The words guilt and shame are sometimes used interchangeably, but there are distinct differences between them that can have a huge impact on substance abuse recovery.
Feeling guilty means that a person feels bad because they know they did something that deviates from their own values. Guilt is not necessarily bad; it can help a person recognize that they need to stop the behavior, reevaluate the situation, and possibly take corrective action such as making amends.
Experiencing shame, on the other hand, means that a person feels like they are bad or less worthy for having done something wrong. Because it is more intense than guilt, it can have a paralyzing effect, causing the individual to shut down and focus only on concealing their error rather than facing what they have done. Shame is the enemy of accountability.
Shame in Addiction
When a person is in active addiction, they quite likely feel the shame of stigma regarding alcoholics or drug users, and this shame can lead them to:
- Lie about their drug use
- Conceal thefts they have committed from employers, strangers, and loved ones
- Deceive people to get money they know the person would not otherwise give them
- Isolate themselves from people they think wouldn’t approve of their substance use
- Attempt to hide their use
Once a person enters recovery, they don’t automatically stop feeling shame. It may take time before they are healthy enough to be able to take ownership of their mistakes without feeling that their mistakes have made them horrible, irredeemable people. If they have a relapse, a person reacting with shame may try to conceal it, when they truly need support and honest interactions to get back into recovery.
When Shame Turns Toxic
When a person is repeatedly given messages that they are bad or less than other people due to being imperfect, they begin to believe that this is true. An example of this might be when someone is verbally abused during childhood or an intimate relationship. The person may begin to believe that they are undeserving of love and kindness, and their internal voice may constantly flood their mind with negative messages. Toxic shame has been linked to higher risk for substance abuse, self-harm, and eating disorders.
Mental Health and Shame
People who struggle with certain mental health conditions are also more likely to experience shame than other individuals. Conditions that create heightened risk for shame include:
- Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
- Borderline Personality Disorder
Because it is not uncommon for people who have fought addiction to have a co-occurring mental health condition, the risk for experiencing unhealthy levels of shame can be especially high in individuals who have faced addiction and also struggle with mental illness.
How to Overcome Shame
Brene Brown, a therapist, author, and expert on shame, indicates three things that can help a person to move past shame:
- Talking to yourself like you would to someone you love – You would never call someone you respect and admire “stupid” or try to make them feel bad for an honest mistake, so talk to yourself the way you would talk to them, with kindness and understanding.
- Reaching out to a trusted person – If you have a friend, family member, counselor, or sponsor who will be honest but compassionate with you, confide in them.
- Tell your story – Instead of allowing shame to force you to keep secrets, tell the trusted person about your pain; receiving their empathy will give you power to feel empathy for yourself and overcome the shame.
Therapy can also help people to deal with feelings of shame by teaching them resilience, self-compassion, and how to look at their feelings objectively, understanding that certain past experiences could be influencing their emotions.
At Safe Harbor Recovery Center in Portsmouth, Virginia, we take an individualized, whole-person approach to substance abuse treatment, recognizing that the unique emotional, physical, and spiritual needs of our clients all have an impact on their recovery journey. We strive to create treatment plans that will accommodate the individual goals and needs of each person we serve.