Dealing with shame and guilt is a common issue in addiction recovery. We have all done things in our past that we regret, and we have all done things that we feel guilty about or that we are ashamed of.
If we fail to deal with these past issues in our recovery then those things can eventually become an excuse for us to relapse.
So how do you move past that toxic shame that is not helping you at all? What steps can you take to release yourself from that part of your past?
A couple of suggestions, these are the things that have worked for me and I also see these things working for other people.
First of all is that you have to establish a baseline of sobriety so that you can start working an active program of recovery. In other words, you have to get yourself together enough to be able to engage in this kind of work on yourself. If you are constantly relapsing or using drugs or alcohol in any capacity then none of this is going to work, or help you, at all. You have to start with this baseline of sobriety if you are going to make any significant headway in terms of releasing your guilt and shame and negative feelings. Returning to active addiction will only give you more of those negative emotions to deal with, and will likely re-trigger the old emotions as well.
Second of all, you need to work an active program of recovery. So it is not enough to just go to an inpatient treatment center for 28 days (though this is an excellent way to get started), but you also have to follow up on this and work a real program of recovery. What does it mean to work a real program? It means that you are working with a sponsor, a therapist, a counselor, or some combination thereof in order to work on your issues and actively and purposefully improve yourself as a human being.
In other words, you can be rather passive in your recovery efforts, or you can be active. If you are passive then maybe you just go to treatment, dry out for 28 days, and then go back home and basically go back to your old life, just without the drugs or the alcohol. This is a passive approach and it is not likely to produce the results that you really want in life, or in sobriety. Your chances of relapse are significant when you have a passive approach to your recovery program.
The key, instead, is to work an active program of recovery in which you go to inpatient treatment, then follow up with all of your aftercare recommendations and take real action. So when they suggest that you go to 90 meetings in the next 90 days, you actually do so. When they suggest that you get a sponsor and work through the 12 steps, you actually go to meetings and ask someone to become your sponsor and you do the step work with that person.
Essentially, in an active recovery program, you are going to be identifying the issues and problems in your life and then making a plan to correct those problems.
No matter how good your life becomes in recovery, if you have a certain negative issue of shame, resentment, self pity, guilt, fear, or anger–then that one negative emotion is going to compromise your entire serenity. In other words, it only takes one negative emotion or one negative aspect of your life to screw up your entire recovery program.
Therefore, you need to do the kind of work in recovery in which you actively identify all of these negative emotions, all of your negative issues and hang ups, and then make a plan to work on them one by one and eliminate them or correct them.
Essentially this is what is happening when you work through the 12 steps of AA with a sponsor. This is also what is happening when you see a therapist or counselor regularly and you are working to improve your life with that person.
Dealing with shame and guilt are a part of this process. They are one of the areas of your life, some of the negative emotions and negative baggage that threatens to hold you back and compromise your serenity, that must be dealt with if you are to remain sober in the long run.
One way to work on processing your shame and guilt is to start working on self forgiveness. Some of that shame and guilt is there because you are beating yourself up over something that happened in your past. In order to fix this problem you need to let go of the shame, and in order to do that you are going to need to forgive yourself.
But how do you forgive yourself? How do you force this to happen? One way is by improving your connection with your higher power, and doing the work to ask for forgiveness for yourself. If you feel as if your higher power cannot possibly forgive you for the things that you have done then you are going to be stuck in this shame and guilt forever. But if you come to understand that your higher power only wants the best for you, and that maybe even your higher power has work for you to do on this planet, then you can start to move past this guilt and shame a bit more.
Another way to facilitate this release of shame or guilt is to forgive others that have hurt you in the past. You may need to work with a therapist or a counselor or a sponsor to figure out how to do this effectively. You need to realize that if you forgive someone who hurt you that you are not necessarily “letting them off the hook.” Nor does it mean that you need to forget about it completely. But if you can forgive others who have hurt you, it will help you to forgive yourself, and that will in turn release some of the shame and the guilt that is eating at you.
Getting a sponsor in AA or NA and doing the step work is another path to releasing your shame and guilt. When you do a fourth step you will identify all of this negativity and where it is coming from, and then you will make a plan to release those negative emotions by working the subsequent steps. If you do this work thoroughly with a sponsor then you will definitely get some relief from it. But of course you have to put in the effort, make an active plan to find a sponsor and do the work, and then do a very thorough job while working the actual steps.
It may sound like a lot of work and a lot of discomfort, but keep in mind that the shame and the guilt has you uncomfortable already. By working through these issues and actually processing the stuff you can eventually get some real relief from it. The key is that you have to start with a foundation of sobriety, then become willing to ask for help in working on some of these emotional issues. I would also suggest that if you use a holistic approach in your recovery and take care of yourself physically, spiritually, socially, and mentally, that this will go a long way in helping you to overcome negative emotions as well. Good luck.