Learning to Forgive Yourself and Let Go of Guilt and Shame
Active addiction pushes us to do things we wouldn’t normally do just to survive. When you’re addicted to something, you have to find a way to get the thing you are addicted to, every day. It doesn’t matter how you get it or who you hurt in the process. All you can think about is getting your drug of choice. You feel compelled to meet your addiction’s needs no matter what the cost. To the addicted person, meeting that need is more important than eating, sleeping or any other basic need.
As a result of this obsession and compulsion, the addict often does things that cause them guilt and shame. The addict relieves the pain of guilt and shame by using more of their drug of choice. When the addict begins the recovery process, these feelings of guilt and shame return. The addict is flooded with memories of the mistakes they made, the people they hurt and all the things they wish they could undo. But you can’t go back in time and change what is done.
Of course, addicts aren’t the only people who feel guilt and shame. Everyone has done something in their lives that they have regretted. Everyone has said something hurtful or did something out of selfishness which caused another person pain. Therefore, anyone could benefit from learning to let go of feelings of guilt and shame.
Why Do We Feel Guilt and Shame?
Guilt and shame serve an important purpose in our lives. Guilt is that little twinge you feel when you are about to do something you know is wrong. Guilt is our conscience. Its purpose is to alert us that what we are about to do or what we are doing goes against our values. We all develop a value system as we grow up. Much of it is instilled in us from our parents and society. Our value system is an internal set of beliefs that guide our behavior. When we are about to do something or actually do something that goes against this value system, we feel guilty. Guilt warns us that we need to stop and do something different.
When we ignore our feelings of guilt and continue to do what we believe is wrong, we feel shame. Shame is when we internalize guilt and begin to believe we are a bad person because we did something wrong and ignored our feelings of guilt. The purpose of shame is to make us feel so bad that we try to make right the wrongs we have committed. However, sometimes the shame is overwhelming. It is so overwhelming that we try to hide what we have done. If others discover the wrongs we have committed, our shame increases. Or we don’t know how to right the wrong thing we have done. Instead of doing something to make it right, we hide what we have done. We lie and cover up our wrongs. Hiding our wrongs only leads to more guilt and shame.
Guilt and shame becomes a vicious cycle that goes something like this. We do something wrong. We feel guilt. We do not correct the wrong. We feel shame. We lie and cover up what we have done. We feel more guilt and shame. This cycle is repeated over and over.
Breaking the Cycle of Guilt and Shame
- Face our wrongs – Remember that guilt and shame become a vicious cycle when we try to hide the wrongs we have done. One way to get out of the cycle is to own up to what we have done. Taking responsibility for the wrongs we have committed is a part of maturing and growing as a person. Admitting that you have made mistakes and done something wrong stops the cycle and frees us from our prison of guilt and shame. You can face your wrongs and take responsibility by verbalizing what you have done and preparing yourself to accept the consequences. Accepting the consequences for behavior is being accountable. It allows us to move to the next step.
- Correct our wrongs – Finding a way to make up for what you have done will help put an end to the cycle. We can’t always directly correct a wrong. Some things that are broken cannot be fixed. However, you can always find something good to do for someone you have harmed or do something that is good for society as a whole.
- Asking for forgiveness – When someone forgives us for the wrongs we have committed, this will relieve much of our guilt and shame. However, we must be mindful that we are trying to better ourselves by asking for forgiveness. Being a better person means not selfishly asking for forgiveness when doing so would hurt the person we want forgiveness from. Sometimes people are so hurt by our actions that they may not want to remember or forgive the person who hurt them.
- Forgiving ourselves – Whether the person we have hurt forgives us or not, guilt and shame may continue until we forgive ourselves for our own actions. Forgiving yourself completes the healing process and will relieve any feelings of guilt or shame that remain.
How Do We Face Our Wrongs?
Start by going through each year of your addiction or your life in your mind with the purpose of recalling any memories that you associate with feelings of guilt or shame.
- Write down everything that you believe you did
- Examine what value of yours you went against when you committed the
- Think about who was hurt by your actions.
- Consider both people who were
directly hurt and indirectly hurt.
- Ask yourself why you committed the wrong
- Think about what you could have done differently.
Let’s go through an example of this process. I think back through the many years of my life and recall a time when I stole something from a store. Imagine the item stolen was not a necessity but a luxury item like cigarettes.
- The value that was broken was my belief that it is wrong to steal. I was taught
this as a child and I believe this as an adult.
- The owner of the store was financially hurt by this action.
- Society was indirectly hurt by this action
because theft from stores raises prices for everyone.
- Employees of the store
may have been hurt as well. Security for the store may have felt they did not
do a satisfactory job for not catching me. They may have even been reprimanded
for failing to stop the theft. Someone could have lost their job if the theft
- Customers in the store might have
witnessed the theft and been afraid.
As you can see, more people can be affected by our actions than we originally realize. I examine why I committed the act and determine I did it out of selfishness. I put my want for cigarettes above who could be affected. I determine I could have gone without cigarettes. I would have been uncomfortable but I could have survived it.
As a result of my processing the wrong I committed, I decide that I will work on being less selfish. I will think of others' feelings and how they will be affected by my actions. I make a conscious decision to better myself so I don’t commit this wrong again. The next time I think of stealing something, I remember how I processed the wrong and I choose not to steal anything. I have faced my wrong and taken action to correct it in the future. I make every attempt in life to stick to my value that stealing is wrong.
Thoroughly processing a wrong from your past can help you not avoid the same mistake in the future. Many times we have values because they were taught to us as children. We never take the time to think about why we hold our values. We don’t think about whether we still believe in our values as adults. This kind of processing makes you examine your value system. It gets you to see why you have the values that you have. By seeing why you keep these values and what they really mean to you, you can renew your belief in them. Or you may discover some values no longer hold true for you and you can discard them. Either way, you will learn something important about yourself that will help you keep and maintain a value system.
Another exercise you can do to face your wrongs is to make a list of what your values are. Examine where your values came from (parents, other relatives, friends or society) and which ones you want to keep or discard. Then, think about which ones you have acted against in your life.
How Can We Correct Our Wrongs?
Think about the wrong you committed and brainstorm ideas for how to make up for it. Bounce your ideas off close friends and family.
- If you
stole something, you could give something to the person you stole from.
don’t have to let the person know why you are making the gift if you believe
doing so would harm them by stirring up the past. A gift could be made
- You can make a gift to a charity they support instead of a direct
gift to the person.
- You can also find ways to help the person whether they are aware of the reason or not.
- You can offer to help them with work around their house or volunteer to help them with anything they need.
- If helping the person directly is not possible, you can volunteer your time to a relevant charity. For example, if the person loves animals, you can volunteer at a local animal shelter.
How to Ask for Forgiveness?
If you believe it would help the situation to directly approach the person to ask for forgiveness, set up a time to meet with the person.
- Talk to them about the wrong you did to them. Explain why you believe it was wrong. If you believe they will understand, tell them why you did what you did. Be honest about what happened.
- Let them talk about how they feel about
what happened and validate their feelings.
- Make a formal apology. Use the words
“I’m sorry” or I apologize.” Follow your apology with the feeling they
expressed related to the wrong committed. If they say they were hurt, you can
say, “I’m sorry I hurt you.” If they say they were angry, you can tell them,
“I’m sorry my actions made you feel angry.”
- After you apologize you can ask
them if there is anything you can do to make up for your actions.
- If you offer to make up for your actions, be prepared to follow through with what they ask as long as it is within reason and would not hurt someone else.
- Should they ask you to do something that you feel uncomfortable with, be honest with them and explain why you feel uncomfortable with it. If the action requested goes against your value system, simply tell them that it goes against your beliefs. You can offer to do something similar that is in line with your value system.
How Do We Forgive Ourselves?
Dwelling on the past will only keep you depressed and unable to enjoy your present life. It won’t change anything and will keep you from moving forward. Try these exercises to let go of the past.
- Talk therapy – The more you talk about something that
happened to you, the more it becomes something that happened in the past and
less the present for you. You can talk about the past with a therapist, close
friend or family member. Let them know you want to talk about the wrong you
committed until you attach less emotion to it and overcome the negative
feelings of guilt and shame associated with it.
- Writing therapy – Writing works much like talk therapy. You write about the past to process it and let go of the emotions associated with it. Write about what happened, how you feel about it, what beliefs were violated, who was hurt by your actions and anything else you feel is relevant.
- Symbolic forgiveness – Write down on a piece of paper what you need to forgive yourself for. You can burn the paper as you imagine letting go of the past. Another type of this exercise is attaching the paper to a helium balloon which you let go of as you imagine letting go of the past. Make the decision to completely let go of the past. When thoughts of it do return to you, remind yourself that it is the past and you have let it go.
- Prayer and meditation – If you believe in a certain religion, follow the beliefs and ceremonies of that religion that relate to forgiveness. Pray for forgiveness according to your religious beliefs. Meditate on forgiveness.
- Mindfulness meditation - Mindfulness meditation is a form of meditation that focuses on staying in the present moment. By learning mindfulness meditation you can learn to focus attention and awareness on the present moment. Focusing on the present moment will help you let go of the past. Forgiving yourself for past mistakes involves letting go of these past mistakes. You can let go by staying in the present moment.
- Imagery – Meditate while practicing deep breathing. While in a relaxed state, use imagery to let go of the past. You can imagine the past as a dark cloud hovering over you. Meditate on the dark cloud which is your past along with the wrongs you have committed floating away from you. Continue meditation until you can completely let the dark cloud leave you and dissipate.
- Self-talk – Tell yourself that you are letting go of the past so you can move forward in life. Every time you think of the past, remind yourself that you are letting go of the past. Tell yourself positive self-statements like “I forgive myself” or “I am letting go.” You can also use imagery to imagine the past leaving you.
Living a Life Free of Guilt and Shame
To continue to live a life that is free of the feelings of guilt and shame, acknowledge your value system. Review what you believe is right and wrong to solidify your value system. Once you are aware of your values, let them guide your behavior. When situations arise and you are unsure what the correct thing to do is, consult your value system and act within these guidelines. If you do not have a guideline for certain situations, think the situation through thoroughly weighing the pros and cons of different courses of action. Talk to other people and find out how they would handle the situation. Once you determine the correct course of action, add this situation to your value system. If a similar situation arises in the future, you will know what action to take.
Should you act impulsively or without consulting your value system and it results in behavior that is contrary to your values, correct the situation as soon as you become aware of it. It can help to do a regular check in to determine if you are acting in accordance with your values. Take the time to evaluate your behavior and be aware of whether your actions are in line with your beliefs.
Guilt and shame can be powerful emotions that can negatively affect our ability to move forward in life. Holding on to feelings of guilt and shame keeps us stuck in the past. In addiction recovery, they can lead to relapse. Addicts generally have difficulty, especially in early recovery, coping with any feelings that we perceive as negative. Until you develop appropriate coping skills, it can seem like your only option is to cover up these feelings by returning to your addiction. Facing these feelings, correcting our wrongs, asking for forgiveness and forgiving ourselves are ways to let go of the past so you can grow as a person and fully live in the present moment. Once we have done this, the guilt and shame will be resolved so we don’t feel the need to return to our old coping skills of using substances to cover these feelings.
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