Substance Abuse and Guilt
Those individuals who fall into substance abuse may be do so because of their inability to deal with guilt. Sometimes people will just feel bad about themselves even when such a negative attitude is not justified. Using alcohol or drugs can initially mean that the person feels better about themselves, but ultimately it makes the situation far worse. This is because as the individual becomes dependent on these mind altering substances they will behave badly, and this will lead to further things to feel guilty about. Even when the individual has managed to escape their addiction they can still be persecuted by feelings of guilt.
The writer Peter McWilliams described guilt:
Guilt is anger directed at ourselves – at what we did or did not do. Resentment is anger directed at others – at what they did or did not do.
When people are guilty it means that they responsible for the commission of some offence. It can also be defined as a feelings of culpability especially for imagined offenses or from a sense of inadequacy. When people feel guilty it means that they have come to the conclusion that they are deserve to be punished for past misdeeds.
Difference between Guilt and Remorse
The words guilt and remorse do get used interchangeably to mean the same thing, but there is an important difference between them. Feelings of excessive guilt refer to a situation where the individual is condemning themselves for perceived wrongdoings. This differs from remorse where the individual is taking responsibility for their past mistakes. The remorseful person wants to take action to put right the things they have done in the past. The person who feels guilt is not concerned with trying to fix the situation but instead focuses on punishing themselves. This may because the individual has decided that they are not worthy of forgiveness and that the wrongs of the past can never be put right. When these two emotions are compared with one another it is obvious that remorse is a constructive way to feel while excessive guilt is just self destructive.
Guilt and Shame
Shame can be defined as a painful emotion caused by consciousness of guilt, shortcoming, or impropriety. Guilt and shame are closely related, but there are also differences between the two. When somebody feels guilty it is because of something they have done. When the individual feels shame it is because of who they are. In order words, guilt is the subjective feeling of having done wrong while shame is the subjective feeling of being wrong.
Positive and Negative Guilt
The Scottish psychologist R.D. Laing once said:
True guilt is guilt at the obligation one owes to oneself to be oneself. False guilt is guilt felt at not being what other people feel one ought to be or assume that one is.
Moderate feelings of guilt are beneficial because they encourage the individual to do the right thing. If nobody felt guilty about anything it would likely lead to a fearful world and it could even threaten the survival of the human species. There is also a more negative form of guilt which is excessive and harmful. This refers to a situation where the individual carries a sense of guilt around with them most of the time. The reasons for why the individual may become a victim of excessive guilt include:
- They have a poor self image.
- It can be a sign of mental health difficulties.
- Some people fall into negative thinking and this tends to include guilt.
- The individual has been a victim of physical or sexual abuse.
- Unhealthy relationships can leave people with feelings of guilt.
- Excessive stress.
- Alcohol or drug abuse.
Reasons for Guilt in Addiction and Recovery
There are a number of reasons for why people who are trapped in addiction will feel guilt. They can also carry this sense of guilt with them into recovery. The causes of this guilt can include:
- The individual is likely to have hurt friends and family as a result of their addictive behavior. When they are in recovery the individual will be faced with their misdeeds, and this can lead to intense feelings of guilt.
- It can sometimes be a sense of guilt that drives people into addiction in the first place – for example, those who have been victims of abuse can blame themselves. These people may have found that abusing alcohol or drugs helped them deal with this guilt, but now they need to face it again.
- Addicts become willing to do all types of desperate acts in their attempts to get high. They may later feel that they deserved to be punished for these past misdeeds.
- It is common for addicts to have low self esteem, and they can take these feelings of low self worth with them into recovery. This means that the individual always feels as if they are in the wrong and can feel excessively guilty over their normal human behavior.
- Some addicts come from a family where their parents had excessive ideas about good and bad. This may mean that these individuals grow up feeling guilty about everything.
- The individual can just fall into the habit of feeling guilty. This can mean that they almost constantly carry around the feeling that they have done something wrong.
- Stinking thinking refers to how some people in recovery fall into the trap of negative thinking. These individuals can seem to go out of their way to make themselves feel bad – this may be because of guilt.
- Some people in recovery will be looking for justifications to return to alcohol or drug abuse. Their feelings of guilt may be a subconscious attempt to sabotage their own efforts at getting away from addiction.
Dangers of Guilt in Recovery
There are a number of dangers associated with excessive guilt in recovery including:
- It can mean that the individual is unable to enjoy their sobriety.
- The fact that this person feels deserving of punishment means that they may sabotage their own efforts to find happiness.
- It can be used as a justification to relapse back to addiction.
- It can lead the individual into other types of negative thinking.
- Guilt can sap motivation and this means that the individual will become stuck in recovery. When people are stuck in life it can lead to a high degree of discomfort.
- The individual may turn to new maladaptive behaviors in an attempt to escape their feelings of guilt. This could include such things as workaholism or exercise addiction.
- The individual can become caught in a vicious cycle. They behave badly because of their feelings of excessive guilt, and this leads to further things to feel guilty about – substance abuse would be an example of how this happens.
- It can be used as an excuse for inaction in recovery. The individual chooses to focus on punishing themselves rather than taking action to improve their life.
- Guilt is of no benefit to those who have been harmed by past misdeeds.
How to Overcome Feelings of Guilt in Recovery
There are things that the individual can do to overcome their feelings of guilt in recovery such as:
- The individual needs to understand that doing wrong does not make them inherently wrong. All humans make mistakes in life, and they are all deserving of second chances.
- It is good that people regret their mistakes, but they should not use their remorse as a weapon against themselves.
- The person should appreciate that making themselves feel bad about the past is of no benefit to anybody. What’s done is done, and the best the individual can do is to ensure that no similar bad behavior occurs again in the future.
- Trying to make amends for past misdeeds is far more productive than feeling guilty. The individual should only make amends when it is appropriate to do so – sometimes opening up old wounds can cause more harm than good.
- Becoming a better person is one way to make amends for past misdeeds.
- Those individuals who belong to a 12 Step Group will find that this program offers a structured means of making amends.
- In order to forgive themselves for past misdeeds the individual needs to offer the same forgiveness to those who have harmed them in the past. It is difficult for the individual to let go of their own guilt while they still hold onto grudges against other people.
- Practices such as loving kindness meditation are recommended for anyone dealing with excessive guilt. This meditation tool not only allows the individual to develop compassion for other people but also for themselves – in fact the individual will be unable to develop true compassion for others until they direct it inwards.
- If the individual finds that feelings of guilt are interfering with their ability to find happiness in life they might benefit from some type of therapy. This professional will be able to help the person delve down to the root of their feelings of guilt.
- Developing the ability to think critically will mean that the individual will become better at eliminating irrational feelings of guilt.