The life of the addict is full of suffering. Even the most deluded substance abuser will at least sometimes be aware that their life has taken a bad turn. Guilt can be an almost constant companion for these people when they are not intoxicated. In fact it can be these feelings of guilt that keep driving them back to alcohol or drugs. One of the great benefits of getting sober is that the individual can escape the pain caused by excessive guilt. This is unlikely to happen right away in recovery, but by getting sober the individual has taken a major first step away from such suffering.
Guilt can be defined as a feeling of responsibility or remorse for some offense, crime, or wrong. This word can also be used to define a state of being in the wrong – for example, when a criminal is found guilty by a court of law. In many instances guilt arises because the individual subjectively believes or realizes that they are wrong. In many instances the person may feel guilty for things that they do not really need to feel guilty about at all. The writer Peter Mc Williams once defined guilt as:
> 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.
The words guilt and remorse do get used interchangeably, but there are subtle differences in the nuances of each word. Those individuals who have are experiencing an unhealthy level of guilt will be self condemning and self punitive. Here the person is far more interested in punishing themselves than they are with trying to rectify their past mistakes. Remorse is a far more constructive approach than guilt. It means that the person is able to look at their past actions and understand that they’ve done wrong. The individual puts their attention on how they can make up for their past mistakes rather than wasting too much time punishing themselves. Once the individual has made appropriate attempts to remedy the situation they can forgive themselves.
Another word that is closely related to guilt is shame. The difference between the two is that the person who feels guilt believes they did something wrong while the individual who feels shame believes that they are wrong. With shame the person believes that there is something fundamentally wrong with them, and they are less of a person because of it. Shame is often combined with low self esteem.
If nobody felt guilty about their actions the world would become a frightening place. It is necessary for humans to feel guilty especially if it is the more remorseful type of guilt. A certain amount of guilt encourages people to do the right things. Excessive guilt though, is harmful to the individual because it prevents them from finding peace and happiness. The individual berates themselves constantly and this means that they feel miserable much of the time. The reasons why people feel excessively guilty can include:
* The person is dealing with an excessive amount of stress in their life.
* The individual may have some type of mental health issue.
* The person is dealing with low self esteem.
* The individual has allowed themselves to be caught up in negative thinking.
* They have a poor self image.
* The person has been abusing alcohol or drugs.
* The individual is a victim of sexual or physical abuse.
* The have been involved in unhealthy relationships.
There is a close relationship between addiction and feelings of guilt. This is because in order to abuse alcohol and drugs the individual will need to behave in a certain way. The link between guilt and addiction is there because:
* Even those addicts who are deep in denial will know at some level that what they are doing is wrong. There will be times when their guilt feels stronger than at other times, but it is always there in the background.
* In order to maintain their addiction the individual will need to begin hiding things from loved ones, work colleagues, and their community. The fact that they are forced to do this further emphasizes to them that they are doing something wrong.
* Those who abuse alcohol and drugs will tend to engage in bad behaviors due to intoxication and the need to have access to alcohol and drugs. The longer the individual remains addicted the more harm they will cause and the more things they will have to feel bad about.
* Many of those who fall into addiction are already dealing with excessive feelings of guilt that are often not warranted at all. By become an addict they exacerbate these negative feelings and get caught in a vicious cycle of substance abuse to escape the guilt which leads to more things to feel guilty about.
* Addicts tend to suffer from low self esteem and this means that they are more willing to accept the burden of guilt. This is because they already believe that they deserve to feel bad.
* Some addicts use their feelings of guilt as a justification for their continued substance abuse. They may even see their behavior as a type of punishment.
Feelings of excessive guilt are detrimental to the individual because:
* It means that the person feels they need to be punished and they feel unworthy of happiness in life. This means that they can sabotage their own efforts to find happiness.
* It can give people an excuse to engage in maladaptive behaviors as they try to escape their feelings of guilt. This is a common reason for why people fall into substance abuse in the first place.
* Excessive guilt is only destructive. The individual will not be doing anything constructive to make up for their past wrongdoings.
* The individual can use this as an excuse not to improve their own situation.
When people become sober they have the opportunity to escape their feelings of excessive guilt. They can begin to live a life where they have no problem looking anyone in the eye because they’ve nothing to hide. This escape from guilt doesn’t occur automatically, but by becoming sober the individual will have taken the first step towards inner peace and acceptance.
If the person fails to do the necessary work in recovery they can continue to be plagued by feelings of guilt. This means that the person will not be able to become settled in their recovery, and they may use this discomfort as an excuse to relapse. It is therefore of utmost importance that people who have entered recovery begin dealing with these issues.
Becoming sober does not guarantee escape from excessive guilt, but it does create the conditions where this is possible. Those who remain addicted to alcohol or drugs can do nothing to deal with these negative feelings except hiding from them in intoxication. The further steps needed in recovery to escape excessive guilt include:
* The individual needs to work on increasing their own self esteem. The easiest way to do this is by achieving small successes and then building on these to accomplish greater things.
* In those situations where it is appropriate to do so the individual can seek forgiveness for harm done and make amends. The individual should not do this in a way that it is going to cause them harm or where it could harm other people – for example, a person should not admit to an infidelity to their partner just so they can feel better.
* Those people who belong to a 12 step group will find that this program offers a structured approach for making amends.
* Those people who find that excessive guilt is still causing problems for them in recovery may benefit from attending therapy sessions. This will allow them to get to the bottom of their feelings of guilt and rectify the situation.
* One of the most important ways that people in recovery can escape there excessive feelings of guilt is by not doing things to feel guilty about. This means that they should live a life that reflects their own personal sense of what is right and what is wrong.
* The individual needs to know the difference between unhealthy guilt and healthy remorse. They need to accept the truth that excessive guilt does not help anyone.
* Journaling can be a great tool for dealing with feelings of guilt. When things are written down on paper they become less intense than when they are floating around in the person’s head.
* The individual needs to commit themselves to never again using maladaptive behaviors as a means to escape feelings of guilt. This includes avoiding such behaviors as workaholism or exercise addiction.
* Some people find that it is helpful if they keep a daily inventory of their behavior. If the person has done something wrong they will be able to recognize it and work immediately to rectify the situation rather than letting things fester.
* Those who are recovering from an addiction need to understand how guilt can be used as a relapse trigger.
* Practices such as mindfulness meditation allow the individual to delve deeper into their internal landscape. This way they will be better able to understand and overcome their feelings of excessive guilt.