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By Boris M | 21 September, 2020 Published in Guides
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Guilt and shame are common emotions for people recovering from experience or trauma that has directly hurt themselves or other people.

But there are a multitude of reasons why a person might feel this guilt in addiction recovery.

Some people feel undeserving of happiness or sobriety, while others might feel like they have done too much damage to their own and other’s lives.

This shame and guilt can be an extreme problem for those in recovery, and studies have shown that it can increase a person’s chance of relapsing.

For this reason, people must tackle these feelings early on.

Addiction as Disease and Not a Moral Failing

Addiction is, in fact, a disease. When someone is addicted to a substance, they have a dependency on the substance that causes it to be hard, if not impossible, for them to stop using on their own.

The dependency can be both physical and psychological. When a person develops an addiction, it is due to a process and number of specific conditions that are not a moral failing. [1]

Shame and the Cycle of Addiction

A person may feel shame about their alcohol or drug addiction on their own, or they may feel shamed by friends or family members who are trying to convince them to get help.

Unfortunately, shame can make addiction worse as a person with an addiction may decide that they do not even deserve help or sobriety. They may even increase their drink or drug use to cope with shame. As their addiction gets worse and causes more problems, the shame will also get worse.

Reasons for Guilt in Addiction Recovery

There are a variety of reasons a person might feel guilty about their addiction. They may feel guilty over things that they have said or done and the impact of their choices. Other people may feel ashamed of how much time they wasted on addiction. [2]

Feelings of guilt can also lead to depression and is a significant risk factor for relapse, no matter what the reason is. Therefore, it is important that a person works through their guilt and use it as a tool rather than a detriment.

The Difference Between Guilt and Shame

Guilt and shame are two different emotions. Guilt tends to be the emotion people feel when they have done something against their moral code or feel when they have done something wrong.

On the other hand, when a person feels shame, they tend to feel negative or self-destructive feelings about who they are. Both can because problems during recovery, but guilt can be used as a tool while shame is always destructive. [3]

The Dangers of Guilt for Those in Recovery

There is a wide range of reasons why a person’s guilt, especially when it is excessive, can be a problem for those in recovery. Below are some of the most common:

  • Guilt is a relapse trigger as it can be used as an excuse to drink or use a drug.
  • If a person is unable to cope with their guilt, they may revert to unhealthy coping mechanisms, including using a drug or drinking alcohol.
  • Guilt may cause someone to feel as if they do not deserve to recover.
  • It can stop the progression of recovery.
  • People may use guilt to manipulate.
  • Guilt takes up both physical and mental energy.
  • It can lead to depression, another trigger of relapse.
  • It can cause insomnia and other sleep problems.

Guilt and Risk of Relapse

It is quite common for people with addictions to not fully process and deal with their guilt, which can stunt their recovery progress or cause them to relapse. For some people, guilt over other things is what caused them to drink or use drugs in the first place, so they may return to the substances to deal with the guilt.

Survivors Guilt and Addiction

People with addiction can suffer survivors’ guilt while in recovery. They may feel like they do not deserve happiness or sobriety. They may also feel guilty if other people in the same program deal with relapse or appear to be having a harder time.

If a person does not deal with their survivor’s guilt, it can be just as dangerous as other forms of guilt and shame, and can even lead to relapse. Here are a few tips on how to cope with survivor’s guilt in addiction recovery:

One important strategy for coping with survivors' guilt is changing the way you talk to yourself. When you start to feel guilty or have negative self talk because of what you did (or didn't) do, start to tell yourself about times you have supported someone or done something good.

You can also remind yourself of the hard work you have done and the things you have given up to get sober.

Reframing your emotions during recovery is important when dealing with any negative emotion, but this is especially true with survivor's guilt.

Allow yourself to replace negative emotions with positive affirmations and compassion for other peolpe and yourself.

This takes being intentional and quite a bit of practice, but with time and meditation, you can teach your mind how to feel positive emotions like empathy and compassion instead of guilt.

One great way to deal with survivor's guilt is to help other people and use your sobriety as a way to benefit others. Start to engage those you know need support and compassion.

As you use your sobriety to help others, it will naturally become harder and harder for you to feel guilt. When you do feel guilty, you will be able to focus on helping others rather than what you do and do not deserve.

Open up to counselors, peers who also struggle with addiction, friends, and family about your survivor's guilt. Just like with any other negative emotion, talking to others about what you are struggling with and feel can actually alleviate the pain

While it is important to allow yourself to feel, it is also important that you do not sit in it. Force yourself to follow a routine of going to work or school, attending support meetings, volunteering, working out, etc.

In your schedule, it is good to include time to feel and process your emotions, including your guilt, but do not leave tons of open space for this. Whatever your routine is, sticking to it will prevent you from sitting in your guilt.

Survivor's guilt often stems from the feeling of responsibility. You feel responsible for your past and therefore feel like you do not deserve sobriety. Or you feel responsible for other people's sobriety and therefore feel guilty when they struggle or relapse.

You need to figure out why you feel this sense of responsibility and then start actively working on letting it go. Only after you let the sense of responsibility go will you actually be able to help others.

How to Deal With Guilt in Recovery

There are a few different things people can do to deal with their guilt while in recovery. First of all, it is important to recognize the place of guilt as a learning tool, not as a punishment.

If you look at guilt as a learning tool, you can work to let go of excess guilt (oftentimes talking with a therapist can be beneficial for this.) After you let go of excess guilt, you can start focusing on making amends and moving forward. Once again, a therapist of some sort can be helpful during this process. [4]

Breaking the Cycle of Guilt in Addiction Recovery

If you are not careful, guilt can become a dangerous cycle, which leads you to a worsening addiction. There are four steps you can take to break the cycle of guilt. First of all, you need to recognize that feelings of shame and excessive guilt are not productive.

Second, you can ask for the forgiveness of anyone who you have hurt. Third, let go of things that are out of control, whether they are in the past, present, or future. And finally, forgive yourself; this can be a long process, but it is extremely important.

Are There Benefits to Guilt in Addiction Recovery?

There are a few benefits of guilt for social functioning and growth. First of all, it can help people avoid wrong or immoral behaviours. Two, people can use guilt to explain what they are feeling or need. Finally, guilt can help people be more attentive to each other and each other’s needs.

The Healing Power of Guilt and Letting Go

Guilt and dealing with said guilt are extremely healing. It can be a long and difficult process, but if a person accepts their guilt, make amends, and then let go of past mistakes that they made before the got sober, they will feel more empowered and have better self-esteem.

It can be really hard to work through the process for both the person with the addiction and their loved ones, so it is beneficial to have a third party like a therapist help.
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References

[1] https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/2167702612470645

[2] https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/0740547294900019

[3] https://europepmc.org/article/med/16022935

[4] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4312064/

[5] https://dualdiagnosis.org/why-addiction-is-a-disease-of-the-brain-not-a-moral-failing/