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Shame in Recovery: Navigating the Waters of Healing

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Shame in Recovery: Navigating the Waters of Healing

For many, the physical and mental restoration that is worked towards in recovery is only half the battle; there’s often a lingering effect of guilt and shame that also must be worked through. In 2017, NPR conducted an interview with author Neil Steinberg, whose written several books on addiction recovery. He explained in the interview that addiction in and of itself is a secretive disease – and along with it being portrayed as a “weakness” or a “failing,” it’s not surprising that many in recovery still struggle with shame, guilt and stigma. He stated,

“Nobody says, here, wait a second, ‘Mom, I’m going to go hide in the bathroom and guzzle vodka.’ You don’t say that. You’re used to being secretive and ashamed of it while you’re doing it.”

The Difference Between Guilt and Shame


Dr. Georg Fuerstein told Inner Self that guilt derives from the Old English term gylt, which means “a fine for an offense.” Today, those who experience guilt often experience that nagging feeling of having done something wrong; even once a person is in addiction recovery, they may have great concern over the “rightness” or “wrongness” of their actions. Furthermore, a person in recovery may fear punishment from their loved ones, especially when it comes time to addressing these transgressions in person. Guilt sets that tone that a person needs to “make things right.” While a person can’t change their past, they can work towards changing their present and future, and this is the only action that can be taken when guilt arises.

Guilt is a normal emotion – as humans, we’re built to recognize the mistakes and errors we’ve made and to apply judgment to them – but if this consumes a person in recovery, they will find that it’s hard for them to reach their goals.


This emotion grabs a bit more at the core, and occurs when a person feels “bad” or “unworthy.” Those in recovery who experience shame may feel that their actions are too bad for them to ever come back from – that their family members should no longer include them in their lives, or that they’re basically “bad” human beings. Shame is often much more difficult to heal from than guilt because it’s rooted in a person’s self-concept. Both shame and guilt often serve as “revolving doors” of emotion, peddling back and forth as a person tries to make sense of their life.

A 2017 study published in the journal BioSocieties found that for many, the stigma behind addiction sparks these two feelings; genetic predisposition can even facilitate feelings of shame if a person feels there’s no way out because that’s “just who they are.” There are so many symptoms of mental illness that can stem from both guilt and shame, such as depression, anxiety, obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) and more – but by participating actively in recovery, a person can make huge strides.

A Path Towards Healing

Within researcher Donald Nathanson’s bookShame and Pride: Affect, Sex, and the Birth of Self,” a quadrant model to understanding shame:

  •    Withdrawal – isolating and hiding
  •    Attack Self – self-criticism and self-harm
  •    Avoidance – denial, substance abuse
  •    Attack Other – blaming others and lashing out

No matter which side of the spectrum a person tends to act upon (and this may even include more than one side), there are ways to heal from shame:

  1.     Recognize that you and your needs matter.

Addiction doesn’t define you. Acknowledge that underneath all of the shame, embarrassment and feelings of failure, you have needs. This includes feeling a part of society, feeling important, wanting to have connections – and if this matters to you, it’s important.

  1.     Build relationships that facilitate healing.

Both with yourself and with others, find people who support your need for connection, love, joy and adventure. If you find that you’re being rejected by certain friends or family members for your past with addiction, give them time – and continue reaching out to others who may become part of your social support network.

  1.     Learn to tolerate the emotion.

Many people who feel shame want to avoid it, and that’s natural; however, you can’t let your feelings of shame hold you back from living your life. Every relationship you attempt has the potential for rejection and humiliation – that’s what comes with being vulnerable. However, you can still push forward and recognize that despite shame, you can build healthy relationships.

Begin Your Path Towards Healing Today

If you’re ready to embark on this beautiful sobriety journey, speak with a professional from Burning Tree today. It’s never too late to start building the life you’ve always wanted.

Burning Tree Ranch specializes in treating chronic relapse in people with chemical dependency. We provide long-term support through residential and extended care programs that help our clients break their old patterns of addiction and learn new skills to support a healthier life. Our Dallas residential treatment program is focused on providing premium substance use treatment at an affordable cost. Contact us today for more information.


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