Guilt and shame in addiction recovery: 10 activities to help cope

You can learn to understand AND cope with guilt and shame after addiction. 10 practical steps on the psychological healing process during recovery from LCSW, LCADC, and CCS Kenneth Pecoraro here.

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Here we review excellent, practical suggestions for dealing with guilt, another tool in addiction recovery from someone who knows.  One of our expert contributors explains processes and perspectives he uses regularly in his own practice of treating substance abuse problems. And we invite your questions about emotional issues, psychological, or even physical issues (such as coping with drug or alcohol cravings) in the comments section at the end.

Understanding and Coping with Guilt and Shame in Recovery

Many people list issues with “guilt and shame” as a critical factor related to substance abuse issues and addiction. Therefore, learning to cope with guilt and shame cane be an integral part of the healing process for many individuals. Interestingly, the words guilt and shame are often used interchangeably.

However, in reality, the two similar feelings can be based on opposing view points. Here we review ways to view at guilt and shame in the recovery process. then, we invite your questions, comments, or experiences in the comments section at the end.

What is guilt?

Guilt: a feeling of responsibility or remorse for some offense, crime, wrong, etc., whether real or imagined.

Another simple way to explain guilt is that guilt is the uncomfortable feeling we often experience when we have done something wrong. And believe it, or not,guilt can be positive and even necessary during addiction recovery. Features of guilt include:

  • Guilt is commonly based on a failure of doing, which often is a direct result of our behaviors and choices.
  • Guilt is based on values, morals, and standards, all of which are necessary and important with regard to guiding our behavior in a positive direction.
  • Guilt involves a violation of standards.
  • Guilt can be a motivator for positive change. In other words, when we do something wrong, then we feel guilty about it, those feelings can motivate us to change our behavior so we don’t make the same mistake or negative choices

How to consider guilt in addiction recovery

When looking at guilt as a violation of standards, it is important to think of the conditions of this feeling. It is completely normal to feel guilt on occasion because we all make mistakes and incorrect choices. But remember, one person’s standards can be very different from another’s, which can result in very different ways people experience (or do not experience) guilt. Consider the following:

  • Whose standards were violated?
  • Where did these standards come from? (Our family, our experience, our beliefs, peer group, society, media, politics, our own ethics, etc.?)
  • Is it possible never to feel guilty?

10 Tips for how to cope with feelings of guilt in addiction recovery

1. Face it.

Face the feelings of guilt. Release feelings of guilt by talking about them, sharing, confessing, getting honest.

2 Learn to forgive yourself.

Do you judge yourself too harshly?

3. Examine the origins of your guilt.

Is the reason that you feel guilt rational and reasonable? Inappropriate or irrational guilt involves feeling guilty in relation to something that in reality you had little or nothing to do with or in relation to something that in reality was beyond your control.

4. Change.

Change the related behavior so that the action or actions triggering feelings of guilt and remorse cease. Simply put: If something you are doing is causing you to feel guilty, then stop doing it and you will no longer have a reason to feel guilty any longer.

5. Clarify.

Clarify new values for yourself and take realistic action in the present instead of dwelling on the past. Think about positive action you can take in your life now to feel better. You are never too old to reevaluate your goals, values and priorities for the better

6. Practice.

Practice forgiving others, helping others and doing good for others. Learning to empathize and forgive others can help you to learn to forgive yourself.

7. Apologize or just seek peace.

Is there something you can say or do in order to try to show that you are willing to make peace where there has been hurt, conflict, or disagreement?

8. Let go.

The past is the past, so at some point, even if there are things you have done to hurt others, if you are sorry now, you need to let them go. Or, if you are truly remorseful over something you have done wrong in the past and you tried to make peace or amends, you can still forgive yourself even when others do not forgive you. By the same token, if someone who hurt you is sorry, learn to let it go yourself so you can forget about the hurt and then focus on moving forward

9.Commit to the present.

Was there a legitimate cause for your past actions that was beyond your control at the time? For example, perhaps you hurt others while you were experiencing untreated mental illness or as the result of active drug or alcohol addiction that you are now making efforts to properly care for. Instead focus on behavior change which will influence better decisions in the present and future.

10. Avoid shame.

Shame is a basic feeling of inferiority. Shame involves the perception of oneself as a failure or feeling unacceptable to others. Shame can involve feeling “flawed” “unworthy” or “not good enough”.

Shame often involves forgetting or disregarding the fact that we are human and we make mistakes but that alone does not make us less of a person. Shame is about self- blame and is directly linked to low self-esteem. Shame often comes from the negative messages we may have received as children from our family of origin. (People who were put down or insulted as children, either directly or indirectly, may end up much more prone to shame-based thinking as adults, although this does not always have to be the case)

Getting past guilt

Irrational thoughts and beliefs can fuel shame and inappropriate guilt. These untruths can perpetuate negative feelings we have about ourselves. Take a look at these statements, and check your own beliefs regarding them.

  • I must get everyone’s approval.
  • I must be perfect.
  • Mistakes are bad.
  • If I am not like ________ then I am not a valuable person.
  • Everyone can see my faults.
  • I am not worthy of forgiveness.

Put it into practice

Think of the rational and reasonable alternative for each of the above shame-based thoughts. For example, for the first one, “In must get everyone’s approval” the more rational alternative might be something like, “I can still feel good about myself even if some people do not approve of me”. Try this for the rest of the statements above. It is worth it not to give up on working through your guilt and shame issues.

About the author
Kenneth Pecoraro, LCSW, LCADC, CCS has worked directly providing treatment for individuals with substance use and coexisting emotional-behavioral issues for over 20 years using a motivational, skills and strengths based, individualized client-centered perspective. The techniques explained in his method, Taking the Escalator: An Alternative to the 12 Steps, help individuals who are resistant to traditional approaches gain the tools needed for learning to increase insight and motivation for positive change.


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  2. Avoiding shame is a double negative. I say embrace your shame and forgive. Recovery is about returning to wholeness, not stopping when the shame is manageable, i.e. sober, straight, new relationship, job, restoration. Working through our guilt will confront our shame and that is where I have ended up in the past, abandoning myself due to those core beliefs of being unworthy, triggered by day to day interactions due to me not willing to meet those criticizing aspects of myself. They manifest externally until the internal dialogue is heard and a loving voice intrudes to reassure and guide each, much like a nurturing parent. I have found counselling with a psychologist has allowed to trust again purely because he didn’t try to fix me, simply offered his humanity, friendship. I’m 57 years old and spent a lot of time trying to get my life on track, I’ve absorbed a lot of ideas but none of them gave me courage. Courage comes from people who are willing to love you as a whole person. They inspire us to shine instead of shrinking back into the shadows.

    If you covet ideas they become ideals and then you forget how to feel. Returning to the toxic shame will release you from ever feeling it again. Your birthright will be restored. An entity. You get to choose your reason, purpose and way. I wish you well, goodbye.

  3. Cindiwindiwoo:

    Like everything that we learn (developmental) or outside the life box, practice the positive!
    True, some need to understand it, before they can perform, especially if they been exposed to a dysfunctional environment.

  4. Loved this article. Judging others is so often a reflection of how we judge ourselves. By practicing empathy and acceptance in others we learn to be more tolerant of our own defects and instead of criticizing ourselves, we take action to prevent any further pain or self-destruction. There is a quick fix to guilt. Just don’t do it. If it makes you feel like crap, it’s just not worth it. Get into your own head. Take control of your own thoughts and actions and go out and do something good. If that doesn’t work, go out and do some more good and keep doing it over and over again until you start feeling good. Good things will happen and you will meet good people and there will be good blessings. In my own recovery I was my own worst enemy in trying to look for complicated, philosiphical, divine, intellectual solutions which only turned out to be “excuses”. It was everyone else’s fault, always. The simple truth is that we have to accept responsibility for every single thing we do, feel or say. We have to be the masters of our own minds. We have to be vigilant in our choices and boundaries. We have to know our triggers. Mostly, we have to know ourselves and we have to know the enemy and protect ourselves from the danger of anything that has the power to reduce us or make us feel less than. Guilt can only exist when we don’t meet our own expectations.

  5. I hear you Addiction Blog, Guilt has always been a challenging issue for me as well. One positive thing that us guilt-prone folks can do is use our guilt as a way to motivate ourselves to be better (within reason of course, there is always the process of letting go and forgiveness that cannot be overlooked) Rock on!

  6. Right. Thanks, Kenneth. I know with whom I can talk to. There is simply one persistent episode for which I feel awful, and it hasn’t been resolved.

  7. Addiction blog, you should know better…The best thing to do with your shame is to talk to someone, like a sponsor or counselor and resolve the inner conflict so you can forgive yourself and others and then let it go. If you are a person of faith it is always a good idea to make it a matter of prayer as well, because of the whole forgiveness peice of faith and spirituality

  8. Thanks for the encouraging feedback guys. I agree this whole thing is an ongoing process, keep up the good work

  9. I can recall a few moments in active addiction of which I am very ashamed. Should I just stop thinking about them?

  10. These are excellent tips. I used to shroud myself in guilt and shame. My sponsor told me to try and learn from my experiences. If I learned something, then event fueling the shame could bring about something useful. This, as well as all the tips mentioned above, have been very healthy and good.

  11. I agree. Experience is a great teacher. Drug recovery is a long road that sometimes goes in different, unexpected directions. Guilt is a large part of recovery, but it takes a lot of time, dedication, and strong will, as well.

  12. Mr. Pecoraro:
    Correct, as individuals are ‘make-up is not the same (physio-psychological). As an athlete I understand this and as a Sport Psychologist with specializations in substance abuse/addiction, enhances it.
    Individuals in recovery while experiencing an extended time of cleansing may find that guilt does surface from their past. Time does heal in some circumstances, but it is important to understand that they do have to let go. . . the past can trigger relapses. Recovery is a long process and different therapeutic treatments are used to help the person seeking treatment (short/long term). Experience is a great teacher (20+ years’).

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