You are imperfect, you are wired for struggle, but you are worthy of love and belonging. ― Brené Brown, Shame Researcher Shame and guilt are natural. These emotions can help us reflect on and evaluate our past choices, and give us the drive to change our future ones. But rather than giving us the motivation to change, shame and guilt can also hold us back from growing as well. Sometimes the intensity of these feelings can seem so overwhelming, so insurmountable, that the emotions which are supposed to push us forward actually render us immobile. And as an addict myself, finding a way to reconcile with my past was especially difficult. But with the proper guidance, I was able to overcome my feelings of shame and unhelpful guilt and continue down the path of sobriety for good. Here’s some of the knowledge I picked up along the way.
The Difference Between Guilt and Shame
Guilt and shame are two similar concepts that many people actually believe to be the same thing. But the truth is, these two emotions are, in fact, very distinct reactions to a situation that individuals can feel both separately or together. In fact, as Joseph Burgo Ph.D. points out, even the dictionary isn’t clear about the true distinction between the two. According to the National Institute for the Clinical Application of Behavioral Medicine (NICABM):
- guilt is “often experienced when we act against our values” and
- shame is “a deeply-held belief about our unworthiness as a person”
With those definitions, it’s easy to see why so many people confuse the two. They can both be felt in the same situation and telling them apart requires you to know the difference between who you are and what you do. Keeping those concepts separate can take quite a leap for some people. To add a bit more confusion, NICABM also makes the distinction between two different kinds of guilt: helpful guilt and unhelpful guilt. Helpful guilt, as you can probably guess, is feeling a psychological discomfort about an action you took that was objectively wrong. Unhelpful guilt, on the other hand, is the same feeling brought on by not achieving unrealistically high standards. And while helpful guilt can be instrumental in growing as a person, unhelpful guilt can only hold you back from your true potential, especially during recovery.
A Few Guilt vs Shame Examples
Here are just a few examples of what guilt and shame look like. They’ll help you learn to separate the two and make committing to getting help for your substance abuse even easier.
- Guilt: Jake lied to his partner about where he was the other night. He later confesses and promises to never lie to his partner again.
- Shame: Lucy doesn’t go to her friend’s party because she thinks she doesn’t deserve to have a good time.
- Guilt: Amanda stole a candy bar from a convenience store but returned it after she realized it was the wrong thing to do.
- Shame: Robert is afraid of reaching out to his parents because he feels like everything he says is stupid.
Do you see the difference? Guilt is influencing future change for the better while shame is holding back action and keeping Lucy and Robert from growing as people.
The Role of Guilt and Shame in Recovery
For an addict, few emotions can be quite as powerful as guilt and shame. Many people who have a severe substance use disorder have hurt a lot of others along the way. They may have:
- Stolen money or belongings from the people they care about
- Lied or betrayed people’s trust
- Skipped out on obligations
- Abandoned others in their times of need
- Physically or emotionally caused intentional harm
The path of a substance abuser can be fraught with acts that an addict should feel guilty about. But when that guilt manifests as deeply-embedded shame, that’s where the trouble begins. As host of NPR’s All Things Considered Michel Martin puts it, “it’s not at all uncommon for recovering addicts from all walks of life to feel extreme guilt and shame. But that can keep them from getting the help they need to save their lives.” Many times, someone suffering from substance abuse cannot overcome their feelings of low self-worth enough to seek the help they need. In fact, these individuals more than likely don’t believe that they deserve to get better. And that is the mindset of shame. I don’t deserve to be happy. I haven’t earned the right to live joyfully. I’ve hurt too many people to be forgiven. But with the right kind of help from dedicated and qualified professionals, sufferers of substance abuse can overcome these feelings of shame and learn how to trust themselves again.
Christianity and Judaism on Shame/Guilt
Forgiveness is one of the most fundamental tenets of Christianity. According to the Bible, God gave his only son to the world so that he may die to forgive man of his sins. According to well-known Christian influencer Pastor Rick, guilt and shame are simply burdens that we choose to carry on our shoulders. “God doesn’t want you to carry that heavy baggage throughout your life,” he says. “He wants you to be free.” Similar to Christianity, Judaism believes that deeply rooted shame can be a destructive and unnecessary force. Guilt, on the other hand, is a creative force that can help change your actions for the better.
Resources: Bible Verses About Guilt and Forgiveness
While it’s certainly beneficial to know the general attitude of these religions toward shame and guilt, sometimes it’s best to look at the actual verses from the Bible for comfort and reassurance. We’ve gathered below a quick list of some of the most powerful verses related to shame and guilt to make the process a bit easier. No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it. 1 Corinthians 10:13 ESV For “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” Romans 10:13 ESV For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. John 3:17 ESV Those who look to him are radiant, and their faces shall never be ashamed. Psalm 34:5 ESV For even more bible verses about guilt and forgiveness, head over to OpenBible.info. This comprehensive resource has over 60 more verses on shame and guilt taken directly from the English Standard Version Bible.
Resources: Guild and Shame Exercises
One of the best sets of exercises you can do at home come from a program called Taking the Escalator. Have a look at the chapter on Understanding and Coping with Guilt and Shame for a great list of pointers on how to overcome and live with these two feelings as an addict. The 10 Suggestions for How to Cope with Feelings of Guilt section is especially helpful. We’ve reproduced a few of these suggestions below, just to give you an idea of what kinds of strategies you have at your disposal.
- Face the feelings of guilt. Release feelings of guilt by talking about them, sharing, confessing, getting honest.
- Learn to forgive yourself. – Do you judge yourself too harshly?
- Examine the origins of your guilt – Is the reason that you feel guilt rational and reasonable? Inappropriate or irrational guilt involves feeling guilty in relation to something that in reality you had little or nothing to do with.
Resources: Self-Help Books Dealing with Guilt and Shame
Sometimes, having a physical resource you can turn to in times of need can be especially helpful. This list of self-help books dealing with guilt and shame are a great place to start your journey towards forgiveness. Guilt, Shame, and Anxiety: Understanding and overcoming Negative Emotions By Peter R. Breggin Shame & Guilt: Masters of Disguise By Jane Middelton-Moz Shame and Guilt By June Price Tangney & Ronda L. Dearing (For Substance Abuse) Shame, Guilt, and Alcoholism: Treatment Issues in Clinical Practice By Ronald Potter-Efron, PhD (For Substance Abuse) Healing the Shame That Binds You By John Bradshaw
Brené Brown on Shame
One of the leading researchers in the field, Brené Brown has been instrumental in bringing the issues of shame and guilt to the attention of the public. While we’ve all experienced such emotions before, Brené is one of the first people to really get at the importance of talking about these feelings openly. What’s more, her numerous books, public speaking engagements, and TV appearances have garnered the attention of many individuals all over the world – bringing knowledge of what she sees as the gift of vulnerability and honesty to millions.
Resources: Brené Brown’s Shame vs Guilt TED Talk
One of Brené’s most recognizable events was her TED Talk, “The Power of Vulnerability” at the June 2010 TEDxHouston. This emotional and arresting speech has earned almost 31 million views since its original publishing. It’s a powerful look at what it takes to be vulnerable and how to overcome debilitating feelings of shame. She also did a follow-up at TED2012 titled “Listening to Shame”, a further look at how shame is becoming an “unspoken epidemic” and “the secret behind many forms of broken behavior.” In this moving speech, she discusses at length the science and data behind shame and why it’s such an overwhelming force for holding back growth. If you are suffering from addiction and can relate to these feelings of insurmountable shame, take a look at the videos above. They may give you the confidence you need to confront your shame head-on and get the help you deserve.
Guilt and Shame: Similar Feelings with Vastly Different Consequences
Guilt and shame in the world of a substance abuser can be emotions that plague your daily life. I know: I’ve been there. Why didn’t I tell the truth? Why can’t I get clean? I don’t deserve to be happy. But realizing that these two emotions aren’t actually one in the same, and learning how to ditch unhelpful guilt and shame for good, helped me get the help I needed for my substance use disorder. And now that I’m sober, I can start enjoying my life again!