Many addicts feel as if they are the problem, as if they are flawed in some deeply meaningful way and therefore doomed to a life of misery, isolation, and regrettable behaviors. Oftentimes addicts in recovery need a great deal of time before they can even begin to understand that they are not inherently defective, that it was their choices and not their true selves that caused their addiction and its related negative consequences. The good news is that once recovering addicts finally begin to understand that they are good people who’ve behaved badly rather than bad people who are just doing what bad people do, the process of healing can begin.
So where does all this guilt, shame, and remorse experienced by addicts come from? The simple answer is it derives in part from their addiction. Essentially, active addicts engage in behaviors that go against their core values and beliefs. Usually this “loss of moral center” occurs gradually, over time, rather than immediately and all at once. Addicts’ behaviors start out relatively normal and in line with their moral center, but as their drinking, drug use, and other addictive behavior patterns escalate they find themselves crossing one line, and then another line, and another, until finally the person they’ve become is utterly unrecognizable, even to themselves.
Each time an addict violates his or her core values, he or she typically experiences an ever-growing sense of guilt, shame, and remorse. And of course the addict responds to these negative emotions the only way he or she knows how – with more of the addictive activity – thereby creating even deeper feelings of guilt, shame, and remorse. This constant progression of emotional discomfort followed by addictive behavior followed by emotional discomfort defines the addictive cycle. Over time, these negative feelings become internalized and cause the addict to view himself or herself as bad, unworthy, and unlovable. Eventually this negative self-talk becomes an integral part of the addict’s personality and thought process – bolstered by the negative consequences that addicts routinely experience, including ruined relationships, trouble at work or in school, financial issues, declining physical and emotional health, loss of interest in previously enjoyable activities, legal problems, and more. And thanks to the guilt, shame, and remorse that both drive and result from addiction, these negative consequences begin to feel both unavoidable and deserved.
Interestingly, these negative feelings are not, per se, a bad thing. In fact, when an addict experiences some degree of guilt, shame, and remorse after violating his or her core values, especially when this behavior has harmed not only the addict but other people, it is actually a very good sign. These feelings show that the addict does indeed have a moral compass, that the addict does actually know the difference between right and wrong. In this sense, the “negative” emotions of guilt, shame, and remorse can become catalysts for long-term sobriety, positive behavioral change, and a healthy life. In essence, the desire to not experience these feelings in the future helps addicts to not repeat their past mistakes, at the same time encouraging the development of empathy for others and the making of amends to those harmed in the past.
Unfortunately, as mentioned above, for some addicts the internalized feelings of self-loathing can become more tied to their sense of self than to any specific actions or behaviors. These individuals begin to think that they themselves are the problem, and their addiction merely serves as evidence of this fact. When this occurs, a phenomenon generally referred to as either a shame spiral or narcissistic withdrawal can take place, leaving the addict unable to see beyond his or her own toxic shame, guilt, and remorse. This merely pulls the addict deeper into depression and isolation, both of which are serious obstacles to healing. When this occurs, guilt, shame, and remorse have become barriers to recovery rather than a reminder that it is time for behavioral correction, apology, or both. (Ways to overcome toxic emotions are discussed in part two of this blog.)