Sobriety 101: What’s the Difference Between Guilt and Shame?

September, 2019

What’s the Difference Between Guilt and Shame?

Sobriety 101: Welcome to Recovery. Now, Let’s Break the Cycle of Shame.

If you are newly sober, CONGRATULATIONS on making the best decision of your life. If you’re new, you may not feel particularly celebratory. I certainly did NOT. Because of that, it’s important to set up appropriate expectations for the healing process.

If you’ve regularly been using drugs or alcohol, there is a high probability that you’ve been supressing uncomfortable and painful feelings for a long time. When we take the drugs away, those feelings return (because drugs and alcohol only delay feelings; they don’t erase memories or pain.) The FIRST thing to know is that recovery has a tried and true plan that helps us work through old feelings of the guilt and shame we may feel when we first get sober. The Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous have walked millions of addicts through feelings of guilt and shame and landed them in a place of freedom and joy. For now, just think about staying sober. But, know that there is a plan for the pain you carry and the way out and through is around the bend.

Sobriety and Guilt. What is Guilt?

I am a recovering addict. When I was newly sober, I called my first sponsor sobbing because the things I’d done while using weighed so heavily on my conscience. I felt “guilty” for everything – including things that were not my actual fault. So, what is guilt? Why do we feel it and what is its purpose?

Guilt is an emotion that we feel when we do something wrong. For example, I felt guilty that while I was using, I caused my family tremendous pain and worry. They went to bed at night not knowing if I’d be alive the following morning. My active addiction caused them stress, anxiety, money, and more. I acted badly and felt guilt over having done so. My actions hurt them.

Guilt is a healthy emotion that is directly linked with our conscience. Feeling it means we want to be better versions of ourselves. Knowing we will feel guilty about something can and does prevent us from wrongdoing. When we refrain from doing the wrong thing because we fear guilt, we preserve our self-esteem – and when we love ourselves, our desire for self-destruction dissipates. It’s like a circle of protection that keeps our souls intact.

When you’re new and have not yet gotten to make amends through Steps Nine and Ten from Alcoholics Anonymous, guilt feels very heavy. Remember, the steps offer a solution to guilt. Also remember, the phrase, “we’ll be amazed before we are halfway through” from The Promises. The guilt you feel at two weeks sober will look completely different after you’ve found a sponsor, shared your story, and begun working the steps. Relief is in your future. TRUST THE PROCESS and wait for it. I am a low-bottom addict and trusting the process worked for me.

Sobriety and Shame. What is Shame?

Understanding the definition of shame and the difference between guilt and shame could be the most important lesson you ever learn.

Feelings of shame arise when something terrible happens to us, and we feel bad about ourselves as a result. Many of us have been abused, molested, raped, or victims of incest.

The adult brain doesn’t fully develop until we are in our twenties. So, if we’ve been abused as a child, our emotions, our sense of autonomy (freedom of choice), and self-esteem have most likely been impacted. If we’ve been abused as an adult, the same feelings of shame arise. A staggering number of men and women who have been victims of rape feel shame and blame themselves. Feeling that our victimization is our fault demolishes self-worth, and often leads to tremendously self-destructive behavior.

Working the steps helps us differentiate between guilt and shame. We can put both in perspective and work on attaining freedom from both.

Sobriety, Hope, and a Healthy Sense of Self

In early sobriety, our own trauma and abuse may humiliate us. We may have kept secrets for many years and believed we were bad people because bad things happened to us.

Our sponsors and the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous can lead us through shame (counseling is also an essential healing component). Perhaps more than anything, redefining ourselves as GOOD, is the most important step in saving our lives.

Exposing our secrets helps us stop defining ourselves by past trauma. With the help of our sponsors, we can identify new boundaries that include saying no, choosing friends who add value to our lives, making choices that lead to success and love. Alcoholics Anonymous has the capacity to teach us to BE OUR OWN PROTECTORS.

The miracles don’t stop there, though. When we work through shame, we can learn to talk openly to anyone about our past trauma. Remember, “We will not regret the past, nor wish to shut the door on it,” from The Promises? Every time we share our story, we feel a sense of PURPOSE. As recovered addicts and alcoholics, we can use our past not only to heal ourselves but to heal our fellows. Through our collective experience, we can relate to one another and heal one another in tremendously powerful ways. When that happens (and if you stay sober, it will), there is no bondage in having experienced past trauma. What remains is the unique ability we each have to use our pain to help comfort and guide others through theirs.

Never Lose Sight of the End Game in Sobriety

I had no idea what the difference between guilt and shame was when I first entered Breakthrough Recovery Outreach. I had absolutely no clue that miracles would happen to me simply by following direction. I certainly never thought I’d stop hating myself. But, I had just the tiniest hope that life could be better and I could get better.

Thirteen years later, all I want today is for the newcomer to keep their eye on the prize. You will NOT know what the end game looks like. In your wildest dreams, you cannot imagine the goodness of it yet. But trudge forward anyway and commit to your sobriety.

When we finish our twelfth step and embark on our new lives, our perspective of guilt and shame will be different. We’ll know what we need to make amends for, and we’ll stop blaming ourselves for things that happened to us. We finally are able to drop the destruction that shame causes and enjoy the weightlessness of that.

In the future, you’ll look back on your first day in residential treatment, and thank God for your healing. Because, the longer you stay sober, the more opportunity for healing there is.

With Love,

A Fellow Addict

Drop the Shame and Get Sober at Breakthrough Recovery Outreach!

Call us at (770) 493-7750 and let us help you walk out of the darkness and into the light.