Shameless Recovery: Guilt, Shame, and How to Cope
Oftentimes, people entering addiction recovery programs have already fallen short of their personal standards.
That is why examining regrets is such an important part of addressing the root cause of addiction. Even so, there is a fine line between knowing you have behaved badly (guilt) and believing you are bad (shame). Distinguishing between guilt and shame could make all the difference to your recovery.
So, What Is the Difference?
While the words are used almost interchangeably, there is a big psychological difference between “guilt” and “shame.”
Guilt prompts us to identify actions that we regret and to correct these actions in our future behavior. Guilt motivates change.
Shame, on the other hand, is the belief that we are inherently bad people and that bad behavior (e.g., substance abuse) is the result of that innate badness. Because there is nothing we can really do about who we are at our core, shame has none of the motivating benefits of guilt. In fact, as Robert Weiss notes on Psychology Today, there is “an inverse relationship between shame and the belief that one is capable of changing for the better.” Some experts have speculated that shame could even be a cause of addiction and that people seek out confirmation of shame by behaving in ways that reinforce it, including returning to an addictive substance or self-harming.
Reframe the Shame
Shame can do some serious damage to your recovery, but there are steps you can take to deal with shame and positively influence the recovery process.
Step 1: Learn to recognize shame-based thinking.
I have referred to guilt and shame as “feelings,” but they are really a series of thoughts. The good news is that you can actually detect shame-based thinking as it is happening and redirect your mind to a more self-compassionate place. The bad news? When shame is really washing over you, it can be hard to divide that experience up into discrete thoughts.
According to the book How to Change Your Thinking about Shame, we can find shame in thoughts that threaten our sense of wholeness (“I am defective”), decency (“I am disgusting”), self-efficacy (“I am useless”), likability (“I am unwanted”), strength (“I am weak”), goodness (“I am bad”), importance (“I am insignificant”), or value (“I am worthless”). The common thread in all shame-based thinking is “I am.” “I have failed” is a guilt-based (not shame-based) thought because it suggests that specific preventable actions were the cause of failure. But in “I am a failure” or “I will always be a failure,” failure is a trait, an internal and unshakable characteristic.
When you reframe shame, the goal is to make that same failure a state, something happening at the moment that is not part of you and will not last forever.
Step 2: Figure out what you are feeling.
If shame is not a feeling, then what is the emotion attached to your shame? Be present. Pay attention to your gut reaction, the inner twinge that kicked shame into gear. Was it a feeling of hopelessness? Frustration? Disappointment? Knowing the kind of emotion you are dealing with will help you to address shame at its core.
Step 3. Exercise some self-compassion.
The goal of reframing is not to reject or suppress the bad feelings, but to come to terms with them in a way that is manageable and actionable. If you are feeling hopeless, acknowledge the hopelessness. Say to yourself, “I feel hopeless because…” and let the feeling itself be okay.
Imagine what you would say to your closest friend if they told you they were feeling the way you are, then treat yourself as you would that friend. It can also help to hear from people who have experienced similar feelings, for instance with peer support/group therapy. You can learn to have compassion for your experience by first empathizing with the experiences of others.
If you are not a people person, interacting with animals can provide similar benefits. Emotional support animals (ESA) and animal-based therapies have been shown to help with addiction and a variety of co-occurring disorders, largely because they help to develop empathy.
By accepting your feelings and practicing a little self-care, you put yourself in the frame of mind to take the necessary actions to move forward.
Step 4: Separate the regrets from the shame.
Once you have determined that your feelings are real, you can start to spot the lies that your shame is telling you. Question the truth of the shame-based thoughts, breaking the regrets down into their smallest parts:
What evidence supports my shame-based beliefs?
What evidence contradicts them?
What outside factors have led me to feel ashamed?
Are there other times that I have felt like this?
Did those feelings really last forever?
What did I do to change things last time?
What could I do to change things now?
What would happen if I let the shame go?
Who would I be without it?
Your regrets are not who you are at your core, and that is what makes you a person who has the strength to try practicing recovery. That is what makes recovery possible.