Recovery is an emotional time as you grapple with a mix of emotions that may have been stored deep inside for years before, during active addiction. One day you may feel angry, the next, lonely – it’s all perfectly natural and healthy.
Many people in recovery struggle with shame over past behaviors or actions during active addiction. But it’s likely that this guilt began long before recovery. For many, the roots of shame can come from a traumatic experience (physical, emotional or sexual abuse) during childhood, as well as neglect, bullying or academic failure.
This can spur a vicious cycle. People with intense shame may try to self-medicate with drugs or alcohol to numb their negative feelings. In turn, this can increase the risk of addiction, which can then create guilt over the inability to stop using.
Needless to say, shame can sabotage your recovery. A study at the University of British Columbia, in Vancouver, found that people in recovery from an alcohol use disorder who felt ashamed of previous episodes of problem drinking were at increased risk of relapse.
This makes sense. Constantly beating yourself up over the past can prevent you from moving forward. It can also lead to negative self-talk and low self-esteem, which can hamper your progress.
5 Steps for Overcoming Shame
A big part of lasting sobriety is learning to understand and accept your emotions, including the unpleasant ones. Certainly, this is easier said than done – but it is possible. Start with these steps:
Get educated. Understanding your addiction means knowing that you have a chronic, progressive disease – not a lack of willpower. Reminding yourself of this fact will help you begin to forgive and start moving forward.
Stay connected. When you don’t feel great about yourself, it’s natural to want to isolate from others – but that means being alone with that shaming voice inside your head. By staying connected to trusted friends, family and others in the recovery community, you’ll learn that you’re not alone in your feelings. You’ll also receive understanding, love and affirmation, which you’ll begin to internalize over time.
Share your shame. Talking about your emotions with a counselor or during a support group can eventually make them more manageable. Communicating your feelings with empathetic and supportive others will help you to put things in perspective. Plus, it will just feel good to release those buried emotions. If you’re not quite ready to talk about it, try starting a journal to begin working through – and letting go of – those feelings of shame.
Take steps to make amends. Taking responsibility for your mistakes and making amends – whether you apologize, ask for forgiveness, or repay money you owe – can empower you to move away from shame and move forward in your recovery. Making amends can help you gain self-respect and tame your inner critic.
Boost your brainpower. One reason you may feel a wide range of emotions during recovery is because substance use disorders have a negative impact on your brain, leading to an inability to regulate behavior, mood, feelings and impulses. To help heal the neurological damage, it’s smart to engage in activities that bolster the brain’s prefrontal cortex, which plays a role in decision-making, impulse control and emotional responses. Try meditation, aerobic exercise, dancing or reading.