Shame vs. Guilt: What’s the Difference?

Before we realized it was a disease, addiction was actually viewed as a conscious, willful behavior while addicts were seen as bad people who were selfish and self-destructive. As a result, people with addiction were punished, which often meant they were imprisoned or confined in asylums for the mentally insane. The idea was that the substance abusers would be forced into sobriety through imprisonment while fear of additional punishment would essentially force them into remaining abstinent, but that’s not exactly how it went.

We would discover that many of the people who were imprisoned for substance abuse would quickly return to their substance abuse despite the behavior contradicting what would otherwise be an obvious, rational realization: Avoid punishment by refraining from substance abuse. Instead, the substance abusers exhibited a tendency to think and behave rationally. This was when it was realized that there was more to substance abuse than met the eye. Before long, we would come to see addiction as a chronic, progressive brain disease that, despite being incurable, could be treated with the right combination of therapies and techniques.

Of the many things that we’ve learned about addiction, we know that there are a number of reasons why people remain in active addiction despite the consequences their substance abuse brings down upon them. For instance, many addicts remain in active addiction because the alcohol or drugs they consume are what they use to cope with prior trauma. In particular, feelings of shame often contribute to the longevity of one’s addiction; alternately, feelings of guilt in recovery can put one’s sobriety in jeopardy as well. But what’s the difference between shame and guilt? And what specific parts do shame and guilt play in addiction and recovery?

Shame and Addiction

The spectrum of human emotion is quite expansive and diverse. We feel many different feelings as well as different levels of intensity of each of those feelings and even combinations of feelings. Such is the complexity of the human psyche. Typically, feelings of happiness are associated with health, motivation, and success while more negative feelings are inhibitive, causing people to make poor decisions and behave in ways that bring them additional hardship. Shame is one of those negative emotions that often skews a person’s thought processes and, therefore, his or her behavior; however, what exactly is shame? And what does it have to do with addiction?

Most people assume that they know what shame is, describing it in much the same way that they would describe self-consciousness or guilt. But shame is distinct from those other emotions and states of mind. In particular, shame is the most intensely negative experiences that a person will ever have about him or herself, causing deeply disturbing feelings that make a person feel as though they have been wounded from within. The fact of the matter is that while most of us experience and feel shame on a somewhat regular basis, most people have trouble recognizing it in its various forms. In short, shame refers to feeling as though one has don’t something wrong, is wrong or inadequate or not good enough him or herself.

In some instances, shame helps a person to behave better by causing them to preemptively experience shame for behaviors that they’re still merely considering; by feeling the shame before exhibiting the behavior, they become likely to change their mind and not behave in that certain way. However, shame can also cause people to be self-destructive. For people who have a tendency to abuse alcohol or drugs, shame can cause an escalation in their substance abuse, causing them to creep ever closer to full-blown addiction. Additionally, feelings of shame are known to be a factor in why so many people remain in active addiction.

What Is Guilt?

While shame refers to feelings of inadequacy and inferiority that don’t necessarily pertain to any specific behaviors, guilt refers to something else entirely. Guilt is predicated on feelings that are elicited by some behavior, whether real, hypothetical, or imagined. More specifically, guilt has been defined as the feeling of being culpable for either real or imagined offenses. More often than not, guilt involves feeling culpable for behaviors that involve other people, especially when the behaviors are offenses against other people. Additionally, many people who experience feelings of guilt tend to feel as though they’ve broken some type of legal or moral law or fell dramatically short of someone’s expectations.

Why Guilt and Shame are Harmful to Recovery

Feelings of guilt and shame are extremely detrimental to recovery, but for completely different reasons. Shame is harmful to recovery because it discourages addicts from seeking it. In other words, shame makes it harder for addicts to get sober or want to get sober since they’re likely using alcohol or drug abuse to cope with feelings of shame. Alternately, guilt is a feeling that puts a person’s sobriety in jeopardy when he or she has already invested time and effort into the recovery process. This is because recovered addicts will often have committed regrettable acts and betrayals while in active addiction for which they feel guilt once they are sober. If the guilt escalates to a certain level of intensity, relapse becomes increasingly likely. Meanwhile, shame is more dangerous when an individual is in active addiction because, again, the feelings of inadequacy and inferiority are so prominent that they feel substance abuse is warranted to alleviate them.

Drug Treatment Center Finder is Here for YoU

The disease of addiction has become a major problem in today’s society, but just because it’s reached epidemic-level proportions doesn’t mean there’s nothing we can do. In fact, we’ve made it our mission to help anyone suffering from addiction, whether due to guilt or shame or otherwise, find the treatments they need to get their independence, health, and happiness. For more information or with any questions, call Drug Treatment Center Finder at 1-855-619-8070. With just one phone call, you or your loved one can take the first step on this healing journey.

Staff Writer :