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

What’s the Difference Between Guilt and Shame?

Sobriety 101: Welcome to Recovery

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 and get to the other side of them once and for all. The Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous have walked millions of addicts through trauma and pain and landed them in a place of freedom and joy. For now, worry just 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 directly contributed to the harm of another. That is guilt.

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. Please listen closely.

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. For you to hear me, I have to be forthcoming with my own story. I am a victim of abuse. Violence was part of my childhood.

The adult brain doesn’t fully develop until we are in our twenties. So, if you’ve been abused as a child, your emotions, your sense of autonomy (freedom of choice), and self-esteem have most likely been impacted. If you’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 tremendous shame over what happened to them. Feeling that your victimization is your fault demolishes self-worth, and often leads to tremendously self-destructive behavior.

So, when something horrible happens TO YOU, you must recognize that YOU WERE NOT TO BLAME. You deserve all the grace, love, and time it takes to heal. Even more than that is this empowering fact. You can give yourself grace and love and break the cycle of pain in your life.

Sobriety, Hope, and a Healthy Sense of Self

In early sobriety, my own story humiliated me. I was a grown woman, and my adult brain recognized that I was a victim, but the child in me that was told I was BAD still believed I was BAD.

My sponsor and the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous led me through my shame (counseling is also an essential healing component). Perhaps more than anything, redefining myself as GOOD, has saved my life.

I placed the blame on my abuser. I forgave myself for the self-destructive things I did as a result of my trauma. With the help of my sponsor, I identified new boundaries for myself that included saying no, choosing friends who add value to my life, making choices that would lead me toward success and love. Alcoholics Anonymous taught me to BE MY OWN PROTECTOR.

The miracles don’t stop there, though. I worked through my shame and can now talk openly to anyone about my past trauma. Remember, “We will not regret the past, nor wish to shut the door on it,” from The Promises? Every time I tell my story, every time I share my trauma with someone else who has been traumatized, I 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. This is a life-saving program. Through our collective experience, we can relate to one another and heal one another in tremendously powerful ways.

But wait…there’s more. I thought that working my way through shame and into a healthy sense of self-esteem was the end of my miracle. God had other plans for me. Years into my sobriety, I forgave my abuser. Please understand that I did not think to myself, “it’s ok what you did to me.” It was NOT ok. What I did, though, was drop the seed of hate that still lingered in my heart. Well, I didn’t release that seed. The program, prayer through Step Eleven, and God did that for me. My soul once held a ten-ton weight. Now, it’s weightless.

Never Lose Sight of the End Game in Sobriety

I had no idea what the difference between guilt and shame were 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 and wishing myself dead. 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 on and commit to your sobriety.

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

Ready for Healing?

Call us at (770) 493-7750. We’re here to help you change your life!