Do you remember playing dodge ball in grade school? A big part of the game was getting hit if you were left “open.” Did you ever feel like you deserved to be hit if you weren’t fast enough to get out of your opponent’s way? Shame is much like this analogy when people feel they deserve the proverbial hit if they don’t know, or do, better. Guilt is like the strategy part of the game – people thinking that if there is a better strategy, they can avoid getting hit, but they feel remorseful when their strategy fails. In the case of addiction to alcohol or drugs, if you experience more consequences due to your use, you to fail to control your use during attempts at sobriety or you have a relapse while in recovery, you may feel remorse when your plans go awry.
Shame and guilt are complex emotional responses and are very familiar to those who have an addiction. Let’s explore some different perspectives on guilt and shame and how they apply to addiction and recovery.
Guilt is a useful internal barometer that signals when something is amiss. If we can learn from guilt, then it is purposeful. But letting go of guilt after the lesson is learned is necessary for us move into the future without the burden of guilt from our past weighing us down. We all have a belief system of what we think is right or wrong. This belief system is formed when we are very young, influenced by parents and teachers and further shaped by our peers. When we act or make choices contrary to what we believe is right, we develop a conflict within ourselves and the bi-products of that conflict can be shame and guilt.
For example, let’s say you grew up in a family that disapproved of using drugs and at some point your peers or other circumstances influenced you to use drugs. You would have an internal conflict, and it would be compounded if you developed an addiction to the drug and kept using it. When continued drug or alcohol use leads to negative consequences, shame typically develops.
Shame is often said to be the idea that a person believes himself or herself to be bad because of their choices and behaviors. It is the perspective that you ARE what you do or chose, instead of being able to separate your behavior from your true character. People who make poor choices when they are impaired by drugs or alcohol will often feel shamed because of things they’ve done. Recovering people are served better by remembering - “you are not your disease.” It is part of who you are, but not all of you. People need to be able to re-invent their selves, make amends for their past and move forward in life. Guilt and shame can potentially lead a person back to using alcohol or drugs if they are unable to reconcile their internal conflicts. Step-work is a process that allows people to recover from the choices and behaviors of their past, achieve atonement, and move forward.
A final perspective to consider is that of self-concept. A person’s self-concept can be shaped by their addiction. Even in recovery when people regularly identify themselves as “alcoholic” or “addict”, they may begin to see themselves as their disease. The social stigma associated with addiction can reinforce this self-concept. Identifying by your addiction is intended to remind you of where you came from so you don’t return there by using drugs or alcohol. However, forever being identified by your past behaviors or your disease can result in shame-based thinking or behavior.
Once a person begins to identify as “grateful” and “recovering”, their self-concept can begin to change to a healthier one. Part of the gift of recovery is being able to reinvent yourself, learn from your past, and shape a future free from the shackles of shame and guilt.
Written by: New Hope Recovery Center
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