Addiction recovery is often intertwined with feelings of guilt, shame and worthlessness, creating a vicious circle of using drugs and alcohol to cope with the feelings the substances caused in the first place. Feelings of guilt or shame in recovery are common, which can sometimes lead to a relapse if the person has no healthy coping strategies in place.

Shame is a complex emotion that affects all aspects of a person’s life. For those in recovery, the feeling is often more prevalent because of their history of drug and alcohol abuse.

Why Do We Experience Feelings of Shame in Recovery?

Working on your recovery can mean facing the way you acted in the past, including mistakes. Shame is a painful emotion that makes the person feel flawed, inadequate or unworthy. It’s an underlying sense that there’s something deeply wrong with them at their core.

Addiction often involves socially unacceptable behaviors such as stealing, lying and manipulating those around you. Most people in recovery aren’t proud of how they acted when taking drugs or drinking. Feelings of guilt can turn into shame, which may lead to a person isolating. Sometimes people from the addict’s social circle and their family will want to avoid them, increasing the sense of loneliness.

People in recovery may struggle with guilt when remembering their past behaviors and the impact they had on themselves and those around them. When guilt turns into shame, a person in recovery can feel unworthy of love or that there’s something inherently wrong with them. This, in turn, can lead to low self-esteem, secrecy, perfectionism and people-pleasing behaviors, such as agreeing to do something you don’t want to.

How to Challenge Shame and Guilt In Recovery

Recognizing your emotions is the first step toward challenging negative feelings. Overcoming intense negative feelings of shame is challenging and likely to take a while. Both shame and guilt can make you feel inferior to those around you and stop you from achieving your goals.

While there’s no magical pill to heal complex emotions, here are a few suggestions that may help you challenge negative self-thoughts and manage feelings of shame.

  • Find the root cause of your shame. While uncomfortable, understanding why you feel shame and where it comes from can help the healing process. Shame can rise from your history of substance use, or it can be related to your upbringing.
  • Acknowledge but don’t dwell on your mistakes. Understanding the impact your actions had is important, but constantly criticizing yourself for your past won’t help your recovery journey. Most people have acted inappropriately while in active addiction; taking responsibility for your actions is not the same as constantly beating yourself up for them.
  • Learn to forgive yourself. You’re only human, and humans make mistakes. By forgiving yourself, you permit yourself to grow as a person.
  • Be kind to yourself. Whenever you notice negative self-talk, try to imagine what you would say to a friend going through a similar situation.
  • Build a healthy support network. Surround yourself with people and family members who are supportive of your journey. Having someone who believes in you and your ability to succeed is an important part of moving on from the damage addiction caused.

Nurture Self-Compassion and Self-Acceptance

Most people are harsher on themselves than they would be when speaking to a friend or even a stranger. Negative self-talk is not just emotionally damaging; it would probably get you thrown out of a room if you addressed anyone else in the same manner.

Alcoholism and shame typically go hand in hand because drinking removes a person’s inhibitions and makes them act in ways they normally wouldn’t. Calling yourself cruel names and telling yourself you’re a failure for one bad decision or even a series of terrible choices you made while under the influence only serves to exacerbate negative feelings. Instead, try to imagine how you’d react if someone you care for was confessing the same bad decision. Are you likely to respond with compassion and understanding, or would you berate them in the worst possible way?

By nurturing a mindset of self-compassion and self-acceptance, you learn to accept yourself as a flawed human being who made mistakes. It doesn’t necessarily mean there’s something inherently wrong with you or that you’re beyond redemption.

Feelings of shame and guilt tend to surface during the early days of recovery, especially as the drugs are no longer there to “take the edge off.” When that happens, try to approach yourself from the same place of understanding you would your best friend. Acknowledge past mistakes while recognizing how far you’ve come in your recovery and personal development.

You Don’t Have to Do It Alone

It’s not uncommon to feel alone, especially when you’ve just started your recovery journey. However, you can get the support you need to understand your emotions and overcome feelings of shame. Therapy and treatment are an important part of your journey, as is connecting with other recovering addicts.

  • Seek individual therapy. A mental health professional can guide you through your feelings of guilt and shame in recovery and offer practical and evidence-based treatment methods to help you cope.
  • Peer recovery programs. There are plenty of recovery meetings and groups where you can receive support from other people also battling addiction. The most well-known are 12-step programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous, but there are other options available, such as SMART Recovery.
  • Online support groups and message boards. Online video chat meetings and internet forums where you can seek advice and connect with peers may be worth exploring as an alternative to face-to-face meetings. However, do stay cautious about how much personal information you divulge online.

How to Cope With Setbacks

As you move forward in your recovery journey, you’ll undoubtedly encounter across setbacks. Having bad days and day-to-day stresses is a normal part of life. Sometimes, just one piece of negative feedback from a friend or coworker can bring back all those feelings of guilt and shame.

However, you can remind yourself with self-compassion that mistakes and life challenges are to be expected. But they’re not a reason for negative self-talk or falling back into addiction. Remember how hard you’ve worked to reach this point in recovery and approach each setback as an opportunity to learn more about yourself and grow.

Focus on Rebuilding Your Life

Your struggles with addiction may have robbed time from your life or even relationships with your loved ones. Feeling shame in recovery is common, but you can overcome it with the right tools and support network in place. Shift your focus toward self-compassion and self-acceptance, which can help you rebuild your self-worth and achieve your goal of sobriety.

If you’re overcome with negative emotions such as shame and guilt while battling addiction, you don’t have to do it alone. Our compassionate team of addiction specialists can help you start your recovery journey. Contact Sunlight Recovery today; we’re here to listen.