Guilt and shame are major drivers of addiction and relapse. They are difficult emotions to deal with because when you feel shame or guilt, you face a dilemma: you can either try to run from it, often by using, or you beat yourself up with it. Shame and guilt are hard to let go of because you feel like letting go means you condone your mistakes, and this is compounded by the feeling that by forgiving yourself, you open yourself to criticism from others. That is, shame and guilt are a way of telling the world, “You can’t possibly say anything worse to me than I say to myself.” Unfortunately, getting stuck in shame and guilt prevents you from healing and makes it more likely you will repeat old mistakes. So what can you do about it?
The first thing is to separate shame and guilt. Basically, guilt is the feeling that you’ve done something bad, whereas shame is the feeling that you are bad. Guilt is a useful emotion and shame is not. So the first thing is to separate yourself from your actions. Making mistakes does not make you inherently bad. This is difficult to accept at first, but start by trying to acknowledge the distinction.
Next, clarify what you feel guilty about. You may have perfectly valid reasons for feeling guilty. Writing down what you feel guilty about and why will make your guilt seem a little more manageable. This is part of the 12 Steps–Admitt[ing] to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
Once you have written down exactly why you feel guilty, you can start to do something about it. If you have harmed someone–as you would figure out in step eight–you might be able to make amends. This is partly about offsetting the damage you have caused, but it’s also about asking forgiveness. Since one reason letting go of guilt is hard is that it leaves us open to criticism, asking forgiveness and making amends is a way of going to the people who have most cause to be angry at us and saying, “I know I did something wrong and I’m sorry. I’m not pretending I didn’t make a mistake but now I have to move forward.” Admitting the mistake and asking forgiveness unties the knot and makes it easier to let go of guilt.
None of this is easy and you will probably need help. You may need lots of help. A therapist can help you understand why you feel guilty and why it’s so hard to let go of that guilt. A group can let you know that you aren’t alone and support you despite your mistakes. Sometimes it helps to have permission to let go of guilt. It’s hard to see our own situation with much clarity and sometimes you need someone to tell you when you’re being too hard on yourself.
Smarmore Castle Private Clinic in County Louth, near Dublin was founded in 1988 as a residential rehabilitation hospital treating people suffering from drug and alcohol purposes. Smarmore Castle believes in helping patients lead a life of abstinence through 12 Step programs, detox and medical treatment, psychotherapy, and complementary therapies. For more information, please call 041-214-5111. For those who live out of the country, the international number is 00353-41-214-5111.