The “Recovery Value” of Guilt, Shame, and Remorse (Part Two)


As written in part one of this blog, many addicts feel as if they are flawed in some deeply meaningful way and therefore doomed to a life of misery, isolation, and regrettable behaviors. These addicts, usually with histories of childhood abuse and neglect, feel as if they themselves are the problem, as if they are inherently bad and unlovable people. Such individuals often fall into a “shame spiral,” in which they are unable to see beyond their own guilt, shame, and remorse, descending ever-deeper into depression and isolation, both of which are very serious obstacles to any sort of healing. Over time they come to believe they are not worth the effort of recovery, that they have no control over their behaviors, and they do not deserve to be healthy, happy, and free from their addiction. 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.

The simple truth is all addicts in early recovery, even those for whom guilt, shame, and remorse have not reached the level of toxicity, are vulnerable to the “stinking thinking” caused by these and other negative emotions. For many recovering addicts these feelings can become overwhelming, leading them to conclude that the only way to “turn off” the fear, anger, and self-loathing is to numb out with more of the same addictive behavior, or perhaps to engage in other forms of self-harm such as cutting, burning, suicide, and the like. Given this, one of the primary goals of early recovery is coming to understand that living in the past – a past that cannot be changed – helps no one. Instead, recovering addicts must focus on the present, on maintaining sobriety and behaving differently one day at a time. Actions that can help in this regard include:

  • Attending 12-step meetings, finding a sponsor, and working the steps. This encourages interaction with other recovering addicts, which is absolutely essential to the healing process. It also helps addicts to become honest about what they have done and to eventually make amends, which nearly always goes a long way toward alleviating shame.
  • Being better today than yesterday. This helps addicts to better understand that recovery is a journey, not a destination. Aiming for perfection is not realistic. A more reasonable goal for recovering addicts is to not repeat the mistakes of the past and to become, over time, better people.
  • Building a support network of peers in recovery, beyond just a therapist and a 12-step sponsor. Addiction is a disease of isolation, and overcoming it is a process of re-engagement with the world. As recovering addicts build their support network and learn to trust other individuals, they are able to more easily reach for help when triggered, and therefore more likely to remain sober long-term.
  • Trying new and enjoyable activities with family, friends, and supportive others. This helps addicts understand that even though they have made mistakes, they are worthy of a second chance and a better life. It also helps addicts develop new hobbies and interests they can engage in instead of relapsing.
  • Volunteering and/or being of service. This helps addicts see that in addition to harming themselves and others, they can also make the world a better place – and making the world a better place feels good. The better addicts feel about themselves and their place in the world, the less likely they are to relapse.
  • Gaining insight into the origins of feeling shameful and unworthy. This helps addicts understand that their problem behaviors are a maladaptive attempt to self-sooth and make healthy connections, no matter how far off the mark. It also reinforces the idea that those behaviors are not a sign that addicts are inherently bad, unworthy, or unlovable.
  • Integrating a history of past trauma, abuse, or neglect. Insight into past trauma, abuse, or neglect can serve as a vital source of shame reduction and self-forgiveness, both of which are necessary to healing and the development of a healthy life.

It is incredibly important for addicts new to recovery (and even those not so new to recovery) to understand that wallowing in the wreckage of the past does not serve them. In fact, it may prevent them from doing the work of recovery. Instead of becoming mired in toxic emotions, recovering addicts need to recognize and acknowledge their guilt, shame, and remorse, seeing these emotions as partly healthy (serving as motivation for behavior change) and partly unhealthy (keeping them mired in a shame spiral and the desire to self-soothe with addictive substances and behaviors).

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