Just so we are clear, there is a difference between guilt and shame when it comes to alcoholics and problem drinkers. Alcoholics will probably always feel more of both since their problems are more acute. Shame is the inclination to feel badly about oneself after a particular event. Shame can lead to more drinking as a method of covering those feelings. Guilt is the act of feeling badly about some specific behavior or action. Depending on the amount consumed and behavior exhibited when drinking, excessive drinkers will surely suffer from pangs of guilt and waves of shame during the course of their addiction. These real feelings begin to have a more derisive effect on the individual after they enter into recovery than when they are actually drinking. Being more cognitive of your behavior when sober will trigger feelings of shame and guilt.
The harm one does to their family and loved ones, the way they treated them when drinking, and what they put them through will always have an effect on the recovering alcoholic. Shame is the more debilitating of the two emotions and the one that is more likely to cause difficulty during the critical early recovery phase. When drinking actively, it was easy to blanket the shame in an alcoholic haze, by drinking to cover up feelings. Shame was easily dealt with by merely drinking it away.
Now in your cold sober and emotionally naked recovery you have way too much time to think about your actions when you were drinking and how this affected those close to you. Your shame combined with feelings of guilt collectively forms the perfect emotional storm. This burden makes recovery more difficult and carries with it the risk of relapse - after all, when you drank you could easily bury these feelings.
So what can a recovering alcoholic or excessive drinker do about these potentially devastating feelings?
One of the twelve steps of Alcoholics Anonymous states that you should make a list of all those that you hurt and try and make amends. There is a reason why these steps are in place and they generally have to do with dealing with the emotions you feel after you quit drinking.
This process of ‘making amends’ is a very tough thing to do, yet apologizing to those people that you wronged while drinking is significant to your healing. My own attempts at trying to make amends for previous wrongs didn’t go very well at all. I wasn’t being forgiven for my past behavior and if anything this process was making me feel terrible.
I came to understand that this act of asking for forgiveness was for MY benefit and not theirs. Unfortunately, granting forgiveness is a commodity in short supply. Things began to get better for me when I understood this. I did my part so the problem is no longer mine, it’s theirs. This may not be the ideal moral to this ‘making amends’ story but for my sanity it was enough. I listened to it and it worked for me and for my guilt.
Still there was the feeling of remorse that was so overwhelming at times it was unbearable. I remember thinking it was karma, penance, just desserts as it were for my past actions and I better get used to it or it would certainly beat me. This could not have been further from the truth. For too long I was tortured by these feelings of shame, for letting down those around me and for acting like a stranger amongst them.
One night at a Christmas gathering I was walking a family member to his car. I always held this person in high esteem and though his slate was somewhat tarnished he gave me some advice that has helped me to this day. He asked how I was really doing after hearing me give my pat answers all evening to other family members. I told him I felt like dirt and was so ashamed of myself for letting everyone down. His reply was simple and blunt, “Stop worrying about what others think and forgive yourself immediately”.
He could not have been more right. From that evening on my outlook was changed and I was on a path of recovery I knew would be healing. No longer was I responsible for the burden of my past behavior. I would learn from it but not punish myself for it. A healthy dose of guilt, just a smidgen, is helpful to recovery if only as reminder of how things can go so terribly wrong. Shame on the other hand is a demoralizing, upsetting and even frightening emotion that will eat you up inside if you let it.
As a recovering alcoholic or alcohol abuser the act of letting yourself off the hook is in my opinion, the most important thing you can do. Both the alcoholic and alcohol abuser have their own level of negative emotional complexity and your act of personal forgiveness will determine your future growth from whichever level of alcohol induced transgression you’re recovering from.
To set up an appointment with Michael Pearlman, M.D., Call 1 (866) 285-3400 toll-free or (617) 620-2230,