When someone is dealing with a substance use disorder (SUD), they engage in activities and exhibit actions that they would not do if sober. They may hurt the people they most care about, engage in manipulation tactics, lie and deceive, and break the law. Once an individual enters recovery from a SUD and maintains sobriety for a period, they begin to recognize the damage that they did, make amends with those they have hurt, and work on rebuilding relationships. This process itself involves the emotions of guilt and shame.

Guilt and Shame

According to a study published by the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI), guilt and shame are negative emotional experiences that occur due to moral wrongdoings or personal limitations. The use of alcohol itself may be related to the need to lessen negative affect (NA), which is a variable in personality which involves experiencing negative emotions and poor self-image.

Shame is an internal response where one places blame on themselves. Shame is a distressing feeling of humiliation caused by the consciousness of wrong or foolish behavior. Shame is associated with feelings of powerlessness, inferiority, and self-consciousness, and also linked to the desire to conceal one’s deficiencies, so when one experiences shame, they feel bad about themselves. Therefore, shame may lead to depression-like symptoms which may result in feelings of anxiety, suicide, and drug or alcohol use. 

Guilt is different in that it is not internal but the blame is external, and therefore placed on a situation. Guilt is related to how one’s actions affect others. When an individual experiences guilt they feel bad about engaging in specific behaviors. Guilt typically leads one to take positive steps to improve oneself and make amends for past offenses. Therefore, guilt may reduce the possibility of one returning to drug or alcohol use.

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Shame is more painful of an experience than guilt, in that it causes one to feel the need to run away or hide from themselves. Therefore, researchers think guilt is less painful since those experiencing this emotion seek to amend and repair their actions and perform positive and responsible behaviors in this pursuit. On the other hand, shame focuses on negative self-appraisals and therefore may lead to future risky and harmful behaviors. Recovering from SUDs involves dealing with many emotions, including shame and guilt. Understanding these emotions is vital to navigating and maintaining long-term recovery.


At Alta Loma Transformational Living, you will meet knowledgeable, compassionate professionals that understand addiction in all its forms.  Alta Loma uses an integrative and holistic approach to treat addiction and mental health issues. No treatment is one-size-fits-all, where you will have a team of experts prepared to create your customized treatment plan.  We offer care for your mind, body, and spirit, so that you can heal from the inside out and look forward to a lifetime of sobriety and wellness. If you are ready to take the first step in your recovery, please call us at 866-457-3843.