We often hear guilt and shame used as synonyms. But the truth is, one can serve as a positive source of energy in your life, the other can be an overpowering negative force.
Guilt, for the most part, is how you judge yourself on a behavior or event. For example, if you miss a child’s concert because you have a meeting, you may feel guilt. In many cases, guilt can be motivating. If you don’t like feeling guilty, you can always change the behavior and do better the next time.
On the other hand, shame is a holistic negative feeling about the self. If we take the same issue: missing a child’s concert for work, shameful feelings would make you think things like, “I’m a terrible parent,” or, “I just can’t do anything right.”
The difference between shame and guilt is that shame can be internalized.
Shame can also be brought on externally. Other people can bully or pressure you into feeling negatively about yourself as a person.
Both feelings can be painful. And both can be instrumental in how we function as human beings. Those who tend more toward shameful feelings, and allow them to become all-consuming, are most likely to partake in risky behaviors.
The Shame-Addiction Cycle
Pervasive feelings of shame and humiliation are difficult for anyone, even those who have normal coping mechanisms. To those who have long struggled with a negative self-image, or have had traumatic childhood experiences, feelings of shame can be almost unbearable.
To survive this constant toxic attack on the self, people can turn to substances to self-medicate and escape (or at least numb) those feelings of shame.
When those behaviors become addictive and begin to affect life negatively, new feelings of shame can arise. Those who abuse drugs and alcohol very often feel great shame, and thus continue to use, or use more often, in order to escape those painful feelings.
And so the shame-addiction cycle begins: escaping shame with substances that are causing that shame.
How Shame Inhibits Recovery
As a recovering addict, it’s absolutely understandable and normal to feel shame about past behaviors and the negative impact those behaviors have had on other people. In fact, when people enter rehab and get sober, shame is one of the most pervasive and difficult feelings they experience.
When shame controls all aspects of your consciousness, it can lead to depression and can cause you to feel cut off from everyone around you. Pervasive shame can also cause anger, which makes self-care and a sense of community difficult to open up to.
Overpowering shame is also one of the big reasons people relapse.
Healing From Shame
Healing from shame is part of recovering from addiction. Learning to forgive yourself and release past judgments is an important step. It’s also important to learn coping mechanisms to deal with those feelings of shame when they arise.
Letting go of shame can take a long time and many backwards steps. It’s important to find something positive about yourself—something you can feel proud of. It’s also important to learn compassion, to realize that many, many other people have felt like you do and have been through similar struggles.
Although it may take many, many years, coming to the realization that you yourself are not a bad person, but a human being who makes mistakes. Addiction treatment and ongoing sobriety will help you reevaluate how you see yourself and come to a positive conclusion.