shame and guilt

Shame and guilt in recovery are driving forces of relapse and staying stuck. Defining what shame and guilt are in regards to substance abuse is complicated and difficult to understand. Clarifying shame like an internal feeling of not being good enough, and guilt as an emotion tied to actions and behaviors you regret will give you a place to start.

Simplifying how shame manifests in your adult life and in your substance abuse will help you identify areas you can work on to overcome the incorrect beliefs you hold about yourself and your position in your world.

Expanding the definition of shame as an internalized system of thoughts, feelings, emotions, and behaviors that holds you prisoner and prevents you from believing in yourself and your ability to overcome and reframe your beliefs.

Feelings of shame and guilt appear regularly throughout life and are usually quickly processed and let go of. Unrealized shame and guilt carried over from childhood can manifest as mental illness, addiction, or social and emotional dysfunction. Shame and guilt are leading causes of relapse and help perpetuate the cycle of addiction.

Recognizing and understanding the symptoms of negative emotion and how to separate fact from fiction will help you maintain a healthy balance of self-esteem and confidence.


Shame is a multifaceted emotion with several causes. Shame is a product of childhood, where family secrets were the norm, where trauma and violence were almost guaranteed, and dysfunctional relationship modeling set the stage for your belief system.

Shame may be based in something that happened to you as a child that you have covered up for years, causing untold suffering on top of the original trauma. Trauma is an ordeal that left permanent scars on your psyche.

Adult shame can begin from actions that are the opposite of what your core values or morals stand for. Substance abuse leads to increased shame as you keep secrets from everyone and resort to dishonest and illicit means to continue your substance use.

Shame can be based in perfectionism and the feeling you will never be good enough, no matter what you do. The feeling of inferiority will be the foundation of everything you do.

According to Fossum and Mason (1986) in Facing Shame: Families in Recovery shame “…refers to humiliation so painful, embarrassment so deep, and a sense of being so completely diminished that one feels he or she will disappear in a pile of ashes. Shame involves the entire self and self-worth of a human being” (pp. xii).

Furthermore, Fossum and Mason (1986) note that a ‘shame-based family is a family with self-sustaining, multigenerational systems of interaction with a cast of characters who are (or were in their lifetime) loyal to a set of rules and injunctions demanding control, perfectionism, blame and denial” (pp. 8).

Families are the foundation of your shame acquired during childhood. Reinforcement of these unhealthy lessons as you try to find your way in life will keep you sick.


Guilt is another name for remorse. Guilt is a result of actions that caused harm to a person, place or thing. You may also be wracked with guilt for wanting or desiring certain things or outcomes when you don’t feel you deserve them.

Guilt is an emotion that makes you want to hide. It is an emotion tied to your values and the values of your community and is a direct link to your beliefs about yourself.

Guilt and shame go hand in hand. Both can cause the other, or symbiotically increase the effects of both. You will be weighed down by the psychological effects.


Internalizing shame and guilt over long periods of time can lead to all manner of physical and emotional issues. You will self-medicate to numb the pain so you don’t have to face the issue at hand.

Compulsive behaviors and addiction are common in shame-based family systems. In order to cope with the discomfort, other methods are employed as an antidote to negative feelings. Relief is short lived though.

The short-term relief you get from substance abuse, gambling, shopping, binging, workaholism, or other compulsive disorders and risky behaviors perpetuates the cycle of shame. Substance abuse and shame go hand in hand.

Your health and mental health are negatively affected by shame. You will literally make yourself sick with all the worrying, negativity, fear, anger, despair, and sense of wrongness that lingers.

Shame and substance abuse is a never-ending cycle that has its roots in past events.


Margaret Yard (2014) in The Changing Faces of Shame: Theoretical Underpinnings and Clinical Management. Issues in Psychoanalytic Psychology states that ‘…manifestations of shame are…denial, minimization, grandiosity, rationalization, blaming, rage, and sometimes, misdirected defiance. Yard continues, “Defenses against shame include narcissistic self-inflation, projecting upon and shaming of others, and lying and confabulation” (pp. 45). You will act out in ways that mimic the exact behaviors that have caused you shame.

You will mirror the behaviors back onto other people, causing them to experience shame, while building on your own.

A startling revelation by Paul Gilbert (2003) in Evolution, Social Roles, and the Difference in Shame and Guilt. Social Research., remarks ‘The fear of shame and ridicule can be so strong that people will risk serious physical injury or even death to avoid it” (pp. 1205). This is especially disturbing given the fact that shame is based on a belief system that you were thrust into as a child or developed through traumatic or abusive situations. Strong emotion can lead to deadly consequences.

Shame can cause fear of intimacy in relationships, have commitment issues, fear of showing vulnerability, feelings of inadequacy, introversion, inability to fit in, and feeling alone no matter where you are (Jane Middleton-Moz, 1990). Social interaction and feeling of community are necessary, shame effectively isolates you from others.

Low self-esteem and hopelessness are common in people with shame. You will often not get started on something because you feel you can’t make a difference. You will not see the positive traits you have, always believing you are defective (Middleton-Moz, 1990).

On the other end of the scale are in your face behaviors like narcissistic personality, anger, selfishness, resentment, judgment, and blame. You will not take responsibility, rather you will attribute negative events and feelings to anyone but yourself.

In regard to relationships, Moz (1990) states, “Having grown up with a set of dysfunctional boundaries you will not be able to set your own. Ending up in codependent and unhealthy relationships, not being able to say no, getting overwhelmed are common.” These types of relationships are just going to add to the shame you already harbor.

These are just a few red flags that are attributed to shame. It is worth exploring what is going on with you when you notice these thoughts or behaviors.


It is unlikely you will reverse years of shame and guilt without help. Twisted thinking has ruled you for so long, it is going to take an extended period of time to unravel the untruths your mind has told you.

Damage has been done to your physical, emotional, and psychological self. You will have to work on each area simultaneously to achieve wellness.

Substance abuse is a symptom of your defective coping mechanisms and distorted beliefs. Eventually, you will no longer be able to shut down the shame that drives you.

Entering into treatment is the best choice you can make. Know that there is help available to you. It doesn’t matter what brings you to treatment, as long as you end up there.

In treatment, you will have the opportunity to begin exploring the beliefs you hold about yourself. You will examine them and learn how to replace them with positive coping mechanisms and fact-based affirmations.

Continued treatment and therapy are advised to continue your journey to wellness. Practicing self-care and setting healthy boundaries is an important step.


Unresolved guilt will occur in your life. There are simply times when you will be unable to make amends. Make an effort to do the next right thing to minimize situations where you act in a manner contrary to your beliefs.

Learn from the instances where guilt and regret creep into your life. Forgiving yourself is one of the greatest gifts you can give yourself in order to move on.

Internalized guilt needs to be examined so that negative thoughts can be turned into a positive affirmation. No matter what, you deserve to be happy and to have the life you want.


It will take time and effort to unravel years of twisted thinking and behaviors. The greatest gift you can give yourself is the chance to have a happy fulfilling life that you choose and build.

You can overcome anything once you set your mind to it. You are so worthy of a good happy life filled with all the things you can only wish for. Take the step and get help now.

Resources in your community, through your health provider, or private practice should be explored. Seeking help is a sign of strength and desire to recover.

Spend time learning about yourself, your family of origin, the dynamics of your world, self-sabotage, and about the games your mind plays.

Once you get a grip on the thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that underpin your guilt and shame, you can work on correcting them.

You absolutely have the power within you to overcome any adversity if you work on it.


  • Gilbert, P. (2003). Evolution, Social Roles, and the Difference in Shame and Guilt. Social Research, 70(4), 1205–1230.
  • How Shame feeds addiction:
  • Middleton-Moz, Jane. (1990). Shame & Guilt Masters of Disguise. Deerfield Beach, FL: Health Communications, Inc.
  • Prado, C. E., Treeby, M. S., & Crowe, S. F. (2016). Examining the relationships between sub-clinical psychopathic traits with shame, guilt and externalization response tendencies to everyday transgressions. Journal of Forensic Psychiatry & Psychology, 27(4), 569–585.
  • Shame: The Core of Addiction and Codependency:
  • Teroni, F., & Bruun, O. (2011). Shame, Guilt, and Morality. Journal of Moral Philosophy, 8(2), 223–245.
  • YARD, M. A. (2014). The Changing Faces of Shame: Theoretical Underpinnings and Clinical Management. Issues in Psychoanalytic Psychology, 36, 42–54.
shame and guilt don't define you

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