Understanding Guilt in Recovery
Guilt is a powerful emotion with an extremely negative impact on most aspects of recovery and is a common feeling for people both in recovery and considering recovery to experience regarding their addiction. By recognizing guilt in recovery when it occurs and taking proactive action to alleviate it, you can lower the risks it presents to recovery.
Guilt vs. Shame
While the terms guilt and shame are often used interchangeably, they are not the same emotion, with each having its own unique effects on the recovery process. Each is an uncomfortable and unwanted emotion. Each can be associated with other feelings of disappointment, self-consciousness, setback, and disillusionment. And, each contributes directly to addiction and other mental health concerns, though in different ways.
Guilt is a painful feeling of responsibility or remorse resulting from some offense, wrongdoing, crime, or other action a person took. This feeling may occur regardless of whether the person’s responsibility for the action is real or imagined. Guilt is, thus, restricted to a single event or thought, while shame, by contrast, is an undesired feeling resulting from a self-conception of being fundamentally dysfunctional, dishonorable, or otherwise flawed. It is foundational to how a person views him or herself and, therefore, can inform and influence all actions the person takes and interactions he or she has.
Guilt is a feeling associated with making a particular mistake, while shame is a core belief in one’s own innate badness and inability to do anything good or right. While guilt can typically be traced to a single error or regret, shame tends to develop over time, stemming from experiences and influences in one’s environment during childhood.
Types and sources of guilt include:
• Survivor guilt – Stemming from the loss of a loved one or surviving an event that others did not survive
• Separation guilt – Stemming from the loss of someone’s presence in a person’s life
• Maladaptive guilt or omnipotent responsibility guilt – Stemming from an irrational belief in a person’s responsibility for circumstances, situations, and events outside their control
• Adaptive guilt or trait guilt – Stemming from a person’s innate disposition or character or a chronic guilt complex
• State guilt – Stemming from a feeling of responsibility for one’s own current situation, conditions, or circumstances
Shame, however, can come from sources like:
• Persistent traumatic incidents, like child abuse or sexual abuse
• Insecure attachment to or dependence on others
• Harmful parenting styles
• Exposure to parents using substances
• Awareness of the negative stigma attached to mental health concerns
Any one of these types or sources of guilt or shame could trigger addictive behavior or relapse. What’s more, despite the clear differences between them, the experiences and expressions of shame and guilt can be difficult to distinguish. To complicate matters further, a person can feel both guilt and shame at the same time.
It is vital, however, to distinguish shame from guilt in recovery in order to determine the best course of action to ameliorate it. By discerning between clients’ feelings of guilt and shame, they can gain a fuller and clearer understanding of themselves and their motivations for reacting certain ways in certain situations, including those that may trigger addictive behavior.
Clients can then utilize this knowledge to develop better strategies for coping with those triggering situations. This, in turn, can help clients reduce addiction today and prevent it in the future.
How Guilt Affects Health
Emotions can have a profound effect on one’s physical state. Negative feelings like guilt can have a negative effect on the body. To cope with their guilt, people tend to seek out ways to reduce its impact and influence on them.
Sometimes, these coping mechanisms are unhealthy behaviors intended to redirect intolerable emotions to more manageable ones. Examples of such mechanisms include angry outbursts, spending excessive amounts of money, forming unhealthy relationships, and, of course, using substances more frequently or intensely.
While these actions may seem more acceptable and effective in the short term, they can actually exacerbate the very guilt they’re aiming to alleviate and, thereby, lead to greater harm in the long run. Over time, these behaviors can harm one’s health physically, mentally, and socially.
Guilt and Addiction
According to research on shame and guilt in recovery, these emotions can and do foster addiction, though shame more so than guilt. As guilt is typically confined to a particular incident while shame is a deeper, more pervasive self-perception, shame is more closely associated with increased substance use and other addictive behavior. Nevertheless, guilt is also known to fuel addiction.
Like addiction, shame and guilt are both self-feeding, self-perpetuating cycles. Each one prompts behaviors that only lead to more guilt and shame. And, each time the cycle repeats, it exacerbates both the unwanted feelings and unhealthy coping behaviors.
Reasons people experiencing guilt may resort to substance use include to:
• Escape reality, albeit inescapable and ever-present
• Connect with others, albeit artificially
• Avoid unwanted and uncomfortable feelings, albeit temporarily
Associations With Other Mental Health Concerns
Guilt is also commonly linked to other mental health concerns, often even triggering those co-occurring conditions. In a mutual cause and effect relationship, intense guilt could both lead to and result from mental health disorders like:
• Anxiety or depression
• Additional substance use disorders
• Personality disorders
• Eating disorders
• Obsessive-compulsive disorders
Guilt and Recovery
Not only can guilt fuel addiction, but studies on guilt in recovery, have found that higher rates of guilt are also associated with poor outcomes in recovery. In other words, guilt can interfere with recovery. Individuals facing addiction can often feel as though their addictive behavior has damaged them and that they don’t deserve to recover or feel happy again. As such, guilt can reduce the duration of periods of abstinence, increase the risk of relapse, and prevent people from seeking or continuing treatment.
Fortunately, however, there are ways to resolve it and, thereby, facilitate recovery. By confronting guilt and examining its origins, learning to forgive oneself and seeking the forgiveness of others and letting go of the past, and committing to the present, a person can clarify his or her values and practice changing his or her behaviors to better align with them. Getting past guilt is also a matter of avoiding its counterpart, shame.
Guilt and Risk of Relapse
Guilt in recovery can have a significant impact on whether someone chooses to begin or resume using substances. By reducing a person’s guilt over their situation, you can reduce the chances of relapse.
Hidden Benefits of Guilt in Recovery
While excessive or unmanageable guilt can be a detriment to recovery, small and manageable amounts of guilt can actually benefit recovery. It can do this by providing information the client can use for self-reflection and self-analysis. Feelings of guilt can motivate a person to change their thoughts and behaviors to prevent committing the same errors or making the same bad choices again. The self-awareness implicit in guilty feelings can also help inform how the client relates with others.
Overcoming Guilt in Recovery
In the proper recovery environment, such as an evidence based treatment program, clinicians can help clients to actively strive to understand their feelings, confront the sources of those feelings and adjust clients’ perceptions and behaviors regarding thwarting those feelings.
Group therapy also combats guilt in recovery by showing people they are not alone in their feelings. This can give people hope that they actually do deserve and can achieve recovery.
Whether in group or individual recovery settings, however, there are several tools clinicians and clients can use to achieve these objectives.
Distinguishing Guilt From Shame
As discussed above, guilt and shame each have different sources and impacts on a person’s recovery. To resolve feelings of guilt, clients must address the specific situation that produced those feelings. To resolve feelings of shame, by contrast, clients must confront the negative patterns of thought and behavior they developed over time and the sources of those patterns.
Guilt is based on a failure of action, which frequently results directly from one’s choices and behaviors. It is also based on a violation of one’s own morals, values, and standards.
Challenging Thought Patterns
People have all sorts of thoughts, and not all of them are accurate, rational, or true. These falsehoods can then lead to negative emotions and self-perceptions, like guilt.
Fortunately, the patterns of thinking that foster feelings of guilt can be analyzed and, if necessary, adjusted. By identifying irrational, unhealthy, or unhelpful thought patterns, clients can then alter and replace them with factual information.
Avoiding or dispelling guilt, shame, or any other emotion is much easier when there’s a different, more positive emotion with which to replace it. Pride is the natural alternative to guilt and shame. Clients can generate pride by expending some time and effort each day to take action that makes them feel proud, such as volunteering time, donating to charity, or helping a neighbor.
Practicing Self-forgiveness and Self-acceptance
Among the most powerful weapons against guilt in recovery are self-forgiveness and self-acceptance. By recognizing that making mistakes and having regrets are a part of human nature, clients can then vow to learn from those mistakes and avoid those behaviors they regret in the future.
By better accepting themselves and forgiving their actions, clients can dispel the self-perception of being a bad person and take proactive steps to prevent situations that trigger those feelings to return. In doing that, clients can more easily forgive and accept themselves, producing another self-feeding cycle, only this time a positive and healthy one.
As the study published in Substance Abuse cited earlier found, self-forgiveness is particularly beneficial in combating guilt in recovery, as compared with shame. Self-acceptance can help to mediate that relationship between guilt and self-forgiveness and can therefore be an effective precursor to self-forgiveness.
Seeking Additional Professional Aid
Sometimes, all it takes is a few minor adjustments to resolve a client’s guilt. Other times, the client may need to supplement their addiction recovery with mental health counseling. Particularly for clients with mental health disorders in addition to their problems with addiction, enrollment in a mental health program or a medication assisted treatment program could help to address the sources and abate the symptoms of the mental health issue or disorder enough to be able to focus effectively on recovery.
How to Talk About Guilt
If someone you know is confronting addiction, talking directly about that addiction with that person could lead him or her to react defensively or with more guilt and shame. By talking instead about the person’s feelings of guilt or shame, you can show empathy and compassion for their experiences and perspectives and, in so doing, make them feel more comfortable talking to you about where those feelings have taken them.
Before addressing someone’s feelings of guilt with him or her, be sure you do so only in a safe environment free from distractions. Speak courteously and respectfully while remaining open and honest throughout.
Likewise, if you’re the one experiencing the guilt, you can follow these same guidelines with your clinician or people you love and trust and experience the compassion and understanding that flows from the conversation.
Where to Get Help
The staff at Granite Recovery Centers are experts in confronting and proactively managing guilt and its role in one’s addiction and recovery. Call or visit Granite today to find out more about our treatment program and how it can help resolve the guilt you or your loved one is experiencing and proceed forward unencumbered by guilt along the road to recovery.