How Guilt and Shame Can Derail Your Recovery

Posted on February 23rd, 2012
Posted in Articles

Gut-wrenching guilt and shame over your past, if carried with you and allowed to remain, can seriously jeopardize your recovery prospects. When coupled with the recurring cravings and urges to use again, you’re liable to be hit with a double whammy.

What can you do? Are you destined to lug around this useless baggage for the rest of your life? Is there any way out of this morass of guilt and shame you can’t seem to shake? The answer is that there is, but, of course, you’ll have to exert some effort in order to overcome the deficits that guilt and shame have saddled you with.

We’ll take a look at how guilt and shame work to derail your recovery and then cover some practical ways to get past those barriers.

Old Memories Die Hard

What is at the root of the guilt and shame that you feel over your past except old memories that simply refuse to leave? The truth is that we all carry with us memories of what we’ve said and done. It would be impossible not to have them and, quite frankly, our lives wouldn’t have as much meaning if we didn’t keep some memories fresh and ready to review again in our minds.

But when we constantly mull over in minute detail all the things that we’ve said and done that have harmed others to the point where we are paralyzed and incapable of doing the work of recovery, our horizons are limited and we’re not likely to make much, if any, progress in recovery.

Why? There’s no way that we can be proactive if we remain stuck in the past. And the past is what fuels the guilt and shame that we currently feel.

Think about it. You get up in the morning and the first think that enters your head is how worthless you feel and that there’s nothing good that could possibly come from anything you do. You feel this way because of the burden of guilt and shame that you wrestle with every day. Until you learn how to overcome these tremendously self-destructive emotions, you’ll have a continuing uphill battle in recovery.

Negative Breeds Negative

Another way that guilt and shame work to undo your recovery, or prevent it from even getting a firm footing, is that a constant emphasis on negativity – and guilt and shame are most definitely negative – does nothing except foster even more negativity.

It’s hard to think or do anything positive if you’re mired in thoughts about how bad you feel and worried about how others regard you due to your past actions in the grip of your addiction.

All you need to do is look in the mirror and you can likely see the ravages that guilt and shame have created. Your brow may be furrowed, your mouth turned downward in a scowl or you avert your eyes because you don’t like what you see. Your very image is a reminder of the terrible person you now believe yourself to be.

What do you suppose happens the rest of the day after it begins like this? Nothing very promising, more likely than not. Who in their right mind would want to continue this way?

Self-Punishment Doesn’t Cleanse Your Soul

If we believe that we are bad or that we are so guilty of transgressions because of our addiction, we often engage in a never-ending ritual of self-punishment. We berate and belittle ourselves because we believe that we deserve to be punished for what we said and did.

Some of us may even consider ourselves sinners in the truest sense of the word. But having sinned, or committed transgressions against others that have done them harm, doesn’t mean that we are sentenced to a lifetime of penance. It doesn’t mean that we should continue to castigate ourselves and condemn ourselves to a narrow world where we never seek happiness or work to better our way of life.

Beyond being a useless form of self-indulgence, self-punishment in the form of guilt and shame will never cleanse your soul. For that you need to seek the counsel of your spiritual advisor, or take up a heart-to-heart conversation with your Higher Power, or God as you know Him. Bottom line: guilt and shame in the guise of self-punishment do no good whatsoever for your recovery.

No One Else Can Come In

When you are closed up and closed off by guilt and shame, there’s no way that anyone else can get in. That means that your hard-encased and self-imposed mantle of guilt and shame simply won’t permit you to let anyone get close to you, not even a friend.

The most bitter individuals, those who believe themselves to be evil and cast-out by virtue of what they’ve done, engage in another habit that’s self-destructive to recovery from drug and alcohol abuse and that is to refuse to allow themselves to be in the company of friends.

After all, they may think to themselves, who wants to be with me after what I’ve done? Well, what do you think are the prospects for those individuals who remain secluded and bereft of human interaction? They generally continue to sink deeper into their gloomy and self-berating thoughts and fail to take action to help in their recovery.

They often return to their drug of choice as a means to obliterate the pain, if only for a short while.

Suicide is a Real Risk

The longer you carry the oppressive burden of guilt and shame, the worse you feel about yourself and your chances to make a change in your life. Carried to extremes, a continuing emphasis on how terrible you’ve been and all the damage you’ve done to others will eat away at you to the point where you may not see any way out.

This is exacerbated by your shutting yourself off from family and friends, from a refusal to take part in 12-step meetings or seeing your therapist or taking your medication, if prescribed to help you overcome depression, anxiety or other psychological conditions or disorders.

No, not every person who feels overwhelming guilt and shame will be pushed to the point of thoughts of suicide or suicidal actions, but the risk is very real. And the risk will not go away without intervention, without either the individual seeking help or others intervening to get help for the person consumed with guilt and shame.

Turning Your Life Around: First Steps

Okay, enough of the bad news. Now that you’ve got a better idea of the harm that keeping on the trajectory of guilt and shame will result in, it’s time to look at what you can do to start turning your life around. The key is that you need to take small steps, manageable ones, and you might as well begin today.

This all begins with a suspension of disbelief. What’s this? Very simply, what you need to do right now is put a stop to your thoughts that you aren’t worth saving, or that you cannot possibly heal. Just tell yourself that you will, for just today, think that you are worth it, that you do deserve a chance to make your life better. Just today, let’s just start with that.

Of course, there’s a lot more to getting past guilt and shame than telling yourself that you deserve the chance to do so, but this is a necessary first step. You have to allow yourself permission to heal before you can actually begin to heal.

n a way, this is a lot like the suspension of disbelief you went through prior to going into rehab. You had no way of knowing whether or not treatment would work. You probably already had a mountain of guilt and shame you brought with you into rehab, but you at least gave yourself the go-ahead to get help, and you took it.

This shows that you do have what it takes to get past guilt and shame. This is a very real demonstration that it is possible to make a difference in your life. But there’s more work ahead for you to make progress in overcoming these oppressive thoughts and emotions.

Get Some Additional Help

What we’re talking about here isn’t occasional twangs of conscience or guilty feelings about your past. This is the serious stuff, the guilt and shame that’s so overpowering that it lays you flat and you don’t do anything proactive for your recovery.

If this is what you’re carrying around with you, it may be appropriate for you to consider getting some additional help in the form of counseling. Your 12-step sponsor isn’t your counselor, nor is your best friends, loved ones or family members. While they are key members of your support network, they aren’t equipped to deal with such powerful emotions that are wreaking such havoc on you. This isn’t their function, either.

If you have continuing counseling available to you in aftercare or continuing care as a part of your rehab or treatment program, by all means avail yourself of it. There’s no reason why you shouldn’t be able to take advantage of what is readily available to you. The only obstacle here is your unwillingness to admit that you need help.

Again, this is much like the self-denial you once engaged in before you finally admitted you needed help to overcome your addiction in the first place. And you got beyond that barrier, so now it’s time to get past this one.

If you do not have counseling readily available, ask for a recommendation from your treatment facility, your family doctor, your minister or clergyman, or from another trusted advisor. Seeing a psychologist or psychiatrist or other therapist may also be covered under certain federal, state or local programs and your referring physician or facility may have information on where such counseling is available for a pay-as-you-go or reduced rate plan.

The other point to be made here is that getting past guilt and shame isn’t a lifelong pursuit. With effective therapy you can get past these emotions that are counter-productive to your recovery. Once you get involved in therapy and start divesting yourself of the burden of guilt and shame, you will probably wonder why it took you so long to do so in the first place.

What’s next? Take proactive steps to continue in your recovery. Read Get Busy with the Work of Recovery.

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