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The Complications of Shame and Guilt 1:

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The Complications of Shame and GuiltThe Confusing Emotions of Addiction

When working with the confusing emotions of addiction, I often witness a distinct correlation yet paradoxically an inconsistency between guilt and shame. This I feel is a confusion that is sometimes missed or misunderstood by the inexperienced or newly recovering addict, therefore worth taking a look at. As a workable definition, shame means having negative beliefs about yourself and your self-worth. On the other hand, guilt means having negative beliefs about your behaviour. Put more simply, shame can be about who we are while guilt is more about what we have done. For the addict, shame and guilt can both be pre-exiting conditions as well as being the consequential emotions of our addiction.

One of the ways of identifying the difference between guilt and shame is through the inventory process of the twelve-step abstinence based recovery programme. This painstaking analysis allows us to become more aware of the emotions involved in what is going on around us while allowing the opportunity to examine the way we think and feel about ourselves and our behaviour. If we think our behaviour is wrong and consequently feel bad about it, we are most probably experiencing guilt. On the other hand if we feel our behaviour leaves us with a feeling akin to worthlessness then we have shifted from guilt to shame. I feel that guilt can sometimes be superficial while the roots of shame often go much deeper, stemming from infancy or adolescence together with the problems arising from growing up in a dysfunctional environment where bullying, physical, emotional or sexual abuse are to be found. Consider also that blame is another way of identifying guilt. Blame is little more than a defence against looking at ourselves. If at times we find ourselves blaming another person then we should stop and reflect. We may find we are really feeling guilt and thus need to adjust our actions.

As recovering adults we need to use our programme to challenge the irrational beliefs that shame and guilt can produce. Through practicing our moral inventory for instance, we might discover that feelings of guilt can in fact be turned into something helpful, especially if used stop repetitive, harmful addictive behaviour. In other words it is possible for guilt to be repaired by correcting or apologising for the causal bad behaviour.

Shame however is a different matter. Through the process of acceptance we need to remind ourselves that shame is neither good nor is it bad, it is neither fair nor unfair – it just is. Shame can only be repaired by the rebuilding of the true self and by embracing vulnerability. Only by “sharing” our shame can we be accepted by others and by ourselves for what we are. This is where the mutuality of AA, NA, GA etc. becomes an invaluable tool for our ongoing recovery.

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