Guilt and Shame in Addiction Treatment

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Guilt and shame in addiction treatment

In our program we work with clients around feelings of guilt and shame. These two emotional states are common to people struggling with addiction. Although they are both difficult feeling states, they have different underlying causes and possible outcomes. 

In our work with clients, we frequently reference the work of Brené Brown, a researcher who focuses on shame and its effects on our personal lives and relationships. She differentiates between the two emotions in a helpful way. 

Guilt Can Be Helpful

Describing the unique characteristics of guilt, she writes:  “I believe that guilt is adaptive and helpful – it’s holding something we’ve done or failed to do up against our values and feeling psychological discomfort.” 

Understood in a healthy way, guilt does not define a person’s fundamental character or who they are as a person. Since guilt is based around the actions a person has taken or failed to take, it can serve as a tool for reflection. Feelings of guilt let a person know when they have acted out of accordance with what is actually important to them. 

Since addiction effectively rewires the brain of the addict, this often leads them to act in opposition to the values they normally hold. Our clients frequently find that they have done things that they never would have done in sobriety, like lying to loved ones, stealing from their place of employment, or not being emotionally available for their children.  Feeling guilt about these things makes sense because they are actions that are so far out of line with how they desire to live their lives. 

Freedom from Shame

Shame, on the other hand, strikes much deeper to how the person thinks of themselves and what they deserve from life. Brown writes, “I define shame as the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging – something we’ve experienced, done, or failed to do makes us unworthy of connection.”

This misperception that there is something fundamentally “flawed” making the person “unworthy” is often at the heart of addiction for our clients.  

Addiction and shame are intimately intertwined with one another and feed into each other. People struggling with feelings of shame often begin to abuse substances to escape these difficult feelings. Then, the inability to moderate or discontinue their drug use begins to feed into the feeling that there is something fundamentally wrong with them, increasing their sense of shame. In the Life Story Exercise completed in Phase I of treatment, clients are provided with the opportunity to understand the degree that feelings of shame have driven their addiction and other self-sabotaging and destructive behaviors.

Being able to distinguish between guilt and shame is a foundational skill for recovery. It equips our clients with the capacity to be more deeply connected to their values and feelings. It also helps them stop believing the lie that addiction tells them that they are unworthy of a better life. 

While guilt may be a normal and helpful feeling in recovery, the counselors at MARR help our clients let go of shame. Treatment at MARR involves reconnecting our clients with the fundamental truth that they are worthy of love and connection.


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