If you are in recovery, you have most likely had to confront the heavy feelings of guilt and shame. These emotions will naturally emerge as you progress through therapy, exploring the behaviors you may now regret. Step Four of the 12-Step Program helps you come to terms with past actions that caused others harm in some way.
It isn’t easy to acknowledge the mistakes made while in active substance use. It can feel terrible. However, the whole concept of rehabilitation rests on renewal and restoration. To harbor negative emotions about yourself, like guilt and shame, is self-defeating. While you should take stock of the errors made and make amends to those you might have hurt, it’s important not to get stuck in the past and then allow those memories to shape your present.
When we admit our wrongdoings and take the steps to change ourselves for the better, we can let go of negative self-perceptions. Feelings of guilt and shame have no purpose in your new life, especially once you have completed Step Five. Instead of allowing residual feelings of shame or guilt to define you as a person, box them up and discard them. Otherwise, those feelings may fester and begin to undermine your recovery efforts.
Why People Feel Guilt in Recovery
When you emerge from the fog of substance use, past events begin to show on the surface. You become acutely aware of the harm you may have caused your loved ones, and this can lead to feelings of deep regret and guilt. Guilt may be related to the harmful things you did, but also to the things you promised you’d do and didn’t follow through with. Guilt is an appropriate response to these revelations, but should not be clung to once apologies and amends are made.
Why People Feel Shame in Recovery
Between these two emotions, shame is the most destructive. While shame is a natural offshoot of guilt and remorse, internalizing it in recovery is dangerous. When shame becomes part of your self-identity, it can prevent you from moving forward in recovery. A deep sense of shame sets up the broader feeling of unworthiness, of being unworthy of love, support, or help. Shame can become toxic to your recovery efforts, even set you up for a relapse.
Overcoming Guilt and Shame
Fortunately, there are some actions that will help you move past the feelings of guilt and shame in recovery. Consider these tips:
- Understand that negative feelings work against your recovery. These negative emotions are not constructive, and will only damage your larger goal of achieving a healthy, positive substance-free life.
- Learn to forgive yourself. It is fine to acknowledge past mistakes and feel badly about them, but to move forward in recovery, you need to forgive yourself for those things. Nothing productive will come from dwelling on past errors that can’t be undone. Ask forgiveness of loved ones, then forgive yourself and move on.
- Redefine yourself. Change the way you view yourself. Instead of seeing yourself as a person who inflicted harm on others while battling a disease, change that narrative. See yourself now as someone who is enlightened and focused on doing the right thing. Envision yourself as a good person who deserves love.
- Surround yourself with people that value you. To break free from negative feelings that keep you stuck, avoid people who seem determined to make you pay for your misdeeds. These toxic people are intent on imposing guilt on you and won’t let go. Avoid these people and connect with those who are understanding and compassionate, and who want to help you move forward.
Break away from guilt and shame and turn your focus to the present, on the person you are today. Know that you are worthy of forgiveness, and that you are also worthy of love.