The Difference Between Guilt, Shame, and Regret in Early Recovery (And How to Overcome Them)

By: Nia Norris, Contributor

When we make the decision to get sober, we often find ourselves staring head-on into the wreckage of our past. In the depths of our substance use disorder, we make a lot of choices that we might not necessarily make with a clear head. A key part of recovery is learning self-love and self-forgiveness, but sometimes it can be hard to work through the feelings of guilt, shame, and regret. 

Aaron Dougherty works as an inpatient substance use disorder counselor with dual diagnosis patients. In his work, he regularly encounters patients who are dealing with feelings about the past.

“Guilt, shame, and regret is something that all humans experience regardless of our recovery status or mental health diagnosis. It’s not something that you can find in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM).”

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Understanding the Differences Between Guilt, Shame, and Regret

These emotions are a normal part of the human experience, but the intensity at which guilt, shame, and regret are felt is often amplified in patients with substance use disorder. In order to learn how to work through these emotions in recovery, it’s important to understand them. First and foremost, they are different, and it’s useful to approach them differently.

Good Therapy defines guilt as a feeling that we experience when we know that we have done something wrong. The site goes on to describe guilt as a “sense of regret or responsibility for actions taken."

In contrast, the site describes shame as a feeling of being “unworthy, bad, or wrong” It’s important to understand that while guilt refers to a feeling related to an action someone might take, shame refers to a feeling that person has about themselves. So you might feel guilty for something you did to another person, but shame means you feel a certain way about yourself. For instance, you might feel as though you’re not good enough no matter what you do or that you constantly have to hustle to prove your worth. 

Finally, Good Therapy defines regret as a sense that if your past behaviors were different, you may have had a better outcome. You might picture a previous conversation or interaction with someone, for instance, and wonder if there might be a different, more desirable outcome if you would have said or done something differently.

Using Resilience to Overcome Hard Emotions

Early recovery is hard. It’s a big change, and feelings of guilt, shame, and regret can make things harder if you don’t have the tools to address such strong emotions. So how do we overcome guilt, shame, and regret? 

Dougherty said, “I think whenever I hear that question, the first thing that comes to my mind is resilience.” He goes on to explain that many people come to therapy in order to get rid of these feelings but, instead, they can use guilt, shame, and regret as internal motivation to change and build resilience. “It’s knowing what we have done in the past and what we will do in the future,” he concludes.

In a Ted Talk, Dr. Lucy Hone explored this idea of resilience in more depth. Hone’s theory is that all people who are alive deal with tough situations, and that the key to overcoming adversity comes by working through adversity. She concluded this based on a “self-experiment” that she conducted while dealing with the grief of losing her 12-year-old daughter in an accident. According to Hone, there are three strategies for resiliency:

  1. To know that suffering is a part of life. The trick here is not to welcome suffering, but to understand that all of us will suffer at some point.
  2. Carefully choose where you’re directing your attention. Focus on the things that you can change and let go of the things that you can’t change. Also, practice “benefit-finding” to find things that you can be grateful for.
  3. Ask yourself whether your current behaviors are harmful or helpful to yourself. For example, are you looking over photos of a lost loved one to remember the good things that happened, or are you looking at them as an act of self-flagellation?

Looking at Emotions as Simple Feelings Rather than Facts

Dr. Kristin Anderson is a licensed clinical psychologist in Illinois and owner of Clear Mountain Therapy. She suggests not giving feelings more power than they warrant.

“Shame is an emotion. I always say that emotions are real but they are not facts,” she said. “Just because I feel there is something wrong with me or something bad about me, it’s not a fact that it is. Sometimes guilt is a healthy emotion because it keeps us living in line with our values, but sometimes it (might) not be in line with our best interest.”

Anderson’s theory about guilt is that it is designed to keep us consistent with our values, but that when inflated, guilt can morph into shame, which is unhealthy. 

“I don’t think shame is an emotion that ever gives us information that’s helpful,” Anderson explains. “It tells us more about what society wants us to be.”

Regret, though, as she explains, can be healthy when viewed properly. 

“Regret is a really important piece, and it comes up a lot in grief work when people are revealing past emotions and feeling a lot of guilt. (People) can shift that over to regret,” she said, explaining that if someone knows now that they might feel guilty or remorseful, they can choose to make a different choice going forward.

Working a recovery program can be helpful with managing guilt, shame, and regret, but it’s also important to seek professional help from a trained clinician

“I’m biased, but I think that if you’re in early recovery, it’s very beneficial to get yourself into therapy. There is definitely a physiological aspect to addiction and there’s definitely a lot of psychological [aspects],” Anderson said. “It’s critical to understand what components of [your personal] history have contributed.”

Guilt, shame, and regret, she said, are things to be processed with a professional. A lot of times, a meeting or recovery group might not be the right time or place to process these emotions. 

* * * 

Know that the full spectrum of emotions is meant to be experienced. Feelings are the gift of a sober life, but they can sometimes be overwhelming, especially those that are deemed “negative” like guilt and regret. 

They don’t have to be, though, and the support of a professional as well as those you trust on your recovery journey can help. 

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