Guilt and shame are often experienced by those who abuse substances such as drugs and alcohol.  Many of these people will deal with their feelings by self-medicating with these substances, and this can ultimately lead to devastating addictions. Even if they manage to overcome their addictions, these emotions can remain. Guilt and shame can even act as a trigger for a relapse and can stop the individual feeling good about their recovery. Studies have shown that guilt has been beneficial in the overall development of the human race. However, excessive amounts of it can be detrimental when it comes to addiction recovery.

What is Guilt?

Guilt can be described as a cognitive or emotional experience that can occur when an individual believes that he or she has compromised their own standards of conduct, whether this is entirely accurate or not. It is often experienced when a person feels as though he/she has acted in a way that perhaps he/she should not have acted.

Many feel that if they do not live up to personal expectations, then they should have to feel guilty about it. Someone who has committed an act intentionally is much more likely to feel guilty about it compared to someone who has acted unintentionally.

Reasons for Guilt in Recovery

There is a whole host of possible reasons as to why someone would experience feelings of guilt while in recovery. These can include:

  • damage to their health and finances
  • low self-esteem
  • the impact of their addiction on loved ones
  • failure to live up to certain expectations
  • their behaviour while under the influence of drugs or alcohol
  • countless years wasted on addiction.

The Difference Between Guilt and Shame

Many people find it difficult to work out the difference between guilt and shame. This is not surprising as even experts have found it increasingly challenging to pinpoint a clear difference between the two emotions. Nevertheless, the majority would agree that there is a tangible difference between the two feelings.

One popular theory has suggested that individuals feel guilt when they violate their moral standards while they might feel shame when they break the rules and expectations that are set by society.

Another view on this is that people may feel guilty if they feel like they have done something wrong, while they may feel shame if their negative feelings are directed towards themselves. When someone feels guilty, he or she will usually be concerned about how their behaviours have affected others. When the individual feels shame, he or she will be concentrating more on themselves.

Self-Esteem and Guilt

It is extremely common for those who are suffering from low self-esteem to also suffer from excessive guilt. Individuals with high self-esteem will rarely have these intense feelings of guilt. Low self-esteem and guilt are a deadly mix and have often been linked with substance abuse and depression. It is thought that if someone is to improve how he/she deals with guilt, then this would benefit them if he/she is also trying to build their confidence and self-esteem while in recovery from addiction.

Guilt as a Relapse Trigger

A relapse trigger is anything that can hinder someone’s recovery and push them back towards the substance they were addicted to. Guilt is one of the more common relapse triggers, as the individual will be feeling frustrated and upset about certain things that happened in their past involving their addiction.

These intense feelings of guilt may mean that the individual experiences mental health issues, which can then result in the person returning to drugs or alcohol as a means of escape. If the person has not mastered a different way of dealing with these feelings of guilt, then he or she is more likely to return to these harmful substances as a way of coping.

If you notice that you are feeling guilty about past actions while in recovery, it is important to talk your feelings through with a counsellor or therapist. Call us today at Middlegate to speak to one of our team.

How Guilt Can Lead to Addiction Relapse
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