Shame and Guilt- The difference between “I am bad”and “I did something bad”….
Negative emotions like loneliness, envy, and guilt have an important role to play in a happy life; they’re big, flashing signs that something needs to change. Like drugs, alcohol and bad romances… these are things that controlled my life for a very long time. Once I was willing to face my demons… shame and guilt couldn’t control me any longer. What a sweet relief that was…
A stigma is often attached to people with drug addiction and alcoholism. These diseases are often associated with people who are out of control, dysfunctional, or inept. Neither the homeless man nor the misguided celebrity are the true faces of addiction. The majority of people struggling with an addiction are normal people. They often mask their suffering out of shame because of negative associations with drug or alcohol abuse. In addition, addiction drives people to act in ways they never thought they were capable of. The guilt of these actions pushes people with addiction further into hiding. People with addiction need to move past their guilt and shame in order to move into a healthier life.
Active addiction pushes us to do things we wouldn’t normally do just to survive. When you’re addicted to something, you have to find a way to get the thing you are addicted to, every day. It doesn’t matter how you get it or who you hurt in the process. All you can think about is getting your drug of choice. You feel compelled to meet your addiction’s needs no matter what the cost. To the addicted person, meeting that need is more important than eating, sleeping or any other basic need.
As a result of this obsession and compulsion, the addict often does things that cause them guilt and shame. The addict relieves the pain of guilt and shame by using more of their drug of choice. When the addict begins the recovery process, these feelings of guilt and shame return. The addict is flooded with memories of the mistakes they made, the people they hurt and all the things they wish they could undo. But you can’t go back in time and change what is done.
Shame of your past can paralyze your present recovery. Fear of failure is natural, but if it is preventing you from taking the next steps in recovery, you should remember your past actions have no sway in your present outlook or character. You are always capable of making a positive change in your life. No one is perfect, so don’t hold yourself up to impossibly high standards. Life is about the long game and you can come back from a terrible first quarter. Asking for help is a sign of self-awareness and strength, not weakness. Sometimes just having company can make all the difference between success and failure.
Unlike shame, guilt can be used to grow into a better person. To do this, you have to deal with guilt before it drives you back into substance abuse. Seek Forgiveness from others or yourself. Most religions preach forgiveness as one of the most sacred acts. Figure out how best to make amends, and do it as soon as you are able to. Acknowledge your acts as wrong, then move forward. Just as important as seeing your mistakes is to see them as in the past. Most importantly… learn from your actions. We all make mistakes- use them as a way to grow.
Only when you stop living in the past can you see the present. From there, anything is possible. Recognize yourself as a human- mistakes were made, and you will make more. But as a human, you can change for the better. Let go of your past shame and guilt. Life in recovery is about finding out who you really are, and how you can live a better, more productive life. Find strength in your new life and take joy in its possibilities.
Guilt and shame becomes a vicious cycle that goes something like this. We do something wrong. We feel guilt. We do not correct the wrong. We feel shame. We lie and cover up what we have done. We feel more guilt and shame. This cycle is repeated over and over.
Remember that guilt and shame become a vicious cycle when we try to hide the wrongs we have done. One way to get out of the cycle is to own up to what we have done. Taking responsibility for the wrongs we have committed is a part of maturing and growing as a person. Admitting that you have made mistakes and done something wrong stops the cycle and frees us from our prison of guilt and shame. You can face your wrongs and take responsibility by verbalizing what you have done and preparing yourself to accept the consequences. Accepting the consequences for behavior is being accountable. It allows us to move to the next step.
Finding a way to make up for what you have done will help put an end to the cycle. We can’t always directly correct a wrong. Some things that are broken cannot be fixed. However, you can always find something good to do for someone you have harmed or do something that is good for society as a whole. Dwelling on the past will only keep you depressed and unable to enjoy your present life. It won’t change anything and will keep you from moving forward.
The more you talk about something that happened to you, the more it becomes something that happened in the past and less the present for you. You can talk about the past with a therapist, close friend or family member. Let them know you want to talk about the wrong you committed until you attach less emotion to it and overcome the negative feelings of guilt and shame associated with it.
Writing works much like talk therapy. You write about the past to process it and let go of the emotions associated with it. Write about what happened, how you feel about it, what beliefs were violated, who was hurt by your actions and anything else you feel is relevant.
Write down on a piece of paper what you need to forgive yourself for. You can burn the paper as you imagine letting go of the past. Another type of this exercise is attaching the paper to a helium balloon which you let go of as you imagine letting go of the past. Make the decision to completely let go of the past. When thoughts of it do return to you, remind yourself that it is the past and you have let it go.
Guilt and shame can be powerful emotions that can negatively affect our ability to move forward in life. Holding on to feelings of guilt and shame keeps us stuck in the past. In addiction recovery, they can lead to relapse. Addicts generally have difficulty, especially in early recovery, coping with any feelings that we perceive as negative. Until you develop appropriate coping skills, it can seem like your only option is to cover up these feelings by returning to your addiction. Facing these feelings, correcting our wrongs, asking for forgiveness and forgiving ourselves are ways to let go of the past so you can grow as a person and fully live in the present moment. Once we have done this, the guilt and shame will be resolved so we don’t feel the need to return to our old coping skills of using substances to cover these feelings.
There is no reason to make life any harder than it has to be….