Some people have a skeleton in their closet; a secret they aren’t proud of that they keep from others. These secrets could be prior substance or alcohol use, or mental health struggles, and the shame often haunts them. For individuals in recovery, shame and guilt can hinder their sobriety, treatment, and growth.
According to American Addiction Centers, guilt is a common relapse trigger. Thinking about past behaviors and events, such as previous substance or alcohol use, or reliving a traumatic experience, may lead to thoughts of how to escape and numb the pain, often by resorting to drugs and alcohol. These chemicals alter the brain’s chemistry so uncomfortable feelings are masked while under the influence. Sobriety is jeopardized if healthy coping methods are not learned and embedded into everyday living.
Guilt and shame can be motivating for individuals seeking substance use, alcohol, and mental health treatment. American Addiction Centers also say that feeling regretful about past negative behaviors is a good thing, up to a point. According to their website: “It shows that the individual knows right from wrong and wants to live a better life. Excessive guilt, though, serves no useful purpose to neither the individual nor the person they have hurt. By understanding the uselessness of excessive guilt, the individual may be able to move on from it.” Dwelling on these negative thoughts can have a detrimental impact on treatment success and inhibit personal growth into living a sober and healthy life.
Learning to cope with guilt and shame can have a significant positive impact on recovery. “One of the best coping mechanisms for feeling shame is to stop doing the behavior that led to the existence of shame. If others were harmed, apologizing to them could also be helpful in alleviating shame. In addition, recognizing that we can't change our past, but we can change our future can help us feel optimism that whatever caused the shame doesn't have to be repeated,” said Dr. John Foubert, highly qualified expert at the Army Resilience Directorate.
Despite all efforts to improve habits, behaviors, and overall quality of life, guilt and shame may continue to haunt and creep into people’s lives. Recognizing how these feelings can impact recovery can mitigate doubt and allows people to focus on strengthening their recovery and resilience.