Guilt and Shame
What is guilt?
Guilt is the knowledge that you have done something wrong. Feeling guilty often leads to telling lies to cover up what you’ve done. Then you tell more lies to cover up your initial lies. Eventually, you lose track of what you have said and to whom and your reality becomes distorted and your values ignored. Though a burden, you can do something about guilt—admit the wrong, apologize for it, and take corrective action.
What is shame?
While guilt is feeling bad about something you’ve done, shame is feeling bad about who you are. If you feel shameful, you may think that something is wrong with you. Shame goes hand in hand with being secretive and defensive; the desire to hide shame can become all-consuming. Shame can also masquerade as a number of other feelings, such as anxiety, anger, the need to control, or depression. The Fourth Step will help you deal with shame and guilt by helping you understand shame for what it is—a powerful barrier to recovery.
Those who aren’t addicted may have a few things to feel guilty about, but it typically ends there. However, for addicts and alcoholics, who have done many negative things while using or drinking and who struggle mightily with feelings of inferiority, it takes very little to sink into deep feelings of shame.
Why is it important to do a Fourth Step to handle guilt and shame?
Honestly acknowledging your past is key to leaving guilt and shame behind. The Fourth Step prods you to expose your own shortcomings rather than to live in fear of being exposed by someone else. Up and out becomes your motto. When you pull up the feelings of guilt and shame and lay out the thoughts and actions rooted in those feelings, you drop your burden. You don’t have to carry it any longer. Silence feeds guilt and shame. Talking about it diminishes its control over you.
The miracle of the Fourth Step happens not just in writing down the bad things that have happened. In this Step you also make an accounting of the good things you’ve done, an honest assessment of your strengths. Many addicts and alcoholics have said that listing strengths is harder than outlining weaknesses. The person who hears your Fourth Step won’t let you get away with slighting the positives, so you might as well do an honest job of finding your good side.
What are some healthy ways to deal with guilt and shame?
Guilt and shame serve a useful purpose—they are indicators that you need to take inventory of your thoughts, feelings, behavior, and actions. Rather than sink into denial, insecurity, and self-hate, you can choose to understand the problem and take corrective action. Rigorous honesty, self-expression, and a willingness to apologize and change behavior are the path to keeping your self-image and confidence positive and strong.
In addition, make a point to identify shame-based relationships in your life. Once you’ve rooted out the guilt and shame inside yourself, your self-esteem won’t improve if others continue to hold power over you through shaming. No matter where you are in recovery, guilt and shame will sap energy and clarity from your recovery.