Dealing With the Past as a Tool to Maintain Abstinence

Dealing With Shame, Guilt and Personal Faults

Woman With Sunglasses
Facing Up to Your Past. ©

If your drinking or drug use reached the point that you needed professional help to deal with the problem, chances are you came into recovery with a lot of negative baggage from the past. Most alcoholics and addicts experience a great deal of shame and guilt even while still active in their addiction.

As you reach the stage in your recovery of trying to maintain long-term abstinence, it is important that you deal with your feelings of guilt and shame and lack of self-esteem, because allowing these feelings to fester can easily drive you back to drinking or drugging to escape the pain.

Shame and Guilt

Shame is having negative beliefs about yourself and your self-worth. Guilt is having negative feelings about your behavior. Many alcoholics and addicts feel ashamed for having become addicted in the first place. Some feel that they are weak, worthless and not deserving of recovery.

Many have lied and cheated to continue their addictive behavior. Some have committed immoral or illegal acts, such a stealing or prostitution, in order to get money for drugs. They may have emotionally damaged friends and loved ones. They regret things they have lost, such as jobs, homes, and families.

A Vicious Cycle of Shame, Guilt

Research shows that if steps are not taken by alcoholics and addicts to deal with these feelings, they may return to their addictive behavior in order to temporarily relieve the pain, or they will use again to hurt or punish themselves for their past behavior.

Then, because they feel shame and guilt about drinking or using drugs again, they use even more to escape that shame, creating a vicious addictive cycle and downward spiral into further addictive behavior.

Healthy, Responsible Living

If you are in follow-up care with your professional rehab program, your counselor will point out that picking up a drink or a drug does not provide true relief, but actually contributes to even more painful feelings.

Your counselor or caseworker will try to show you that being a responsible spouse, parent, employee or friend is the best way to restore your self-esteem and self-respect.

You will be encouraged to develop a pattern of healthy, responsible living that can relieve those feelings about past mistakes.

You may also be encouraged to make amends or apologize to those you have harmed in the past if it is possible and it does not do any further harm. An important part of the 12-step program, making amends has also been shown by research to improve the addict's chances of continued recovery.

Personal Inventory

Taking a personal inventory is also one of the key elements of 12-step programs, but the practice has also been adopted by many evidence-based treatment programs because of the greater self-acceptance it fosters. A personal inventory is designed to help you recognize what you have been through and how you want your life to be going forward.

Your continuing care counselor will explain that the inventory process facilitates honesty with yourself and a greater responsibility to yourself and others. Your counselor will point out the advantages that can be gained with a greater self-knowledge and self-acceptance.

If participation in a 12-step program has been part of your recovery, you are probably already familiar with the personal inventory process, but an inventory may be repeated throughout your recovery as your honesty and self-awareness increases.

Dealing With Character Defects

In the process of taking your personal inventory, you may identify aspects of your personality or character that are obstacles to your recovery. In the 12-step program, these aspects are called "character defects," or qualities you possess that you might like to change.

Some personality qualities that can impede recovery include inappropriate anger, lust, overcriticalness, exploitativeness, dishonesty, self-centeredness, impatience, low self-esteem or overconfidence.

Removing the Defects

Your counselor will help you:

  • Identify your problematic qualities in your personal inventory.
  • Help you decide what qualities to change by assessing how much control you have over them.
  • Help you determine whether it is in your best interest to change.
  • Encourage you to make a commitment to work on changing.
  • Encourage you to seek the help of others when it is appropriate.
  • Help you follow through on your commitment.

Changing these negative personality traits can be a pivotal part of your recovery process. Although some of them may have developed as a result of your addictive behavior, some of them may have existed previously and contributed to the development of the addictive behavior in the first place.

Recognize Your Good Traits

The most important factor your counselor will help you with during the personal inventory process is identifying and recognizing your positive qualities. We all have our faults, but we all have our strong points, too. But alcoholics and addicts tend to have difficulty identifying the positive aspects of themselves because of all the shame and guilt on their shoulders.

Your counselor will encourage you to identify all of your good qualities as you do your personal inventory and will encourage you to write them down and remind yourself of these positive aspects frequently. The goal is to focus on those aspects of your personality that can aid in your recovery rather than those that can impede your progress.

The Third Stage of Rehab: Maintaining Abstinence


National Institute on Drug Abuse. "Principles of Drug Addiction Treatment: A Research-Based Guide." Revised 2007.

National Institute on Drug Abuse. "An Individual Drug Counseling Approach to Treat Cocaine Addiction: The Collaborative Cocaine Treatment Study Model." Accessed May 2009.