What is the difference between shame and guilt?
In the treatment industry, the topic of shame is usually pretty common. People who struggle with substance-use issues feel shame and guilt after years of destructive patterns and events. Treatment experts often discuss shame and the implication of it throughout the treatment experience. But what is shame, and how does it differ from guilt?
The easy way to describe the difference:
Guilt is – “I feel bad for doing something wrong.”
Shame is – “I did something wrong, so I am bad.”
Guilt is the healthy response for when we do something wrong. If we say something hurtful to others or act in a manner than can be hurtful, we should feel bad for it. It’s what allows us to fix our errors and amend our wrongdoings. Shame is when we do something wrong and feel as though we are bad people because of it. Shame is a painful feeling. It lowers self-esteem, it creates ripples in relationships, and it can be so uncomfortable that addicts and alcoholics will do whatever they can to make themselves not feel this way. Shame creates a cycle of active use. It negatively motivates people to continue using and to avoid dealing with the events that have led them to feel shame in the first place. This goes for more than just substance-use as well. People who suffer from process addictions such as eating disorders or sex addictions typically have rooted feelings in shame. They continue their poor habits that create shame, in order to have momentary relief from the shame. It’s a vicious cycle.
Addicts and alcoholics feel as though they are bad people because of the bad things they’ve done.
Addiction brings people to very low bottoms. What is the common reason for addicts and alcoholics to continue using? They don’t want to feel, so they continue to use. Shame is very painful and brings people to dark places.
Guilt, like I said, is a healthy emotion. Teaching our clients to transition their shame into guilt can be such an important and rewarding phase to their recovery. When first finding their way into recovery, many addicts and alcoholics are drowning in shame. From their actions, pressure from loved ones, and the stigma associated with addiction, clients feel less-than, or immoral. The coach’s or therapist’s job is to help the client begin to find a path from shame to guilt. A lot of times, this involves self-esteem exercises such as positive affirmations that can help these clients begin to create a healthy view of themselves. Clients may benefit from cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) to help them identify the events or instances in their lives they feel shame from. Once identified, the coach or therapist can begin to help the client replace these negative thought patterns with positive thoughts.
Another thing that’s important to note is the stigma associated with addiction. Stigma fuels shame. People become afraid to share what they’re struggle with for fear of backlash or punishment. In recent years, recovery from addiction has become a mainstream topic. Celebrities such as musicians and sports players have come forward with their experience of addiction and recovery. This has proven to be helpful to the people who are struggling with opening up and asking for help. Community agencies have progressed in a way with funding and resources to help make addiction treatment accessible to more people. Politicians have utilized their public platforms to encourage addicts and alcoholics to seek help. The courts have created more programs to help people who find themselves in trouble get treatment rather than jail or prison. Addiction treatment has never been more accessible than it is now.
Shame can be the root of addiction for many people. Identifying what people feel shame about and helping them to create a new perspective of themselves can help anyone to find recovery.