The concepts of guilt and shame are closely intertwined. However, if you take the time to tease them apart, you can see a fundamental difference between the two. Guilt refers to an action: “I tried to beat the red light and caused a fender-bender.” Shame, however, refers to the person: “I’m a bad person because I drink and I should be ashamed.”


Occasionally you will see news and op-ed pieces about how “public shaming” should be used on people who are arrested for DUI, for example. The idea is that shame will motivate people with addiction problems to get their act together. But it does not work that way. The difference between guilt and shame is similar to the difference between justice and revenge. One strives to right a wrong, while the other tries to “get back” at a perpetrator. Here are 5 reasons to let go of shame for the good of your addiction recovery.

1. Because Shame Fuels Addiction

Shame is a deep-seated sense of unworthiness and inferiority, and it leads to hopelessness. Think about it. If you are hopeless, what reason do you have to pursue addiction recovery? Because a court ordered you to do so? Is that likely to work? Shame makes you feel that you are not worthy of help, and that can lead to or keep you inside a downward cycle of addiction.

2. Because Shame Increases Chances for Relapse

A study published in Clinical Psychological Science reported that feelings of shame about past incidents of problem drinking appears to increase the chance of both relapse and associated health problems. It turns out that shame does more harm than good, causing people to hide, escape, and generally avoid dealing with their addiction.

3. Because Shame is Unproductive, while Guilt Can Be Productive

Shame is more of a conclusion: “I am bad,” while guilt is more of an acknowledgement: “I did a bad thing.” With guilt, you accept responsibility for what you did, and this opens you up to the possibility of making amends. With shame, there is no sense in bothering. Shame limits, while guilt opens a (sometimes scary) door that nonetheless can lead to turning things around for the better.


4. Because Shame Makes You Hold onto Resentments

If you are filled with shame, then why not hang onto all those resentments, those real or imagined wrongs you have assimilated into yourself? Letting go of shame can be a powerful first step toward letting go of resentments. Learning to forgive yourself can help you learn to forgive others and opens you to being a more active participant in your addiction recovery.

5. Because Shame Is an Ineffective Motivator

Put simply, shame does not work. It is a damaging combination of failure and pride: failure to be perfect at all times, and too much pride to admit to failures and weaknesses. Shame may have tremendous control over you, but it devours precious energy you could be putting toward positive steps in addiction recovery.

Understanding the difference between guilt (which refers to what you do) and shame (which refers to what you are) is a positive first step in addiction recovery. It is not easy to let go of shame, but doing so frees you for the arduous work of admitting you have a problem and resolving to work through it. Shame limits you, makes you hide, and does not offer anything positive to propel you forward. Addiction can make you think you are a bad person at your core, but having made bad choices and done bad things does not irrevocably ruin your life if you do not let it do so.

Moving past shame toward addiction recovery is not easy, and often requires the help of specially trained addiction recovery specialists. If you are ready to take that step, or have any questions about addiction recovery, we encourage you to contact us today.

Medical Disclaimer

The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare providers.