Both Shame and Guilt nearly always accompany addiction. How are they different, and what is a healthy approach to both?
Shame is social. It is not merely the acknowledgement or awareness of doing wrong, but the – often intense – feeling of being wrong. Shame simply does not help us get sober or stay sober. Shame never helps. Shame only fuels isolation and despair.
Most of the time, we cannot change the opinions of others. Sure, society or our social groupings can and need to learn about the unhelpful nature of shame, and the way that they can engender it. Sure, it would be nice if more people had a posture of understanding rather than judgment towards addicts. But as the serenity prayer reminds us, we have to focus on what we can change – ourselves. We have to resolve to stop giving time and power and voice to the messages of shame, whether from inside or outside us. We really and truly can change how we respond to shame.
Guilt is personal. It is not the same as shame, because one can admit guilt and responsibility for actions or behaviour whilst not feeling the sting of shame. Shame breeds hopelessness, but guilt unlocks transformation. Let’s be clear, we’re talking about healthy guilt, not unhealthy guilt. Yes, there is inauthentic guilt: where we wrongly accuse ourselves with respect to things we did not do. But we are talking here about authentic guilt: where we rightly take responsibility for things we did do.