Not long ago, one of our staff had a friend post on Twitter to pose a difficult question. She wanted to know why, as bad as it feels to be accused of something which you have not done, it always feels worse to have actually done something wrong. The staff member in question began to ponder this question, and quickly arrived at a rather simple answer—guilt weighs more than indignation. Guilt weighs from the inside, whereas indignation causes us to throw our emotions on others.
It isn’t too hard to see how this might factor into addiction and alcoholism. When we are in active addiction, we often become indignant when confronted by friends or family about our substance abuse. In our minds, we have done nothing wrong. So we yell and we scream and we fight with those we love, convinced in our heart of hearts that they are the ones at fault. We may feel anger. We may feel annoyance. But these will be quickly drowned out by yet more drugs and alcohol.
Upon entering recovery, we come to realize that we were in the wrong. As this realization seeps in, guilt will grow heavier and heavier. Not only will we feel remorse for our actions while in addiction, but we will also feel quite guilty about our outbursts in defense of those actions. This guilt will hurt us, and to some degree it will hurt those who love us. But it doesn’t have to be this way. If we have a mind to do so, we can channel our guilt into something far more positive. All it takes is a little bit of effort, and a whole lot of willingness.
How Our Guilt Hurts Us
Guilt can easily lead to depression, especially when it has an impact on our self-worth. We do not consider ourselves to be good people after some of the things that we have done and said. We may not see the point of getting out of bed every morning because, in our eyes, our presence will only make the world a darker place. This is especially true when we were carrying some measure of guilt around before we entered addiction in the first place. This has been the case for more than a few of us.
For instance, addiction in the military can sometimes be caused by what is known as survivor’s guilt, the feeling that it was unfair for us to live when others around us did not. Many military members may also feel guilt over taking lives, even if they did so out of self-defense. The same can be said of those who survived other forms of trauma that might require therapy, such as violent rape or attempted murder. Some of us even feel guilt over who we are, such as certain addicts in the LGBT community who might have been raised with religious views that do not tolerate their lifestyles.
But no one can tell you who you can or cannot love, and a person should never feel remorse for doing what they absolutely had to do in order to survive. And while any of the above examples could potentially be treated through therapy, many will still attempt to self-medicate through the use of drugs and alcohol. After this, their inhibitions will be all but eradicated and they may do things that do not fall in line with the people they would like to be. This can be said of all addicts and alcoholics, and it is why many people struggle so hard with guilt while they are in recovery.
Nobody with the capacity to love others will usually feel right about doing wrong by them. But guilt can lead to depression, which can very shortly be followed by emotional disturbance and relapse. As such, it is vital that we recognize the source of our guilt and learn to handle it in a positive way. We will speak more on how to do this in just a minute. First, however, we would like to discuss the reasons that others may be hurt by our guilt as well.
How Our Guilt Hurts Others
While we may certainly feel some guilt for having wronged others while in active addiction, those we have wronged may feel guilty as well. Our friends and family may blame themselves for our disease, especially if they have enabled us in the past. They have seen us become replaced by someone else, and the grief they feel over losing us may be amplified by the guilt they feel over letting it happen. That is not to say that they are at fault, but it may often be difficult to convince them otherwise.
The guilt that they feel will only be made worse when they learn that we are struggling against something similar. Perhaps there are some in our lives who believe that we deserve to feel terrible. But those who feel protective over us may not see it this way. And instead of seeing the many ways in which we probably should feel a bit remorseful, they might feel as if they have somehow influenced our contrition. It is nice to have people who take such stock in our emotional well-being, but it is also quite bad for these people to be carrying the weight of our emotions upon their shoulders.
Even those who have felt at one point or another that we deserve to feel bad about our actions may occasionally be struck by the odd twinge of remorse. Being angry at someone can take a lot out of us, and they might not feel so great about the fact that they have put so much mental effort toward wishing ill will against us. As they begin to let go of resentments they have been holding against us for years, they will feel the weight of the wasted time that could have been put toward bettering our relationships. Not everybody who resents us will experience this, but some likely will. This is especially true if they have seen our ability to stay in recovery for some time.
The point of telling you this is not to convince you that you can somehow solve the guilt felt by others. This is something that only they can do for themselves. Instead, the point is to help you realize that those around us are affected by our feelings. Even the people we resent or simply dislike may sometimes be so affected. As such, we should try to maintain sympathy for others, no matter how sturdy they appear on the surface. You never know what’s going on in another person’s head until they let you in.
How Guilt Can Become Positive
In the second season of Daredevil, hero Matt Murdock struggles with guilt in the fourth episode. He speaks to Father Lantom, who became something of a spiritual adviser to him in the first season, about what he is feeling. Lantom has this to say:
“Guilt can be a good thing. It’s the soul’s call to action, the indication that something is wrong. The only way to rid your heart of it is to correct your mistakes and keep going until amends are made.”
We must embody this notion in recovery whenever possible. Many of us will make amends when we reach Step Nine. But what few realize is that we have been making amends since the moment we got sober. With each day we spend trying to become better people, we are doing right by those who have wanted nothing else for us since our addiction began. Perhaps we may still owe them a few apologies or financial amends, but our living amends are already in progress.
But what of those who passed from this earth before they could see us get sober? Well, many think that they are looking down on us and smiling. And even if this does not tie in with your specific belief system, you may still take some solace in the idea that you are honoring their memory by living as they would want you to live. They would not want you to hide in the bottom of a bottle and spend the rest of your days in mourning. They would want you to accept their loss and move on, living your life to the fullest and drinking up every sober moment with absolute serenity.
Guilt is positive as long as it drives you to do the right thing. Over time, you will learn to forgive yourself as you find that it has become easier to look at yourself in the mirror and truly believe that you are a good person. With the realization that you are worth loving, you will do more than just lift the weight of your previous guilt. You will also make it easier to overcome guilt that you might come to feel in the future. With luck, the weight you carry in the future will not even compare to that which you have carried in the past.