In order to heal, you have to be willing to leave shame behind. One of the most difficult parts of starting life in recovery is facing up to the mistakes you made and the hurt you caused while you were using. Fully understanding the past is important, but it can also leave people in recovery with a burning sense of shame.
“Our shame, if left unaddressed, will haunt us for the rest of our life,” said Benjamin D. Jones, a licensed clinical social worker and clinical program consultant at Deer Hollow Recovery and Wellness Centers.
Letting go of shame is an instrumental step of recovery, Jones said. Holding on to shame undermines the self-love that is necessary to do the hard work of living a life in sobriety.
“Shame festers inside by diminishing our self-worth and feelings of worthiness,” he said. “Shame tricks us into believing that things will never change.”
Jones begins to address shame by helping clients understand the difference between shame and guilt, two powerful emotions for people in early recovery.
“Shame is very different from guilt,” Jones said. “Guilt says, ‘I did something bad!’ Shame says, ‘I am bad!’”
If clients hang onto shame and the belief that they are bad, they are not able to separate themselves from their disease of substance use disorder.
“If all we ever are is ‘bad,’ and not someone that is making bad decisions, then we remain trapped in a vicious cycle with no hope in sight,” Jones said.
Unaddressed shame can keep people from getting sober. It can also trap people in their mental illness, not letting them move forward toward healing. The key to removing shame is to understand and address the underlying issues that lead to substance abuse. Because this is such an intricate process it’s important to undertake it with the help of a treatment professional.
“If you could do it on your own, you would have already,” Jones said.
An important step to letting go of shame is to find forgiveness — for yourself and for others who may have wronged you.
“Another way to put it comes from the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous where it says that, ‘resentment is the number one offender,’” Jones said. “If you are holding on to shame then you have to figure out a way to forgive and let go.”
Although this may sound easy, it is a difficult step for many people, especially if shame has been passed down in the family from generation to generation.
“You have to love yourself enough to stop owning the shame, and then you have to love your perpetrator enough to forgive them for their trespasses as well,” Jones said. “So in summary, the key is forgiveness.”
Forgiveness means accepting that your past behavior was a mistake, not something that proves what type of person you are.
“It is okay to recognize that you made a mistake and to fix it,” Jones said. “However it is never ok to think that you are a mistake.”
Forgiving yourself or others doesn’t mean whitewashing past behavior, but rather moving on from it.
“It is easy to forgive and almost impossible to forget, so quit trying to forget it. Rather, just use your anger or resentment as a measuring scale to see just how loving and forgiving you are of others every time you have feelings of self-doubt or shame or anger.”
Reaching out to friends and others who have dealt with similar feelings can also help when moving on feels impossible.
“You might feel hopeless, but you are never helpless,” Jones said. “So pick up your phone and call someone that has either been through it themselves, is currently going through it or someone that is professionally licensed to help.”
Deer Hollow Recovery and Wellness Centers is a treatment center in Draper, Utah, that guides clients in moving towards physical, spiritual, psychological and social recovery.