The concept of an addict’s guilt may seem foreign and contradictory to a loved one. During active addiction, people lie, lose their jobs and bankrupt themselves or their families seemingly without a second thought (though they often do feel guilt but then use more drugs to bury those feelings).
When an addict gets sober, the guilt hits hard.
Guilt arises when a person feels that they have violated their morals or principles or fallen short of their personal expectations, resulting in harm to self or others. Although unpleasant, some degree of guilt in early recovery is a good sign. In fact, in some cases a lack of guilt can be a symptom of mental illness. If you’ve lied, put other people in danger, or committed crimes or other acts you’re not proud of, it’s healthy and natural to feel guilty.
In order to effectively manage guilt, you have to identify the type of guilt you’re up against. When guilt is a catalyst for a positive change in behavior, it is healthy guilt. Guilt can lead to empathy, or the consideration of how one’s actions affect other people, a skill that is critical for long-term addiction recovery. It also encourages people to hold themselves accountable for their actions and make amends for the harm they caused, which helps to ensure they don’t make the same mistakes again.
When guilt is used to punish oneself indefinitely, withdraw from others or accept responsibility for something you had no control over, it becomes an obstacle to recovery. This type of guilt can also interfere with your decision-making, make you put other people’s needs before your own, and lead to irrational thinking, such as “I am a bad person” or “I do not deserve to be happy.” Unhealthy guilt can lead to depression, insomnia, and other physical and emotional problems.
Early recovery is a vulnerable time, in part because the addict is faced, perhaps for the first time, with the full weight of their actions. Without new coping skills, the recovering addict may feel that the only way to turn off the sadness and self-loathing is by returning to drugs or in extreme cases, committing suicide or other self-injurious acts.
Recovery is a present-focused, one-day-at-a-time process. Living in the past – a past that can’t be changed – prevents people from doing the real work of recovery. In drug rehab treatment, we use a number of approaches to help recovering addicts stop wallowing in guilt and start drawing on their feelings to further their recovery:
• 12-Step work, which guides addicts through the process of conducting a personal inventory, making amends where possible, and being rigorously honest with themselves and others. Addicts learn to distinguish between what is in their control and what is not, and to accept the past and move forward with a clean slate.
• Building a support system of people, including family, friends, peers in recovery, a sponsor and a therapist, that offers forgiveness and understanding rather than judgment or blame. In recovery, addicts also learn the importance of asking for help rather than isolating themselves.
• Confidence-building activities, such as experiential therapy, adventure therapy and sober recreation, to encourage addicts to try new things and celebrate the changes they’re making. Even though you’ve made mistakes, you are worthy of a second chance at a better life.
• Letting go of perfectionism by recognizing that mistakes are part of human nature. The goal of recovery is to become better, not perfect.
• Mindfulness, which can be cultivated through yoga, meditation and related practices, helps addicts cope with uncomfortable emotions and stay focused on the present rather than dwelling on the past.
• Service projects or volunteer work can help addicts combat feelings of guilt and build self-esteem.
Guilt has a place in early recovery, but its usefulness is limited. Excessive guilt that disrupts your ability to function and work through issues serves no purpose for you or the people you hurt during active addiction. By recognizing that you did your best with the limited skills and resources you had at the time, you can now draw on a new set of skills to make better choices going forward.
David Sack, M.D., is board certified in Psychiatry, Addiction Psychiatry, and Addiction Medicine. As CEO of Elements Behavioral Health he oversees a network of addiction treatment centers that include Promises Treatment Centers, The Ranch, The Recovery Place, and The Sexual Recovery Institute.
Sad man photo available from Shutterstock.
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Last reviewed: 14 Jun 2012