Guilt & Shame

In recovery from any addiction, abstinence from or moderation of the addictive substance or behavior is only the beginning of the process. As you begin to use the Steps as principles for living, you will inevitably have to confront guilt and shame. In Steps Four to Nine, you take an inventory of yourself, assess aspects of your character that need changing, and make amends for the harm you have done to others. In learning to use these Steps you will most likely need a way of looking at guilt and shame that will be beneficial and healing.

Guilt vs. Shame

In its very simplest form, guilt refers to how you feel about what you did, and shame refers to how you feel about who you are.

As a practicing addict you may have done many things you regret. When you violate some rule you have for yourself you are likely to feel guilty. This relates to your behavior. Shame relates to how you feel about yourself. You are less than perfect, you fall short, and you may feel a sense of failure about what you are.

Steps as therapy The Steps provide therapy for guilt and shame. The two can be thought of as different, but one affects the other. You make mistakes (guilt) because you are imperfect. You make a list of people you hurt and make amends to them. That is what you do for guilt. Step Ten provides a way to continue to make amends when you make a mistake, which you are likely to do since you are imperfect.

Meeting introductions “I am _____ and I am an alcoholic (or addict or compulsive overeater).” This simple introduction acknowledges the shame you may have felt, and provides, through the fellowship of the Program and the love of a Higher Power (or Program, the transcendence of that shame into acceptance and a bonding with others.

Fourth Step inventory In your Inventory it is helpful to think about how you feel about yourself, and maybe examine where those feelings come from. Self-image and self-worth are related to shame.

Sharing Shame

Please note that to identify yourself as an addict, you are saying something about what you are. That is an essential element for the recovery process. Healing comes from fellowship with other addicts. The therapy for shame is to share it.

Healing The intuitive wisdom of the Twelve Steps includes healing for both guilt and shame resulting from addiction. It is easy to see where guilt is treated (Steps Eight, Nine, and Ten). Members of the fellowship with experience report the freedom that comes from being able to be honest about human errors and mistakes, and say simply, “I’m sorry.”

Honesty By being honest with yourself and others, admitting your need for those with kindred spirits, and being open to the need for the give and take of recovery, you experience healing through caring. Every time you say, “I am _____ and I am an addict,” you connect with others and help heal shame.

The shame factor The information in this module is a simplified explanation to help you begin to understand guilt and shame. There are mental health and addiction professionals who have done extensive work and investigation into these ideas, and some make it the most important factor to be considered in recovery and healing. It is obvious that the part shame plays in your life will certainly be a factor to consider.

Further investigation There are recovering people who find it necessary to investigate deeper into the nature of their feelings about themselves, to identify where some of the problems originated. Most addicts can relate to having some degree of dysfunction in their family of origin. No doubt this is a factor in the maladaptive and disruptive patterns adopted by the individual to survive.

The addictive spiral These factors also contribute to the emotional, mental, and spiritual difficulties that may predispose you to addictive behavior. Then the addictive’ behavior compounds the guilt and shame, and addicts findthemselves in a self-defeating downward spiral of addictive behavior, remorse, self-deprecating thoughts, shame, and more addictive behavior.


Recovery often involves more than a superficial acknowledgment of how you became the way you are. It involves the courage to honestly face your past, giving up the role of victim, persecutor, or rescuer, and learning to take responsibility for your life. The beauty of recovery is that you do not have to do it alone.

Guilt & shame, see also: Abuse, Affirmations, Amends, Anger, Assertiveness, Attitudes, Behavior, Body image, Character defects, Codependency, Family, Feelings, Forgiveness, Grief, Incest, Inventory, Perfectionism, Program, Resentments, Responsibility, Self-centeredness, Self-image, Spirituality, Step Four, Step Six, Step Eight, Survival roles.

Updated 11 Sep 2015

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Addictionary 2 by Jan & Judy Wilson

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