On the surface, guilt and shame seem to be intertwined as part of the same ball of emotion.
They form part of the negative feelings that people in recovery from drug and alcohol addiction experience in varying degrees. If you could start to unravel it, however, you would find that these feelings aren’t identical at all.
Understanding the Difference Between Guilt and Shame
Guilt has to do with something you did that bothers your conscience. In other words, guilt is always associated with some type of act. If you feel guilty, then it’s a sign that you need to correct your behavior next time a similar situation comes up. (You may also want to think about doing what you can to make amends in the current circumstances.)
Shame, on the other hand, causes a person to feel inadequate or worthless. There doesn’t have to be any precipitating action to cause someone to feel ashamed of who and what they are. Something someone else says to us or our own thoughts can cause us to feel ashamed of ourselves.
Shame and the Cycle of Addiction
How does feeling shame factor into the cycle of addiction? If you don’t feel very good about yourself and are looking for a way to take those feelings away (at least for a time), you may be drawn to drugs or alcohol.
Often, family members or friends become frustrated or even angry at the situation when dealing with someone with an addiction. They don’t know what else to do, so they resort to the “blame and shame” strategy to try to get a reaction. They think that if talking to someone with an addiction, reasoning with them, pestering them, crying in front of them, and arguing with them haven’t worked, then this strategy might make an addicted loved one “see the light” and agree to stop drinking or using.
If you’re already feeling hopeless and worthless, having someone blame you for your addiction can make you even less likely to reach out to them for help. You may even decide that you don’t “deserve” to get help for your addiction, as if treatment is something that only gets meted out to people who are worthy of it.
To deal with the feeling of shame, you turn to a coping skill that you have used previously: you drink or use drugs. The cycle of addiction continues, along with feelings of guilt and shame for continuing to drink or use, wanting to stop but not being able to, being afraid that it’s “too late” to get help, etc.
How to Deal with Shame in Recovery
Shame is a very real emotion. It’s just as valid as anything else you experience. It would be unwise to assume that going into treatment is going to somehow transform you and you will no longer experience it.
Be Patient with Yourself
When you’re starting a drug and alcohol treatment program, you’re taking on a major life change. If you need to go into detoxification (detox), your body goes through the process of ridding itself of the influence of chemicals. Depending on how long you’ve been drinking or using drugs, it could have been quite some time since you’ve been clean and sober.
As your body’s chemistry adjusts to its chemical-free state, you’re going to be eating a nutritious diet. You’ll be on a regular schedule that includes exercise and getting enough sleep.
All of these changes will start as soon as you check in to the residential treatment facility. You’ll also be meeting the staff, your counselor and the other clients. If you need to get your bearings before you immediately start talking about the subject of shame, you can do that.
Understand that Shame Thrives in the Dark
By its nature, shame is something that grows when we keep the reason for it hidden. For some people, the fact that they have an addiction is a source of shame. They don’t want anyone to know that they live with a chronic disease that causes them to experience an “inability to consistently abstain, impairment in behavioral control, craving, diminished recognition of significant problems with one’s behaviors and interpersonal relationships, and a dysfunctional emotional response.” (ASAM.org)
At one time, no one ever mentioned the word “cancer.” It was a medical condition that wasn’t discussed. Now people are much more open about discussing it. There is still a stigma around addiction, however, it’s starting to fall away as more people are admitting they are living with substance abuse and getting the treatment they need.
As you feel comfortable, talk about feelings of shame around your addiction and what led to you starting to use initially. Once you shine a figurative light on anything that has caused you to feel shame by talking about it, you’ll understand that you don’t have to stay stuck in this feeling.
There’s a Difference Between Private and Shameful
In medical matters, there’s a big difference between something you may want to keep private and something that is shameful. Many researchers hold the view of addiction as a disease.
Clients who go into a treatment program are getting professional, evidence-based treatment. Everything they tell their counselor in an individual treatment session is confidential. The same rule applies to anything discussed in a group therapy session.
Just because you decide to keep your treatment details confidential, it doesn’t mean you have anything to feel ashamed about in seeking help. English Mountain Recovery offers our clients a residential inpatient program with gender specific treatment.