Guilt and Shame in Substance Abuse

Guilt is powerful and it helps keep us from doing certain things. Guilt can also be a motivator when it comes to admitting we’ve done things wrong and that we need help.

Feelings of Guilt

Many drug and alcohol abusers know that what they are doing is wrong, even though they keep doing it. Some addicts feel guilt for their actions. Some realize the pain they’ve caused loved ones, or the financial trouble they got themselves into because of their addiction. These occasional feelings of guilt may not be enough to overcome the urge of an addiction, however, and so the substance abuse continues.

Other people do feel guilty every time they use, or every time they drink. These are the people who have enough moments of sobriety to see the effects of their addiction. They may see their young children who don’t deserve this kind of life, or they may see the drama they cause in their family. Guilt is a good motivator, and it often helps these people see they need treatment.

Lack of Guilt

Many people, however, don’t even realize the pain they cause, so they feel no guilt at first. Addiction is so powerful that it can blind us to the reality around us. Addicts can be so focused on satisfying their cravings that they don’t care who gets hurt, or what crimes they may commit to get their drugs. That’s why it is often very difficult to reach out to a loved one who has an addiction. They may honestly think they have not done anything really wrong. Because they don’t see the pain caused, they don’t feel the need for help.

Feelings of Shame

While not all people with an addiction may feel guilt before treatment, many people do feel shame. Shame is the tendency to feel bad about oneself, or one’s reputation. A drug addict can feel shame over what other people may think of them, but this attitude actually keeps people from seeking treatment. A study done at the University at Buffalo’s Research Institute on Addictions (RIA) and George Mason University in Virginia distinguishes between feelings of shame and guilt with regards to substance abuse treatment. While guilt drives someone to treatment and to do better, shame makes people hide their problem.

Guilt vs. Shame

A breaking point in many addicts’ lives is when they feel guilty about their actions. Sometimes this realization comes before seeking treatment, other times an intervention is necessary to help the person see. Still other people will not really feel guilt until partway through treatment when they are sober enough to see it.

On the other hand, we need to continue to clear up the stigma related to addiction. Instead of pointing fingers and making people feel ashamed, a better approach is to offer help and guidance so that the person can get better. Those who do feel shame need to see that the best thing for them and their loved ones is to get help.

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