How To Deal With The Shame And Guilt In Addiction Recovery

Guilt and shame are two strong emotions that often accompany drug addiction and recovery. People may have started using drugs in the first place because of shame, and of course, feelings of guilt followed.  These emotions need to be addressed to have a successful addiction treatment.

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, there is a connection between feelings of guilt and shame and the possibility of having a relapse in treatment. The institute estimates 40 to 60 percent of people have a relapse during their first year of recovery, but over time that percentage is lower.

The difference between guilt and shame

Guilt may not be as much emotion as just recognizing the facts. While addicted a person might steal from family members, and hurt people, to get their drugs. They realize they are guilty and may feel bad as a result. Still, they continue the bad behavior while addicted, or before beginning recovery.

Shame is a different level than guilt, a deeper emotion that may be harder to overcome. Guilt recognizes one has one wrong. Shame takes that a step further and tells the person they are bad, or not valuable, because of their bad actions.


Often when people feel guilt or shame, they punish themselves with self-destructive actions.  It can lead to negative thinking and then a downward spiral into addiction. This is the reason many people have a relapse. Shame tells a person they do not deserve to get better, and that person may even feel guilty over that. The bad thing is, no self-punishment is ever enough, and it only continues to get worse. Shame ultimately damages your self-worth, causes depression and makes recovery harder. These negative emotions are a trigger for continuing to use drugs, or for having a relapse.

Positive aspects

We often think of guilt and shame as negative emotions, and they often are. They can prevent a person from getting the help they need to overcome addiction. They also can lower a person’s self-esteem to the point that they fail, or relapse, while in treatment.

Even so, we should not always see these as negative emotions. If a person feels guilty, that may help them not do the same thing again. Shame may also prevent a person from doing something, realizing it will make them feel shame. The guilt and shame can work for you in a sense then, but the negative impacts of the emotions still need to be addressed.

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Processing the guilt and shame

Once people enter addiction treatment and are sober, they begin to see more clearly and are better able to deal with these negative aspects of guilt and shame. Sometimes counseling can help a person get to the bottom of feelings of guilt and shame even beneath the drug addiction.

Tips for coping

Here are some suggestions for dealing with guilt and shame before and after addiction treatment.

  • Know where guilt is from. Understanding why you feel guilty is a good first step, as well as why you feel shame. Understanding the source can help you deal with your feelings.
  • Working on shame. Talking with others with similar experiences can help you see how others have the same struggles, which often alleviates shame to a large degree.
  • Forgive yourself. While you may admit your guilt and feel some shame, it is a good idea to work toward forgiving yourself. You still admit to the wrong, but you let yourself move on with your life.
  • Leaving the past. It is easy to continue to feel guilt and shame over things you have done in the past, or things that have been done to you in the past.  Recognize the past but stop letting it rule your life.
  • Change. Resolving to change your ways, and then take the needed steps for that to happen is a key part of recovery. This shows others, and yourself, that you are serious about making amends and have learned from mistakes.
  • Apologizing. Admitting things you have done to people, and asking them to forgive you, is a huge step. This is part of forgiving yourself, and it is part of getting forgiveness from others.

Therapy for guilt and shame

Because guilt and shame are such huge emotions when it comes to addiction, treatment centers have therapy for them as part of addiction treatment.

Interviewing. Therapists help patients see inside themselves to find the motivation to change. This helps patients find their own inner strength.

Contingency programs is an incentive-based therapy that helps clients expect positive results when they try to improve themselves.

Cognitive-behavioral therapy. This therapy gives clients the tools to cope with life’s problems. It helps clients look at the world differently, changing self-destructive patterns into positive actions.

Another help is a more holistic approach. Things like meditation and yoga can help people find a balance and help you stay in the present instead of dwelling on the past.

If you or a loved one is struggling with addiction, there is still hope! Contact us here at Rise in Malibu for information on how to get help.

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