The Difference Between Helpful and Hurtful Guilt in Recovery

by AdamS on October 10, 2012

Some addicts have been self medicating their emotions for so long that they forget how to deal with feelings of guilt, let alone how to differentiate when they should or shouldn’t feel guilt. When people are addicted to a substance they often lie, treat their family poorly, get fired from jobs, all the while being able to get rid of their guilt by using their substance of abuse. So when an addict is in medical detox and rehabilitation, the guilt of all they have done while under the influence can flood into their emotions in overwhelming amounts.

Helpful Guilt

First of all, guilt happens when a person does something to breach their conscience in a way that harms them or someone in their lives. Even though guilt can be uncomfortable, having it is actually perfectly healthy and actually a sign of mental health. There is a name for people that commit criminal or immoral acts that have absolutely no remorse about it; we call them psychopaths. Guilt can actually work as a deterrent in the recovering addicts life to keep them from falling into patterns that cause feelings of guilt. It can teach them that having consideration for others is important for managing relationships and can help to hold them accountable for their actions.

Hurtful Guilt

There is also the kind of guilt that can hinder addicts from long-term recovery, because of having a skewed perspective of themselves that can lead to self hatred and depressive disorders. Guilt can make them think that the things that they have done make them unworthy of love or happiness. This kind of thinking can make people completely closed off to others or make them go to extreme lengths to make others happy before taking care of themselves.

Use Guilt Productively

Dwelling on the past is never a good way to make productive steps toward the future. That is what recovery is all about; making amends with the past and taking a step-by-step approach toward the future. 12-Step programs are good to be a part of in order to learn how to start dealing with the past and the future in a healthy way through discovering what is within their control and what isn’t  After making amends with loved ones, it’s a good idea to start building relationships with people that encourage your new life-style and will not tempt you to go back down destructive paths that led to sources of guilt in addiction. There are also various volunteer programs that can help individuals build self-esteem by helping others.


Guilt plays a significant role in recovery, but it shouldn’t completely consume anyone. When an addict isn’t use to dealing with emotions in a sober mindset, they sometimes lack the skills that help them deal with the effects that their alcohol or drug abuse has had on their lives and the lives of their loved ones. Without a healthy perspective of guilt and a healthy way of coping with foreign emotions, recovering addicts are vulnerable to reacting to try to avoid them. This can include relapse, developing depressive or anxiety disorders, and in some cases suicidal behavior.

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