Guilt and shame are regular companions for people who are battling with an addiction. They will handle such negative emotions by self-medicating with drugs or alcohol. Even when they become sober they can still battle with feelings of guilt. It can take much of the enjoyment out of recovery and may even prove to be a relapse trigger. Guilt has proved beneficial in the development of the human race, but excessive guilt can be highly destructive in addiction recovery.
Guilt can be defined as a feeling of culpability for real or imagined offences. It is experienced when the individual feels that they have broken some moral law or personal expectation. It is more likely that the individual will experience guilt if they committed the act consciously. There is far less guilt about actions that were unintentional.
Reasons for Guilt in Recovery
There are many possible reasons why people will experience guilt in recovery including:
* Things they did or said while under the influence of alcohol or drugs
* The impact of their addiction on family, friends, and work colleagues
* The years wasted on addiction
* The damage to their health
* The damage to their finances
* Irrational guilt for things that were beyond their control
* Failure to live up to expectations
* Low self esteem
* They fear the stigma associated with their history as an addict
* Guilt about thoughts of relapse
The Difference between Shame and Guilt
People can sometimes become confused when it comes to differentiating between guilt and shame. This is hardly surprising as even the experts are unable to agree on what these words mean. Most would agree that there is a difference between these two emotions. One theory suggests that people feel shame when they break societal rules and expectations, and guilt when they go against their own internal values.
Another view is that people feel guilty if they think they did something wrong, but feel shame when their negative feelings are directed towards themselves. Instead of believing that they did wrong they come to the conclusion that they are wrong. When people feel guilty they will often be worried about how their actions affected other people. When the individual feels shame they are focused on their own sense of being damaged. This view would see shame as a very unproductive emotion.
Guilt and Self-Esteem
It is usual for people who are dealing with issues of low self-esteem to also suffer from excessive guilt. It is also noticeable that those individuals who have high self-esteem rarely experience feelings of guilt. The combination of low self-esteem and guilt is often associated with depression and substance abuse. It has been suggested that people need to get better at dealing with guilt if they are to have any hope of building their self-esteem and confidence.
The Benefits of Guilt
The emotion of guilt has played a role in human development. It is said to provide a number of important social functions including:
* It can act as a restraint on wrongdoers. If people feel guilty about their behavior they will be more likely to stop it.
* Those individuals who do not have much power in reality cause use guilt as a way to get what they want from other people – this is sometimes referred to as guilt tripping.
* This emotion encourages people to be more attentive to the needs of other people.
The Dangers of Guilt for People Recovering From an Addiction
Guilt is a dangerous emotion for people who are recovering from an addiction. The dangers of excessive guilt include:
* It is a common relapse trigger. People use their guilt as an excuse to drink or use drug again.
* Many people turn to alcohol or drugs in the first place because they did not feel able to cope with their feelings of guilt. If such emotions continue in recovery they may be tempted to revert back to their old coping strategy.
* People can use guilt as an excuse not to improve their life in recovery. They may believe that they just do not deserve to be happy.
* It is a type of stinking thinking that prevents people from progressing in their recovery from addiction
* Other people may be able to use this guilt to manipulate them
* People can feel so paralyzed by this negative emotion that they feel unable to take action
* Excessive guilt saps mental and physical energy
* It can lead to depression
* It can cause insomnia and may be a factor in the development of other health problems
Guilt as a Relapse Trigger
Relapse triggers refer to anything that causes a person in recovery to consider returning to their former addiction. Just because an individual is exposed to one of these triggers it does not mean that they are going to relapse. So long as they are feeling strong in their recovery they will not be at much risk. It is vital that people are aware of these relapse triggers and do their best to limit their exposure to them.
Guilt is a common relapse trigger. The individual will be feeling bad about things that happened in the past. Their feeling of guilt means that they experience plenty of mental discomfort. This may lead them to thoughts of how they can escape this pain. In the past they will have used alcohol or drugs as a way to escape guilt. These chemicals will have numbed their brains so that they could forget about such uncomfortable feelings. If the individual has no better way of dealing with their guilt they will be tempted to return to their addiction.
How to Deal with Guilt in Recovery
It is common for people to experience feelings of guilt in recovery. There are things that the individual will be able to do to prevent such emotions from derailing their sobriety:
* Feeling remorseful about bad actions is a good thing. It shows that the individual knows right from wrong and wants to live a better life. Excessive guilt though serves no useful purpose; neither the individual nor he person they have hurt. By understanding the uselessness of excessive guilt the individual may be able to move on from it.
* Some types of guilt will be more useful than others. If people are feeling guilty about things they have no control over then this is just a waste of time. If there is something that can be done to remedy a situation then guilt can be beneficial because it motivates action. The important thing is to be aware of what type of guilt is present.
* It is more productive to view guilt as a learning tool rather than a means of punishment.
* Those individuals who belong to a 12 Step program may find that this helps them get over their feelings of guilt. Those who follow the steps are encouraged to take a personal inventory and make amends where appropriate. Many of those members who complete these steps claim that it gives them a sense of starting again with a clean slate; thus they have far less reason to feel guilty about the past.
* There is no requirement to belong to a 12 Step program in order to make amends. Trying to make up for past wrongs can help resolve feelings of guilt. This should only occur when making such amends is not going to cause further harm to anyone. If people in recovery are doing the best they can then this may be all the need to do to make up for the past.
* It is worth remembering that nobody is perfect; every human will have reasons to feel remorseful. The aim in recovery is to become a better person and not a perfect person.
* Mindfulness meditation is an effective technique for helping people to deal with uncomfortable emotions like guilt. It allows them to examine these emotions in a less personal way. This practice also makes it possible for people to realize that such emotions are impermanent; they will not last forever.
* Those who keep a journal may find that this is an effective technique for managing their emotions. Writing about their inner feelings can be cathartic. It is also easier to see everything more clearly when it is written down on paper.
* Helping other people can be highly effective for combating feelings of guilt and shame. It takes the focus away from personal problems. Voluntary work is a wonderful way to build self-esteem.