Feelings of guilt and shame are common in the early stages of recovery, but moving forward requires you to find a way to process your emotions so you’re no longer living in the past. Constantly thinking about past mistakes—regardless of their size or severity—can prevent you from making progress in your recovery journey.
At St. Joseph Institute for Addiction, we believe that lasting sobriety involves more than simply abstaining from addictive substances. At our Pennsylvania residential addiction treatment center, we encourage clients to work towards healing their mind, body, and spirit. In this post, we share some of the strategies we recommend for dealing with guilt and shame regarding your actions while you were under the influence of drugs or alcohol.
Write in Your Journal
Journaling is a wonderful recovery tool because the act of writing down your thoughts encourages you to look at a situation more objectively. Journaling provides a safe and private way for you to work through complicated emotions about the recovery process—including any feelings of guilt or shame that you’re struggling with.
In addition to helping you reflect upon the past, journaling can promote future growth by making it easier to see patterns in your behavior. For example, you might start to notice that your most regrettable actions happened when you drank too much because you were under a great deal of stress at work. Once you understand your triggers, it’s easier to avoid making similar mistakes in the future.
When you start to feel overwhelmed with feelings of guilt and shame, imagine you’re talking to a friend who is going through the same problem. Would you tell your friend that they’re a terrible person who deserves to suffer for what they’ve done? Of course not!
Chances are, you’d remind your friend that everyone makes mistakes and reassure them that the people they care about are more forgiving than they’d expect. Treat yourself with the same level of compassion.
Reach Out to Other People in Recovery
Often, guilt and shame are rooted in the harmful societal stigma that still surrounds addiction. If you were raised to see addiction as a sign of weakness or an innate character flaw, it’s easy to feel as though attempting to change is hopeless. This is especially true if you’ve recently relapsed and are trying to get back on track.
Connecting with people in the recovery community shows you that sobriety is possible no matter what’s happened in the past. Knowing that others have faced similar struggles can help you feel more hopeful about the future and less critical of your past.
Try to Make Amends
It’s not possible in every scenario, but an honest attempt to make amends can take some of the weight off your shoulders. In 12-Step programs, making amends is covered in steps 8 and 9.
Making amends can take many forms. A heartfelt apology delivered in person or as a handwritten letter is a great start. However, actions speak louder than words. If you stole money to feed your addiction, work on repaying the debt over time. If you disappointed your child by missing an important ballgame because you were hungover, make a special effort to go to as many of their games as possible this season. Showing that you’re taking accountability for your actions demonstrates personal growth.
When you’re making amends, keep in mind that you can’t force someone to forgive you. The person you hurt may still need time to process their feelings and move forward. Be respectful of their journey—even when you get a response that’s less positive than what you’d hoped for.
Find a Way to Help Others
Giving back to the community offers multiple benefits for people in recovery. Volunteering is a wonderful way to fill some of the time you used to spend drinking or doing drugs, and it expands your social circle. It can also help boost your self-esteem and alleviate some of the guilt and shame you may be feeling in regards to your past actions.
In our blog post, Giving Back in Recovery, we share several ideas to help you start thinking about ways to help those in your community. Volunteering can also be a great project for the whole family to enjoy, so don’t be afraid to brainstorm ideas with your spouse and children.