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You’re not a bad person trying to get good, you’re a sick person trying to get well


A fundamental piece in the recovery jigsaw is coming to terms with the fact that addiction is an illness and for an addict to reach salvation they need help, as opposed to moral judgement. In this blog, Port of Call explores how the destructive cycle of shame can fuel an addict’s habits and how to beat these feelings once and for all to achieve self-acceptance.

Shame is an all-too-familiar bedfellow for anyone battling addiction. The inevitable response to quell such feelings, more often than not, is to silence them with drugs or alcohol and stoke the coals of addiction’s cycle.

Shame can often continue into sobriety and nullify the satisfaction that should come with recovery. In fact, it can be a destructive force in an addict’s recovery process full stop. So much so, it can push someone to the limits of their resolve and make a relapse likely.

So why do we experience this counter-productive emotion and how can we overcome it? To answer that, we need to understand exactly what we’re dealing with.

Addiction is an illness

How is shame different to guilt?

Guilt and shame are often mistaken as the same thing but there is a subtle difference. Put simply, guilt can be a force for good, whereas shame is the bigger offender and is rarely a healthy emotion. Guilt makes you say “I did something wrong” but shame leads to the more damning notion that “I am wrong.”

Similarly, guilt can lead to healing, in sharp contrast to shame, which invariably leads to disconnection from those around you. It is internalised and deeply connected to our sense of self but guilt, on the other hand, is often fleeting.

Whereas guilt is often associated with accountability, shame is more likely to be linked to causing pain for an individual and can belie a host of underlying psycho-social issues, like substance abuse, depression and infidelity. Guilt simply doesn’t.

The danger of shame for recovering addicts

For an addict on their way to recovery shame is rarely a helpful influence. In fact, it is a common relapse trigger that can drive an addict back to drinking and using again. If these underlying emotions have always presented a challenge, then these trusted coping mechanisms – that once numbed the pain – are surefire temptations to escape the so-called ‘demons’.

On a deeper level still, some people might sabotage their own enjoyment of recovery through the belief that they simply do not ‘deserve’ to find happiness. That ever-present sinking feeling can be a debilitating force that paralyses mental and physical energy and can ultimately derail the recovery process. Worse still, if that feeling of shame exists in relation to the ‘bad’ things that they’ve done in the past, in pursuit of their addiction or as a direct result of their substance abuse, then the spectre of relapse can threaten once more.

Dealing with shame in recovery

One thing that must be said is that feelings of guilt and shame in recovery are normal. It can be useful to channel guilt towards leading a better life but to remember that shame serves no good purpose for anyone – neither the addict, nor the people around them – especially if it centres around things that cannot be solved.

Alcoholics Anonymous’ 12-Step programme may help to deal with feelings of shame because members are encouraged to keep a personal inventory and make amends if appropriate. Many who complete these steps report a sense of ‘wiping the slate’ and moving on. Another useful facet of the AA programme is the idea that helping others, perhaps through voluntary work or as a sponsor, can also help to combat shame and build up self-esteem.

Part of recovery is about making peace with the past, which removes shame about our previous behaviour. Living in the here and now, once we have repaired the wreckage of the past, there is nothing to be ashamed of any longer. Contributing to life, making and keeping promises to ourselves and others, staying clean and sober – these are all things that build self-esteem.

The main point to remember in all of this is that nobody is perfect. You’re not a bad person trying to get good, you’re a sick person trying to get well. There is no shame in admitting that addiction is an illness. It is not something that you have ’caused’ or ‘deserve.’ Once you can let go of that baggage – and focus on becoming a better person, not a perfect person – recovery can be a whole lot more enjoyable.

Make us your first Port of Call. We can help you, or a colleague, to access the right alcohol rehab to suit your circumstances. Take the first step towards recovery by speaking to one of our advisers today. Please call our free phone line on 08000029010.

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