Man dealing with shame in addiction recovery

Dealing With Shame in Addiction Recovery

Would all the humans please stand up? How about those dealing with shame in addiction recovery? How can we work to overcome the guilt and shame that comes with recovery?


Okay, if you’re standing and reading this article, you probably know what it’s like to deal with shame. That’s because we all have at least one moment where we wish we could go back and rewrite our personal history. 


Smile instead of scowl, turn right instead of left, say no instead of yes. 


And if you’re in addiction recovery, you may find yourself thinking of those pivotal moments often. It’s hard not to. After all, you’re where you are today because of the decisions you made. We all are. And we’ll get where we’re going tomorrow and in the weeks, months and years to come by the decisions we make as we move along. 


So how does dealing with shame in addiction recovery factor into all of this?


Shame is a powerful force. Untamed, it can pull us back. Well-managed, it can propel us forward. Today we’ll talk about how shame works to control the actions of a person in recovery and what you can do to take that control back. 


Checking in With Our Feelings: Is This Shame or Guilt?

Words matter, don’t they? Especially when we’re overcoming guilt and shame in recovery. So let’s start by looking at how Merriam Webster distinguishes between the two


Shame is a painful emotion caused by the consciousness of guilt, shortcoming or impropriety; a condition of humiliating disgrace or disrepute. 


Guilt is the fact of having committed a breach of conduct, especially violating a law; deserving blame for offenses. 


Notice any key distinctions? First, we see that shame is a feeling while guilt is a fact. Second, we see that shame takes on a label of disgrace or disrepute, while guilt simply accepts blame for an offense. 


Odds are, you’ve experienced both as you moved from addiction to sobriety. As you think back, it may be clear where guilt began and later morphed into shame. It may also be that the two are so intermingled in your journey that they’re nearly indistinguishable. 


Still, when a negative thought regarding your past and present crosses your mind, it’s worth asking yourself, “Is this thought coming from a place of guilt or shame?” 


Research tells us that while guilt might be useful in getting and staying sober, shame most likely is not. Working to overcome guilt and shame in recovery may be the way to go. But first, we’ve got to recognize the problems shame causes and kick it to the curb. So how can we effectively overcome guilt and shame in recovery?


Dealing with Shame Stalls Addiction Recovery: Here’s Why 

Dealing with shame in addiction recovery tells a story: I was bad. I am bad. I will be bad in the future. 


Then it’s no wonder, that a person hoping to overcome addiction stalls out when shame speaks up. The thought pattern goes: Well, if I’ve always made poor choices regarding drugs or alcohol in the past, I’ll probably continue making poor choices in the future. 


At this point, one of three things can happen: 


You’ll give in to the inevitable. Why struggle through the tough days of sobriety only to find yourself addicted again in the future. Shame says: go ahead and do what you’re going to do. And so, you do. 


You’ll feel terrible about yourself. After all, you may truly long for sobriety and the bright future it offers you. You want to rebuild relationships and go after your dreams. Your brain says: This is sad and uncomfortable. A small drink or a quick hit might help. And so, you cope. 


You recognize shame for what it is: a manipulation of the truth. Sure, you made poor choices before, but your past does not define you. You say: I was addicted. I am working toward sobriety. I will reap the rewards of my efforts. And so, you believe. 


It’s our hope that when shame speaks up, you choose option three, even though it’s going to be tough to do. Start simple. Say: “I made poor choices in the past. I’m making better choices now. I’ll continue to make positive choices in the future.” Then, when you’re ready, you can make your declaration more powerful by getting specific and personal. 


Try something like: 

I was an absent dad. Today, I am present. I will be an awesome dad in the future. 

I was an unreliable employee. Today, I am loyal. I will be a strong asset for years to come. 

I was an unfaithful spouse. Today, I am committed now. I will be a loving partner to the end. 


You might think, “Come on, these are just words.” That’s true. But words are powerful. We can retrain our brain with the words we say, especially if we say them enough to believe them. 


The Power of Harnessing Shame—and Sending it Away for Good 

Okay, we can all agree that shame has got to go. And we can work to retrain our thoughts so that the truth of our life—and our future—reigns supreme. But how, exactly, do we take back the power shame holds over us and eventually kick it to the curb for the long haul?


Thankfully, science shows us a way to deal with shame in addiction recovery, offering six things you can do now: 


Drop the moral component of shame. 

There’s something we know now that we didn’t know years ago: addiction is a disease, not a moral failure. So, as you sit in shame, remind yourself of the facts. Genetics, home environment and age of first use all play a huge role in whether or not a person becomes addicted. 


Remember what shame tells us: I was bad. I am bad. I will be bad in the future. But the truth, most likely, is that you’re a good person having a tough time.  


Say, “I don’t want to be the kind of person who . . .”

You can experience the power of harnessing your shame by letting it show you your actions, ugly and all. Then, use the information you discover to make a declaration: “I don’t want to be the kind of person who . . .” and encourage your actions to follow suit. 


Researchers at ScienceDirect shared the following true and related story: “A heavy smoker is about to pick up his children from school. It is raining heavily. When he is almost there, he notices that he is out of cigarettes, and although he sees his children standing in the rain waiting for him, he changes direction to buy cigarettes. But just at that moment, he is struck by the following thought: ‘I don’t want to be the kind of person who leaves his children standing in the rain to buy cigarettes’; and he subsequently quits smoking.”


Find a place of holding responsibility without wallowing in blame. 

In order to move toward a life of sobriety, you must take responsibility for your actions. But you don’t have to wallow in blame—especially if that blame comes with “hostile feelings, thoughts and attitudes,” as research shows little benefit in beating yourself up. We can sometimes be our worst critics, can’t we? Instead, work to acknowledge your actions without attacking your character. And if you’re getting harsh blame from friends or family, consider asking for grace as you own up to your actions. 

You might say, “I know I hurt you. And I’m so sorry. I’m working now to change my behavior. I want to be a reliable, trustworthy person. But I have to believe it’s possible. And I need you to believe it too. Could you help me by offering grace for my past decisions and encouraging me on my journey toward recovery?”


Learn to forgive yourself. 

You might read this suggestion with a chuckle or even a defeated sigh. Forgiving oneself is no easy task—and it may take you some time to really get there. But forgiveness should be the goal. Research tells us that self-forgiveness goes a long way toward reducing shame and increasing acceptance. And as you well know, these moves are vital to the recovery journey. 


Forget shame as you aim for pride. 

Instead of focusing on dealing with shame in addiction recovery, you might instead work to build your sense of personal pride. You made poor choices in the past, sure, but you have the opportunity to make wise choices in the future. Why not start now? 


Counselor Eric Patterson, LPC, encourages patients to “devote time and energy each day toward doing something that generates pride—volunteering your time, assisting a neighbor, and donating to charity are all simple options to produce pride.” After all, as pride increases, the room available for shame—and the time to dwell on it—inevitably decreases. 


Ask for help. 

Dealing with shame in addiction recovery for good is a tall order. And you may need help to make it happen. That’s okay. Actually, let me rephrase that. Asking for help is smart. It shows a real desire for change. Working with a trained professional means you’re not only more likely to learn how to drop shame but also develop strategies for keeping it away for good. 


And we know that saying overcoming guilt and shame in recovery means you’re able to focus on a brighter future. And that’s the goal, isn’t it?


Are you hoping to ditch shame but not sure where to start? We’re here to help! Give our advisors a call today at 844.767.9404. 



Written by Stephanie Thomas

Contributing Writer with Promises Behavioral Health

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