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Shame and guilt in recovery

Oh The Shame
Oh The Shame
michael clark

The initial stage of recovery is not a very pleasant one. We must be honest with ourselves and be willing face our wrongful actions. The process of growing increases our awareness of the ways we have hurt other people. For many of us this realization leads almost instantaneously to shame. And shame leads almost immediately to increasingly desperate attempts to be perfect in order to mask the feeling that we are fundamentally flawed. The downward cycle of failure-shame-trying harder-failure will gradually immobilize us as our self-contempt and depression increase. It’s a vicious cycle that we can become accustomed to.

Our assumption should be that we will not be perfect. We can expect to fail from time to time. Failure does not have to lead to shame or perfectionism because failure is normal. We all experience it. Accepting this basic reality is the first step in the process toward a healthy response to failure and preventing shame.

Experiences of shame lead to fear. When shame causes us to be afraid we make extra efforts to protect ourselves against future experiences of shame. We try hard, for example, to look good. We focus on controlling external appearances. We also try hard to anesthetize our feelings because of our fear of shame. We focus on controlling our feelings so that other people won't get to know us. If they did they might discover the shame we are trying to hide. In this way shame traps us in a cycle of fear and emotional numbing and covering up.

We need other people to keep us honest and to help us see what we cannot see about ourselves. Honest feedback is one of our best hopes for initiating change. It is very easy to see the problems in others and not see them in myself. One reason I think we judge others so harshly is that we see the attitudes and behaviors that we despise in our life’s but can’t control, so we try to control them in others.

It is good to pay attention to the 'correction' and 'discipline' we get from others. We are not helped, of course, by judgmentalism and shame - we have enough of that to last us a lifetime. But we need to cultivate relationships with people who will - with love and kindness - tell us the truth about ourselves. This information can be the starting point for change in our lives.

But if we hide our shame, it can never be healed. Our shame heals when we reveal our inner being to people who accept us rather than shame us. This is not an easy process for us because we expect to be shamed. We do not expect to be accepted. But we need this kind of honesty. We are not 'wired' for honest self-assessment. At the first sight of a problem we experience shame. And our defenses go up. We put our hands over our ears and stop listening.

We do not have to let denial, blame and shame lock us into destructive, hurtful patterns

Addictions and compulsions are a kind of bondage. Painful memories are also like chains that bind us. We try harder and harder to change. But sometimes the harder we try, the tighter the chains become.

In order to change and grow we need to face the reality of our actions and attitudes. Some were life-draining. Destructive. But we are forgivable. We are invited to receive forgiveness. And we are invited to change. The life-draining behaviors that we have pursued can be changed, but not by us alone. We have tried this route, most of us more than once. We need the help and support of family, loved ones and a strong support system. The Jacksonville area has sever support groups available in the local telephone directory. Three of the most prominent in the Jacksonville, Florida area are A.A. (Alcoholics Anonymous), N.A. (Narcotics Anonymous, and Celebrate Recovery (a faith based church initiative)

Sometimes it is difficult to imagine having our 'hearts at rest' - to have Serenity. The part of our heart that is damaged by shame reminds us of all our inadequacies and failures. One of the ways to overcome shame is to see when shame is just junk put into my life from the past. By others and circumstances. We follow in the footsteps others have laid out for us. We have listened to so many voices that we have become what they said we should be. We have been trapped by other peoples lies about us.

Guilt and shame are sometimes used to describe the same thing. But there are differences. Shame is different from healthy guilt.

Guilt is the unpleasant feeling we experience when we violate our beliefs and values. Guilt is based on forgiveness. Guilt results from a violation, transgression, or a fault of doing something wrong. This can result in feelings of remorse, and dealing with guilt can be as simple as an apology. We can do something about guilt. We can change our behavior.

Overcoming shame, however, is much more challenging. Shame is based on self-esteem. Shame goes deeper than guilt. It touches the very core of our identity. Shame results from a feeling of falling short, and a self-image that lacks control. Shame is a feeling of inadequacy; a sense that "I am no good." "Guilt says `I have made a mistake;' shame says 'I am a mistake.'" You are not a mistake.

We all make mistakes. It's part of being human. But we are not our failures. The problem with identifying with failure is that it can become a self-fulfilling prophecy especially in the case of shame. Shame can keep you in the same cycles of life, believing you can’t change. It's the difference between a football team that tries not to lose and one that tries to win. One who sees himself as a failure is trying not to lose. And any coach will tell you that focusing on defeat usually will ensure it. So don't let shame cause you to consider yourself a failure. You may sometimes fail, but you are not a failure.

It is the labels we place on ourselves that become self-fulfilling prophecies, resulting in either shame or success. Are you living with labels others have place on you.

Overcoming shame takes time, patience, and most of all, understanding - especially with yourself. It takes time to learn to deal with our mistakes honestly and directly at the guilt level before it progresses into shame - which is toxic to anyone.

If you think about it, mistakes aren’t just sources of shame in your life; they’re also avenues for grace.

You can follow Michael at  where he blogs on Mon, Wed, Fri and connect with him on facebook and Networked Blogs


  • Rawlin Julius 4 years ago

    So much of our negative, addictive behavior is rooted in Biblical and religious shame: and there is no legitimate reason for it. Please visit this blog I've created, which I believe you will find more than helpful. And PLEASE, pass it on to those on your e-mail list who you believe would benefit from it. You never know, you may save a life.