The road to recovery can be an emotional experience. Recovering substance users can go through a full range of emotions within the first months, or even the first year, after treatment. One of the most commonly reported feelings during this time-frame is guilt in addiction recovery.
When you are using drugs and alcohol on a regular basis, you are operating on a different set of priorities. Often addicts will say and do things that they would never think of doing while sober. When these people start to get clean from substance abuse, it can be difficult to come to terms with the way they acted before. It’s not uncommon for recovering addicts to feel like their actions were unforgivable, or that they cannot make up for those actions. It is easy to say that our past does not define who we are and that we can make changes moving forward but pulling yourself out of your own guilt and believing that you are a better person can be difficult. So how can you manage the burden of guilt in addiction recovery?
Guilt is a natural, human response to wrongful behavior. It’s perfectly natural to harbor feelings of shame after extended periods of substance abuse. If it was a positive experience, we would not be seeking help! The reality of the situation is that guilt can, and is, a good thing. Guilt plays a role in teaching people how to change their behavior, but it is only helpful if we handle it in a healthy, positive way. Recovering addicts need to accept that their prior actions and the effect they had on those around them were negative, they need to learn from their old behavior.
Unfortunately, it is extremely common for recovering addicts to wallow in their guilt instead of learning from it. This can lead to long-term depression and a poor self-image. It’s not uncommon for guilt in addiction recovery to trigger relapses as well. If we sit in our own negative emotions and wallow in our guilt, it’s only a matter of time before we self-medicate and fall back into old habits.
Guilt looks and feels different for everyone, and everyone manages their guilt in their own way. However, there are healthy ways to manage guilt in addiction recovery that can benefit anyone.
Addiction is a very personal experience, but that does not mean that you need to go through recovery alone. A solid support system can make a big difference during the early stages of recovery. If you keep your feelings of guilt and shame inside and let them stay there, they can eat you up and worsen over time. It’s important to surround yourself with people that you can trust and talk to about these feelings. You can also practice mindfulness meditation, therapeutic journaling, or meet with a therapist to express these feelings as well. These options can be especially helpful if you have trouble communicating with friends or family.
Another way to manage guilt is through amends. 12-Step programs incorporate the process of making amends into their core program, and there is something to be said about the direct nature of managing guilt by righting the wrongs of your past. If you plan on making amends it is important to remember that not everyone from your past will be happy to hear from you, and no one owes you closure for your past actions. If someone is unwilling to hear your apology or is unwilling to offer you a chance at redeeming yourself, then you need to accept this fact and move forward.
It’s common to experience guilt during addiction recovery, but it’s also important to move past that guilt and work towards preserving your sobriety. It helps to understand that substance abuse effects the way that we think and act, and that the person who engaged in those past behaviors is not the same as the person we are today. Ignoring our old behaviors and expecting the world to forget about our transgressions is unrealistic, but accepting our old behaviors and learning to forgive ourselves is a healthy way to overcome guilt in addiction recovery.