Why Do We Experience Guilt, Shame, and Regret in Early Recovery?
Everyone has done or said things they’re not proud of, we’re only human. Those of us in recovery may deal with this to a greater extent. When we’re under the influence, our critical thinking skills are impaired and we’re more likely to do things we might not otherwise. Once we string together some alcohol-free days and the brain fog begins to lift, we may feel the weight of these past actions even heavier. We may have to confront the ways our actions while intoxicated have hurt people we love. Many of us used alcohol to cope with painful emotions, and when we stop drinking, the emotions hit us hard.
Yes, there are things about the past we wish we could change. But we’re trying to be better – and that counts for a lot. These emotions can be difficult to face, but once we do, we take an amazing step in our recovery. Let’s take a closer look at these emotions and how to manage them.
What is the Difference Between Shame, Guilt, and Regret?
While shame, guilt, and regret are often used interchangeably, there are important differences between each of these terms. Learning about these distinctions can help you better understand your own emotions and how to process them.
Shame is most strongly associated with thoughts like “I am a bad person” or “I don’t deserve to be happy.” This is the most destructive of the three emotions. When we feel shame, we feel like our actions have made us flawed to our core. In reality, what we do isn’t who we are. Shame is such a painful emotion that it may lead us to drink when we don’t want to, which can cause even more shame. This is known as a shame spiral and unfortunately is quite common. We’ll discuss tools to get out of that below.
Guilt sounds more like “I’ve done some bad things,” or “I did something I shouldn’t have.” We feel bad about our behaviors, but we know we’re still a good person. In my experience, this one is easier to deal with than shame. Learning about how alcohol affects the brain helped me move on from the guilt of drinking more than I wanted to for many years. Alcohol use disorder is a serious condition, and by treating my past self as someone who was suffering, I can feel compassion rather than be stuck in guilt.
Regret is associated with thoughts like “I wish things had gone differently.” Sometimes we regret something we did that we knew we probably shouldn’t. Other times we may not have deliberately done something wrong, but we come to regret it later. For example, I regret spraining my ankle playing sports last month. I didn’t do anything wrong on purpose, so I don’t feel guilty. I don’t believe I’m a flawed person for sustaining an injury, so I don’t feel shame. I just regret what happened. Regret is still a painful emotion, and if left unprocessed it can affect our recovery.
Support Group: How to manage emotions while changing your relationship with alcohol
How Do These Emotions Affect Recovery?
All of these emotions can be a trigger for drinking. Sometimes we mistakenly think that triggers are only people or places, but emotions are also powerful triggers. These are generally uncomfortable, intense feelings. Many of us have used alcohol to numb these feelings in the past. If we drink again in an attempt to escape these emotions, it can lead to additional guilt and shame associated with relapse. This can create a dangerous cycle which makes it hard to move forward toward healthier behaviors.
As mentioned above, guilt can be a more productive emotion than shame and regret. Guilt can help us become aware of what we’d like to change, and motivate us to take action. While shame is less helpful, it can be overcome. We can let go of these emotions by exploring where they’re coming from, identifying what’s really true, and remembering that our past actions don’t define us.
How to Break the Cycle of Guilt, Shame & Regret
We know that shame can lead to alcohol use, and alcohol use can cause shame. That’s why it’s so important to find tools that work for you to move beyond the past and look to the future.
Realize the Impact of Your Feelings
Naming and sharing our feelings helps us move through them. This can be done in a peer alcohol support group, with a trained therapist, or with a trusted loved one. Feelings are like the weather, they can be beautiful, gloomy, scary or anywhere in between – but they are temporary. If we stuff them down rather than allow them to pass, they can solidify and cause us even more pain down the road. Notice how your feelings affect you, and allow yourself time to feel them. If certain feelings trigger the urge to drink, make a plan to give yourself some extra support when they come up.
Ask for Forgiveness
Healing from alcohol use disorder may mean repairing relationships that have been strained. It takes courage to own up to prior words and actions we’re not proud of. All we can do is ask. Sometimes the other person isn’t ready to forgive, and there’s nothing we can do about that. The value of this is about standing tall, owning our mistakes, and committing to being better in the future. When we do that, we know that we’ve cleaned our side of the street. We can’t control how the recipient takes it. But the act of humbly asking for forgiveness helps us to release feelings of shame, guilt and regret.
Letting go of the parts of the past that aren’t serving us is a key step in moving forward. Working with a therapist in alcohol therapy can be extremely helpful for this. Sharing with a trusted friend or spiritual advisor may also be beneficial. The important thing is to recognize the behavior, and let it out rather than keep it inside. You can try a ritual of writing down things you’d like to move on from and then destroying the pieces of paper.
As human beings, we are all flawed. Dwelling on our mistakes doesn’t help us to heal and move forward. In fact, it does the opposite. Learning about how alcohol affects the brain helped me forgive myself. It’s not our fault that alcohol is so addictive. It’s not our fault that alcohol is so pervasive in our society. Alcohol dependency is not our fault. But it is our responsibility to take ownership of our recoveries, and a big part of that is forgiving ourselves. Recovering from alcohol is hard work, and we need to be our own best friends on this journey. Forgiving ourselves if we slip in our recovery helps us to continue moving forward. Recovery is like a marathon, not a sprint. We are continually experimenting and growing, and we’ll likely need to forgive ourselves more than once. All we can do is learn from our mistakes and move on.
Addressing these feelings is challenging, but finding self-forgiveness can be one of the most rewarding experiences in sobriety. Remember that leaning on your support system makes a huge difference. At Monument, you can meet with a therapist for one-on-one guidance, and join support groups with people who get it. You are not alone.