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When we’re doing the emotional work of recovery, one of the hardest emotions to shed is our shame. Many of us were conditioned from early childhood to carry guilt and shame within us, not only for our mistakes and wrongdoings, but also for our shortcomings, flaws and imperfections. We constantly felt inadequate, sometimes because our families, teachers or religious leaders made us feel that way. Sometimes we internalized the pressure or bullying of our peers to be reflections of our unworthiness. Many of us were abused, neglected or mistreated, and we carried the shame from these things and blamed ourselves even though we were innocent victims. Many of us have internalized the stigmatization of addiction and addicts and come to believe that our illness makes us immoral, shameful, bad people undeserving of a second chance.

Even after years of therapy, even after we’ve done a great deal of healing work, shame is something we still carry. It acts as a burden in our lives. It can be a heavy weight that taints our self-image and our feelings of self-worth. Our shame convinces us that we’re inadequate and inferior to other people. It tells us we don’t deserve respect, appreciation or love. When we’re ashamed, we think we don’t deserve happiness or success. We don’t even think we deserve the blessing of recovery. We don’t believe in our capacity to heal ourselves. Our shame and our addictions were like fuel for each other’s fire. When we felt ashamed, we tried to escape the painful weight of our shame with our addictive substances and behaviors. We tried to numb our pain with our drugs of choice, but these patterns only led to our feeling even more ashamed. We became trapped in cycles of doing detrimental and destructive things that only left us feeling more ashamed of ourselves. The only way to break the cycle is to heal our shame and forgive ourselves. Otherwise, we’ll keep turning to external sources of relief and validation to try to feel better about ourselves and ease our pain. The healing has to come from within. The validation has to come from ourselves. We have to love, accept and forgive ourselves wholly and completely.

One way to forgive ourselves and shed our shame is to remind ourselves of the prevalence of shame and disappointment in human nature. We’ve all done things we regret, and we’ve all felt ashamed of ourselves and disappointed in ourselves as a result. We can’t hold onto these burdensome feelings if we want to make progress in our healing. We can’t hold ourselves back and move forward at the same time. We can’t strive for recovery while carrying such tremendous emotional weight. We have to make the choice to have unconditional forgiveness for ourselves. This doesn’t mean we condone everything we’ve done. There will be mistakes we want to atone for, people we feel we need to make amends with. There will be relationships we’ll need to work to rebuild. We’ll have to prove ourselves to people again, and rebuild the trust they’ve lost in us. We’ll have to convince them, and ourselves, that they can trust us again and put their faith in us. We want to make the conscious choice to repair these broken bonds, not only for our loved ones, but also for ourselves. We want to move forward in self-love and self-forgiveness rather than self-deprecation and shame.

Part of self-forgiveness is breaking the behavioral patterns that made us feel ashamed of ourselves in the first place. We want to consciously stop doing the things that make us feel bad about ourselves. We want to shed the behaviors that caused us shame. How do we stop doing the things that make us feel ashamed, especially when they’re so entrenched in our patterns that they’ve become part of our regular lifestyles and routines? The answer lies in developing our mindfulness and growing our conscious awareness. We can start keeping track of our daily habits and routines. We can make lists of the things that make us feel less than happy, less than fulfilled and aligned. What are the things that we feel are contributing to our misalignment and unfulfillment? What things are we doing both consciously and unconsciously that are fueling our feelings of inadequacy, shame and unworthiness?

Another element of self-forgiveness is remembering how powerful we are to change. When we believe in ourselves, we empower ourselves to do better and be better. We can affirm to ourselves that we deserve our own forgiveness, and that we have the strength to transform ourselves from within. Shame convinces us to believe the opposite, that we are powerless and that addiction has incapacitated us, even in recovery, but we can work to shed those disempowering and limiting beliefs as we’re healing. We can shed the stigma and defy the stereotypes around addiction that we’ve internalized within ourselves and come to believe about ourselves.

The effectiveness of our recovery is directly proportional to the conviction with which we believe in ourselves, and it’s impossible to believe in ourselves if we’re still carrying the heavy burden of shame into our recovery journey. Self-forgiveness is a crucial part of the emotional work we have to do to heal. Without it, we’ll continue the patterns of self-deprecation and self-harm that contributed to our addictions and that threaten the success of our recovery.

Riverside Recovery is a drug and alcohol treatment center offering a full continuum of care for people suffering from addiction and co-occurring mental health disorders. We understand the emotional challenges of addiction recovery and are here to support you. Call us today for more information: (800) 871-5440.