Guilt and Shame: Is Dwelling on the Past Killing Your Recovery?
One of the key components of moving forward in recovery is to take the time to look back at what happened in addiction.
The goal is to better understand what unfolded and how in order to prevent it from happening again. Another goal is to identify how others were harmed and take the opportunity to try to repair the damage.
Although this process is positive and healing, it is easy to get bogged down in guilt along the way. While it is a positive thing that you feel remorse for your choices that hurt people you love, it can end up causing even more harm if remorse turns into lingering shame or heavy guilt that stops you from moving forward.
Is the specter of the past haunting your recovery?
Regret, Guilt, and Shame
Regret, or the recognition of harm done, is a positive step because it means that you are empathizing with the plight of others. No matter how much you love your family, when you are blinded by addiction, it is almost impossible to feel sympathy for anyone else’s concerns, let alone prioritize them over your ability to get and stay high. In recovery, when you honestly assess your part in what unfolded during addiction, experiencing regret is an important part of the process of becoming healthy – but it is important not to stop there.
Feelings of heavy guilt or shame can be detrimental to your growth in recovery; in fact, it can trigger relapse if it continues unabated for too long.
You are a powerful person and while you played a role in your addiction, you also play an active role in recovery – one that is directed toward improving the lives of those around you even if it is impossible to directly “fix” any of the issues that arose during your addiction.
Self-Aggrandizement and Self-Punishment
It is not uncommon for people in recovery to simultaneously see themselves as the worst people in the world and also the center of the universe. These are the ways in which addiction alters the brain and self-perception, and both can sabotage progress in recovery.
The truth is that there is balance to everything. While you are a key part of what happened in the past and in the lives of the people around you now, you are also not responsible for what happens to everyone around you. That is, there is no point in feeling guilty for the pain that other people experience when you had no part in making it happen or just because you wish they did not have to go through hardship. You are not expected to save everyone in your life from pain, nor could you. You have an impact, and that impact can be positive from here on out, and that may mean supporting them as they go through life and experience whatever comes their way. If you were part of their pain in the past, how you live now does not have to be colored by that if it is not helpful to your ability to stay sober.
Using the Past to Move Forward
The good news about the mistakes that we have made in the past is that we have the opportunity to learn from them and not make them a second time. Here’s what you can do to turn the negative things that happened during addiction into a springboard for positivity now and in the future:
- Do not hide from the past. It is not comfortable to listen to a loved one explain how your addiction hurt them, but it is an important part of their ability to heal and yours as well.
- Be honest with yourself. You are not an evil villain. Every bad thing that happened during your addiction is not necessarily your fault; however, it is important to take responsibility for your role in the past as well as your role in the present and future.
- Be proactive. If there is a way you can repair the harm done to someone you care about, then by all means step up and do it. If that person is not interested in your attempts to repair the relationship or make amends, take the positive initiative and put it out into the world for someone else to enjoy. The act of giving back in this specific way will help you to actively move through what happened and move on.
- Keep up the positive momentum. As you walk through life, you will often be in a position to support someone unexpectedly or have the chance to volunteer and give back to your community. Take those opportunities as they arise and make sure that some part of your life is always focused on other people and helping to repair the world around you.
- Talk it out. Feelings are going to come up for you in sobriety. It is a natural part of moving farther away from active addiction and becoming a whole person in recovery. It is important to keep an open dialogue about what you are experiencing and feeling with a substance abuse treatment professional who can assist you in strategizing how to manage whatever comes your way.
Remember that every day you stay sober, you are doing a service not only to yourself but to your loved ones and the people around you as well. Make sure you have what you need to feel comfortable throughout your growth in recovery.