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How I Dropped My Two Best Friends: Shame and Guilt

Shame is the feeling we get when we feel as though we’re not wanted. We feel worthless and rejected. Guilt is the belief that we have done something bad. In the spectrum of emotions, shame and guilt sit side by side to fear. Fear is a powerful emotion that causes one to feel like they’re drowning. These feelings of shame and guilt are natural and are subject to becoming a part of any experience we have.

Being Sober Brought on Shame and Guilt

Through my substance addiction, if I abstained, shame and guilt would instantly show up. I would scramble to numb myself so I didn’t have to feel the pain. These emotions were making my addiction worse. With the addition of physical dependency, I wasn’t sure if recovery would ever be possible for me. I felt worthless and believed I didn’t deserve a good life. A point came where I had to stop using or I would probably die. Recovery hasn’t been easy and shame and guilt are potentially around every corner. Recovering is half the battle I’m facing, the other half is all the guilt and shame I feel from hitting rock bottom in the first place.

Why We Feel Guilt and Shame from Addiction

Any kind of addiction, from alcoholism to sex addiction, has a stigma attached to it. So even if I was okay with my addiction and the behaviors I inhibited, society might judge me. If a person has never been addicted, they really have no idea why addicts do what they do. Addiction breeds guilt and shame just for the fact that I’d totally lost control. I was also acutely aware that society was looking down on me. I was sure my parents and friends had an idea that there was a problem in my life. They said nothing.

Numbing Feelings Through Substance Abuse

I numbed the feelings of guilt and shame by using substances. So when I went through addiction treatment, a lot of scary emotions came up. It took away from the triumphant feeling I experienced from abstaining from using. While guilt might be a beneficial means for us to better ourselves, fighting with it while I fought addiction took a lot of energy. Here are some of the reasons I experienced guilt and shame when in recovery:

  • With the loss of inhibitions, I said or did things under the influence that I wasn’t proud of.
  • I knew I’d hurt the people I was close to and let down my coworkers.
  • I felt awful for wasting so many precious years on this addiction.
  • I knew that I’d damaged my health.
  • I was broke and could only blame myself.
  • I felt guilty for things that weren’t related to me at all because I felt like such a terrible person.
  • I felt as though I’d failed to live up to my own and other’s expectations,
  • My self-esteem had hit rock bottom.
  • I knew that society looked down on me for this weakness of getting addicted.
  • I felt guilty that I thought about relapsing.

I Joined a 12-Step Group

There are many different kinds of 12-step groups that help all sorts of addiction. With any group, they stay with the same principles though. They focus on changing behaviors and routines that have shown to prevent relapse. There are tools in 12-step programs that are all designed to promote long-term recovery success. As guilt and shame are so prevalent in relapse, recovery groups have tools that help people cope with those emotions. Being able to open up about my feelings really helped me as well. It’s not easy to talk about the things you did that you aren’t proud of. To admit that I have weaknesses and feel vulnerable, worthless and afraid was hard. Looking at the compassionate faces that surrounded me made it easier. They accepted me and understood me regardless of my addiction.

I Formed a Relationship With a Higher Power

A twelve-step program will often have an undertone of religion or spirituality. While that might scare some people off, it is an element of addiction recovery that’s powerful. Sometimes you just need something bigger to believe in. For similar reasons, I began to meditate. I needed to feel a larger source than myself because I felt unsure if I could handle the magnitude of recovery. Those feeling of guilt and shame still happened but in my ability to become centered, it felt more manageable. I could see these feelings for what they were. I didn’t have to play into them. I could just see them, feel them if necessary, and allow it to pass. As I got better at meditating, I could use it during scary times or moments where shame threatened to take over.

I Learned to Change My View about Guilt and Shame

While working through recovery based on 12-step recovery methods, I realized that I had to change my perspective. I had to continue reminding myself that as humans, we are imperfect. We commit sins. It’s how we become better people. So regardless of what I did while I was drunk or high, I am in this place now. The place of being sober because I chose to be better. I realized eventually that even the worst thing I did doesn’t dictate who I am. It took a lot of work for me to change my view and forgive myself. If I were to label myself today (which I won’t), it would be that I am a survivor of addiction.

I Made a List of What Was Behind My Shame and Guilt

An important part of getting rid of the shame and guilt that threatened my recovery from addiction was making a list. This is confronting the problem. Once I was able to see the underlying issues of why I felt guilt and shame, I could deal with them or put them behind me. My list consisted of the things I did and who they affected. I wrote down all the emotions I felt regarding the things I did. I wrote down what my needs were at the time and what motivated me to do the act I feel so terrible about.

In The List, I States My Core Values

I considered what my values were as I wrote this list of things that made me feel awful about myself. They went against what I grew up to believe was right. That’s where the guilt and shame comes from really. Going against your value system. Just as important as creating the list was forgiving myself for the things I did. It was helpful to really pick the behaviors apart and figure out why I did it and why I felt bad for it. Forgiving myself was a powerful way to get past the feeling of shame and guilt.

I Made Amends If It Were Available to Me

I was guided by my recovery program, therapists, and 12-step program to make amends with those I hurt. I learned that not every situation required me to try to make amends. If I was going to hurt someone with news they didn’t previously know about, it was better to not say anything. For those that I had hurt, attending a family support session was a safe way to start making amends. Through the process of coming to terms with how I’d hurt people, it was natural to speak what I was sorry for. When I spoke from my heart, explaining that I understood how my actions had hurt them, it allowed them to be open also. Being forgiven for the things that were connected to the shame and guilt helped me a great deal. If people I cared about could forgive me, I was more able to forgive myself.

Finding My Self-Esteem So I Could Fight Shame and Guilt

I learned that guilt has an easy pathway when you don’t feel good about yourself. I realized shortly into my recovery that I would have to start working on my self-esteem if I was going to be successful. I started to take care of myself. I started working out regularly and seeing myself get stronger. This made me feel a lot better about myself. It also helped to release endorphins, making me feel happier. Getting at least 30 minutes of aerobic activity per day kept depression at bay. Those negative feelings became less and less as I continued to do the right things for myself. As I increased my confidence, I was able to take on more activities that would boost my self-esteem.