Guilt and shame in addiction – The two of the most commonly experienced emotions for anyone suffering from addiction. Those in active addiction often behave in ways or take actions that they feel guilty about and shameful for, which then compels them to use drugs and alcohol to numb those difficult feelings, ultimately recreating similar behaviors and actions, using substances to numb the same feelings, and creating a vicious cycle of guilt, shame, and drug and alcohol misuse. Guilt and shame feed active addiction.

For people that find recovery or sobriety, they also often feel intense feelings of guilt and shame based on their past behaviors and actions in active addiction. Not having drugs or alcohol to numb the feelings or run from the pain or embarrassment of past behaviors, feelings of guilt and shame can often be a trigger for relapse due to feelings that are too overwhelming for someone in early recovery to process and manage. It is only with a strong recovery program and having done or doing the work needed in recovery, that a person will be able to appropriately and successfully learn how to navigate overcoming feelings of guilt and shame. One of the benefits of addiction treatment, rehab, therapy, and counseling is that a person in early recovery can receive professional help to process and navigate feelings of guilt and shame, dive deep into their thoughts, actions, and emotions, and learn healthier ways to behave, act, and cope with emotions.

woman with her face in hand experiencing Guilt and Shame in Addiction

It is important to remember that addiction is a chronic disease that is characterized by compulsive drug seeking and drug and alcohol use despite negative consequences. As the brain and its reward system is hijacked during active addiction, people using drugs and alcohol exhibit behaviors that they then feel shameful and guilty about. Shame is a powerful emotion. People using drugs and alcohol often feel ashamed  of their behavior, their inability to stop, moderate, or control their drug and alcohol use, the hurt they’ve caused their loved ones, and many behaviors they exhibit. Shame is defined as a feeling of humiliation or distress caused by the awareness of having done something wrong or foolish. This is why feelings of shame and guilt are often connected. Guilt is the emotion that arises when an individual believes that they have done something bad or wrong.

The definition of guilt is a feeling of responsibility or remorse for wrongdoing. Therefore, similarly to shame, people suffering from addiction often feel guilty about the harm they have caused to others, most specifically their family and loved ones. People in active addiction may also feel guilty about mistakes they’ve made, responsibilities they have been unable to fulfill, and the impact their addiction has had on their own life and the lives of others. It is important to remember that guilt can often be a powerful motivator for change, but it can  also be a source of emotional distress that leads to deep feelings of anxiety and depression. For people in active addiction, motivation to seek recovery and sobriety often can be propelled by the feeling to no longer act or behave in ways that create feelings of guilt and shame, but for many, it can also push them deeper into active addiction, needing to numb from or run from feelings of guilt and shame.

Additionally, for people in active addiction, the guilt and shame associated with their drug and alcohol use can have a significant impact on their mental health. Shame and guilt can often leads to overwhelming feelings of worthlessness, inadequacy, negative self-talk, and self-doubt. People with a drug and alcohol addiction often feel they are not worthy of happiness, are not worthy of help, that they are alone in the universe, that they are beyond redemption or transformation, and that they are burden to their family and friends. These overwhelming feelings ultimately lead individuals to falling further into active addiction, trapped in the cycle of overwhelming feelings that need to be numbed or escaped through more and more drug and alcohol use.

There is much stigma and shame associated with addiction, both felt by the individual in active addiction and perpetuated by society as a whole. Despite this stigma, it is absolutely essential for everyone to understand the nature of the disease of addiction. Addiction is not a character issue, a moral failing, or a lack of willpower, but rather a complex medical illness. Therefore, it is vital to approach someone suffering from addiction with compassion and empathy, while offering love and support to help them receive the necessary treatment they need through a detox, rehab, or ongoing therapy. Through a process of addiction treatment and recovery, the person who has  recently found sobriety will learn ways to process their past guilt and shame, learn healthier coping mechanisms to manage it moving forward, and create a life where not only do their past actions and behaviors not define them, but new and healthier actions and behaviors will guard against future shame and guilt.

This understanding of addiction as a disease is one way to reduce the guilt and shame felt by the person in active addiction. Similar to other medical conditions like heart disease, diabetes, and high blood pressure, addiction as a chronic illness requires ongoing care and support, medical intervention, and healthy lifestyle changes. Recovery is a process that takes time, and during that time and doing the necessary internal emotional work and taking direct action to repair past transgressions or damaged relationships, a person newly sober will begin to lessen the shame and guilt of their past addiction. It must be understood that the things a person feels guilt and shame over during active addiction are things that they must address directly, and get over by moving through. To face the things that they feel guilt and shame over is the only way to truly get over the guilt and shame, and a support environment in detox, rehab, and the ongoing process of recovery are the steps to take to begin necessary healing.

If you or someone you know needs help with addiction or co-occurring disorders, please give us a call. Innovo Detox offers the latest in evidence-based medical, psychiatric, and clinical care for those in need of detox and medical stabilization in Pennsylvania and the surrounding Mid-Atlantic area. If we aren’t the best fit for you or a loved one, we will take the necessary time to work with you to find a detox, rehab, treatment center or provider that better fits your needs. Please give us a call at (717) 619-3260 or email our team at For more information on our company or services, please visit our website at