Strategies to Overcome Shame and Guilt in Addiction Recovery

support group

Along the road to recovery, you may grapple with overwhelming feelings of shame and guilt. It’s important to recognize these emotions, as they can be barriers to progress. Overcoming shame and guilt is an integral part of the healing process, paving the way for personal growth and sustained recovery. 

If you follow the 12-Step program, you will be given plenty of opportunities to work through shame and guilt. Step 4 helps you come to terms with past actions that may have hurt others. Steps 8 and 9 focus on making amends and asking for forgiveness from yourself and others. 

Let’s learn more about shame vs guilt, why they are common feelings in recovery and strategies for overcoming them. Keep in mind that as you progress through therapy, shame and guilt can actually intensify, as you’ll be exploring behaviors you may now regret. 

Shame vs Guilt: Similarities and Differences 

While shame and guilt are related emotions, they are different. 

  • Shame. Shame is a feeling that there is something wrong with your whole self - it is not necessarily related to a specific event or behavior. You may feel that you are overall a ‘bad’ or unworthy person. 
  • Guilt. Guilt is a feeling you get when you think you did something wrong or perceived you did something wrong. It is related to something specific, such as not communicating properly with someone or leaving a friend out of your plans. 

How Shame Happens 

Mistakes are a natural part of life, and it’s normal to experience guilt when you have or feel that you have done something wrong. In fact, guilt can be a constructive emotion because it helps you learn and grow in your personal life. If you hurt someone and feel guilty about it, you won’t want to do it again. 

Shame, on the other hand, doesn’t go away because it’s not related to a specific event or behavior that you can apologize for. Instead, it goes much deeper and generally stems from your childhood. Perhaps you were heavily criticized instead of supported, and this caused you to develop low self-esteem. 

There are also biological factors at play. Researchers are looking into the possibility that low levels of serotonin can lead to low self-esteem and submissive behaviors like shame. Furthermore, some people are more sensitive to the criticism they receive, which leads them to feel rejected and unworthy. 

To recap, guilt looks like, “I messed up.” Shame looks like, “I am messed up.” 

supportive friends

Why Shame and Guilt are Common in Addiction Recovery 

It’s common for individuals in recovery to experience shame and guilt. For some people, these feelings came first and they use drugs and alcohol as an escape. For example, someone who was heavily criticized as a child may use substances to temporarily cope with low self-esteem and low self-worth.

For other people, the shame and guilt is a direct result of the addiction. They may have acted in negative ways and hurt those they love. Without intervention and support, it’s easy for this cycle to continue. The only way to heal is through therapy and counseling. 

When you enter drug or alcohol treatment in Easton PA, you’ll explore the underlying reasons for your substance use. Shame and guilt often surface, but your counselor, therapist and/or peers can help you confront these feelings. When you acknowledge your emotions and avoid escaping through drugs or alcohol, you can get to a place of healing. 

How to Overcome Shame and Guilt 

Below are some tips for overcoming shame and guilt in addiction recovery. 

Acknowledge and accept your emotions

Start by acknowledging that feelings of shame and guilt are natural responses but don't define your worth. Cultivate self-compassion by treating yourself with kindness and understanding, just as you would a dear friend facing similar struggles.

Additionally, embrace vulnerability as a strength. Sharing your feelings with a trusted friend, therapist or support group can alleviate the weight of shame and guilt. You’ll likely find that many other people go through these painful emotions, and there is light at the end of the tunnel. 

Reframe negative thoughts

Challenge your negative beliefs. Recognize that addiction is an illness, and mistakes made during that time don't define your character or worth as a person. Plus, now that you are sober, you will have a lifetime to make up for any wrongdoings. 

A helpful way to reframe negative thoughts is by practicing positive affirmations. Affirmations can shift your mindset and reinforce a sense of self-worth and empowerment. Examples of positive affirmations include: I am worthy. Everyday, I am getting healthier. Doing my best is enough. 

Focus on personal growth

Set realistic, achievable goals that contribute to your growth and well-being. Celebrate small victories along the way so that you can create a sense of accomplishment and self-esteem. Also, make time for self-care activities that promote physical, emotional and mental well-being. Exercise, meditation, hobbies and nurturing relationships can boost self-esteem and overall happiness.

Learn from mistakes

Forgive yourself for past actions and decisions. Understand that growth stems from learning, and forgiveness is an essential part of the healing process. Also, focus on making amends with others. Where possible and appropriate, recognize and apologize for past behaviors. Taking positive steps towards righting wrongs can provide closure and aid in healing.

Seek professional support

Professional therapy or counseling can provide guidance and tools to navigate feelings of shame and guilt. Therapists can help with cognitive reframing, processing emotions and developing healthy coping strategies.

Furthermore, peer support groups or recovery communities allow you to share your experiences and learn from others. Connecting with others who understand can alleviate feelings of isolation and provide invaluable support.

Individual and Group Therapy in Easton PA

Overcoming shame and guilt in addiction recovery is a transformative journey that requires patience, self-compassion and perseverance. By acknowledging emotions, reframing negative thoughts and focusing on personal growth, you can navigate through these challenging emotions. 

Recovery Cove is an outpatient drug and alcohol treatment center in Easton PA. We start clients with cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and other evidence-based techniques to begin the healing process. While some of the emotions that come up can be uncomfortable, we are here to help you work through them. 

To learn more about our outpatient treatment services, contact Recovery Cove at 484-549-COVE or fill out our contact form