel the weight of and responsibility for all of their past words, deeds, and misdeeds. This self-recrimination– and acceptance of the blame from other people – can overwhelm the person, because past mistakes cannot usually be undone. The shame can be all-consuming. Shame is defined as “an overwhelming feeling of regret or sadness that a person feels because they know they have done something wrong“. Most addicts and alcoholics do not fully experience shame until they are in recovery. Shame is a feeling that can create quite a moral dilemma for the recovering addict/alcoholic. On one hand, when an individual is not constantly focused on the next drunk or the next high, feelings of responsibility for past misbehaviors is only natural. In fact, learning to take personal responsibility is an important part of recovery from addiction. When the feeling moves past accountability and moves into self-blame, it can be paralyzing, because it makes it difficult – perhaps even impossible – for the recovering addict/alcoholic to move forward with their life. Even worse, if those feelings of guilt and shame not dealt with, they can even trigger a relapse, driving that person back into substance abuse.

Overcoming Guilt and Shame during Recovery from Addiction

The antidote for the twin poisons of guilt and shame is forgiveness. Real, actual forgiveness. If you are an addict or alcoholic in recovery and you feel overwhelming feelings of guilt and/or shame, the most important action you need to take is to forgive yourself. Remember:

  • Many of your actions during active addiction were the direct result of having the disease, and therefore, beyond your control.
  • No matter what you did what you were drugging and drinking in the past, it has no bearing at all on your who you are today or who you will be tomorrow.
  • It is never too late to change for the better, no matter how negative your past was.
  • All human beings are imperfect. Do not hold yourself to impossible standards of unattainable perfection. Realize that you will make mistakes. When you do, admit your fault, make amends, and move forward.
  • Because you are in recovery, that means you asked for help at some point. Asking for help is a sign self-awareness and strength.

Using Guilt and Shame Positively during Successful Recovery Guilt is a perfectly normal emotion during early recovery, but you have to be able to move past it. Instead of languishing in unproductive shame, let your guilt influence you in positive ways:

  • Acknowledge your past mistakes, and then simply move on.
  • It is important to accept responsibility, but it is also just as important to keep in mind that it was the “old, actively-addicted you” that made them.
  • Your sins are in the past, and you cannot change them. You can, however, change yourself and your behaviors moving forward.
  • One of the steps of recovery is becoming willing to make amends for any wrongs you have done that harmed other people and then trying to make those amends.

It won’t always be possible to make amends. Remember, though, if you were genuine in your attempt, much of your guilt can be assuaged. Effort matters.

  • Whenever you can, just ask for forgiveness. When you take personal responsibility for your past actions and are absolutely sincere in your desire to atone for them, you will be pleasantly amazed and surprised at how often people will choose forgiveness over bitterness.

But here’s the critical truth – even if they don’t, you can forgive yourself because you tried. Shame can stifle your progress during recovery from addiction, keeping you from becoming the sober and serene person you were always meant to be. When you practice self-compassion and self-forgiveness, you free yourself from the burdens imposed by your formally-active addiction. When you are no longer encumbered by the weight of sins that were committed by the “you” of a different time, you become free to become the “you” of the future.