In episode 283, I received a courageous question from a listener who is recovering from long-term addiction and is deeply struggling with guilt and shame over some of their past actions. In this post, I offer encouragement and dive into the useful aspects of guilt, the line when this guilt can have a negative impact. and look at ways you can overcome this and seek help to create a positive future.
I hope this is okay to ask it may be a little irrelevant to most topics on your podcasts, and also sorry if it has already been addressed. I have been on and off in active addiction to Methamphetamine and heroin and have done some things that I am feeling a lot of shame over it, such as lying to family, abusing help offered, and theft. I know that I should be feeling a certain amount of healthy guilt, but this time getting clean I am struggling with my self worth because most of what I feel is shame. I know that I over exaggerate the harm I have done because for a majority of my addiction, all I have done is disappear.
How do I work on overcoming the severe guilt that makes me feel like I am unworthy of a healthy life now?
Well, first off thank you for the question. I’m proud of you for fighting the fight and trying to make progress in your addictions. It can be extremely hard and I think there is bravery in even trying, especially if you feel like you have to keep coming back after being knocked down. I also appreciate the honesty and your willingness to just put this out there. Shame is such as big component of addiction, so even writing in anonymously can be hard.
The focus on others in your question is interesting. In what you said here, I hear that you are primarily concerned with letting other people down, misusing their care, and things of that sort. You are clearly not feeling great about yourself and it sounds like your self-concept is not very high. Totally understandable, given what you’ve been going through. I’ll talk more about this, but I think that you deserve to think about yourself as well in this situation. But even if you don’t think you deserve any self-consideration and you feel totally guilt-ridden and indebted to the other people in your life that you may have let down or misused in some way. Think about it… wouldn’t that actually lend itself more to you living a healthier life now? Rather than being unworthy and selfish, wouldn’t that actually be the least selfish thing to do? It can be partially in honor of these people that you pursue a healthier life. It’s the most responsible thing to work on yourself, not the most selfish thing. They have invested in you and care about you. It would make a big difference to them if you succeeded, even if you feel like you don’t deserve it.
Turn the tables
I do think that you should think more about yourself in this whole situation, but even if you didn’t – this might help illustrate that it still makes sense for you to embrace wellness. That a healthy life is the best idea in this situation. Like I said, though. I think you also deserve to think about yourself. As a human, you have a right to try to find peace and live a healthy life. Sure, you have regrets. You mentioned that a certain amount of guilt might be healthy here. For sure. To some extent that regret and guilt is corrective. But I think you are well beyond that now. Your self-concept is so shattered that you feel like you need to punish yourself somehow. Sometimes that punishment is active through abusing your body and sometimes its passive by denying things and feeling like you don’t deserve to be a happy and healthy person.
If you were to flip this around, how would you feel? Imagine that this was someone else that you care about who is in recovery. They have acted very similar to the way you have. Their addiction has made them in act in ways that aren’t consistent with who they feel they are as a person, but at the same time they have done their best to not harm anyone. They have tried to get better, but it’s a sticky problem and they keep falling back down. Now they feel like they have done so much wrong that they don’t even deserve to get better or feel healthy. How would you feel about that? Take the chance to actually think of a specific person. Maybe you know someone in your recovery journey or maybe you can just imagine that it’s a family member or close loved one that is simply going through what you have. Do you feel as negatively toward them? Do you feel like they have forfeited their right to be happy and healthy?
This might be an obvious question, but are you in therapy? If not – do that. If you are just in 12-step meetings and such, that is likely not sufficient. There are very likely underlying factors here that have served to maintain your addiction. Your past, your view of yourself, and all of that. These are things that can be delved into and worked through in therapy. Addiction is tough and it is weird. You might have so much knowledge in your brain about the situation and what you should be doing with yourself, but when it comes down to it, your body tells you a different story and that is very difficult to ignore. That becomes even more difficult when the addiction serves a very good purpose in your life, given your mental health situation. Digging into these underlying factors might help you to maintain your recovery and avoid falling into future relapses.
Talk to others
I’m not sure if you’ve thought of this or already done it a bit, but how about addressing these concerns with others. I have to imagine there are some specific people that come into your mind when you talk about the guilt that you feel toward others. Could you literally talk to them about it? Could you tell them how you are feeling? That you feel that you have used them, squandered their care, etc. and that now it’s hard for you to feel justified in succeeding and see what they say about that? These might be very difficult questions to ask, but I feel like they could be really telling. These people deserve the benefit of the doubt as much as you do.
There are a couple other things to think about. I don’t think that blind guilt is very helpful in guiding behavior. But it is sometimes helpful to think about the consequences of inaction. What happens if you do nothing about this? Who served to benefit and who might be harmed from that trajectory. This is a great thing to process in your journal. You can also use the same platform to consider the consequences of taking action. Who serves to benefit? What difference would it make to yourself, your body, people around you, and the world in general for you to make progress, even if it is incremental?
Lastly, maybe you are thinking a little too much about who this is for. Whether others are deserving of your recovery, whether you are worthy of recovering etc. Instead, maybe you could look a bit more externally about your values. What is it that matters to you in this world. Why DO you get out of bed in the morning? If you can connect to some of these fundamental values of yours, that gives you another way to judge yourself. Not based off some nebulous idea of doing right or wrong by yourself or by others, but by how you are moving toward or away from your values.
Thank you for the question. you are doing a good job. It’s irrelevant whether you deserve this. Is it the correct choice? You do deserve it and yes it the correct choice. You got this!
You can listen to this on Episode 283 of the podcast!
Thank you for the great question!
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