Guilt and regret are two very common emotions that we deal with once we’ve stopped drinking. It can be hard to reconcile who we were with who we are now. 

It may seem hard to believe but guilt, regret, and remorse are actually very good things. They are things that, while they don’t feel good, bring you awareness and give you the capacity, and the desire, and the will to change. 

The benefits of guilt.

Guilt can be really valuable because it encourages our moral compass. Here’s why: Guilt is a feeling that you want to do something better. It’s a desire to compensate. You want to give recompense to somebody you’ve wronged or somebody you love. This has actually been demonstrated in studies.
                 
A great and somewhat silly example of this is from an experiment. Researchers gave people a choice between vomit-flavor jelly beans and fruit-flavor jelly beans. They could choose which one they wanted. They mostly chose the fruit-flavor, obviously. Then, they were also told that their partner who they’ve come to the experiment with would then have to eat the vomit-flavor, but this was after the fact. They had technically already read some small print about this, but nobody reads the small print, so most people weren’t aware of it. They kind of unknowingly agreed that they would take the fruit for themselves and give their partner the vomit ones. So, this induced a feeling of guilt. 

True guilt really stems from a desire to make things better in the future. It comes from our moral compass. It is encouraging.

Later, in a separate experiment, there were given $5. They were told they could share as much as they wanted. It was set up as a game and they could share as much of that money as they wanted with their partner. The people who forced their partner to eat the vomit-flavor jelly beans and had not read the fine print ended up giving up three times as much money to their partner. Three times! This is demonstrated in all sorts of different experiences but guilt — true guilt — really stems from a desire to make things better in the future. It comes from our moral compass. It is encouraging. It encourages us to make up for acts, and because of this, it’s really valuable for people in recovery. 

Why regret is good for you, too.

Regret is also a very important emotion. 

The key, in this journey through becoming alcohol-free, is to start flipping things in our head. Things that we’ve been beating ourselves up for maybe aren’t so bad, maybe they are the moments where we can say, “okay, this is where I need to change.”

You can use regret to turn these experiences into moments of awareness and a catalyst for more beautiful changes. Your life has gone off path and, sure, you feel regret over that —  that’s normal. Those moments of awareness are honestly the most miraculous gifts of this life because that is where the change happens. That is where life happens. That is where things get better.

The lesson here is to forgive yourself for these emotions and don’t beat yourself up. Awareness is to be celebrated.

Neal Roese, a researcher and expert in human emotion decision making, says regret is like a flag going up. Regret is very useful for kicking people into action and helping them change the future. The lesson here is to forgive yourself for these emotions and don’t beat yourself up. Awareness is to be celebrated. Pain, as painful as it is, really spurs change for the future. Sometimes you almost have to put yourself through those negative experiences in order to really teach yourself that you want better in the future.

But you can’t beat yourself up. 

There is a caveat when it comes to celebrating all these emotions. 

That is, they can turn harmful when you turn these emotions inward and become self-centered in them. If you’re sitting there saying, “Oh, me. I’m worthless. I can’t do anything right. I’m never going to be good enough. I’m not okay.” You are not going to affect change by beating yourself up. Beating yourself up may feel really good at the moment because it feels like you’re doing something about your actions. But by punishing yourself, you end up feeling that you’re kind of making amends or that you’re paying a penance. You are declaring yourself not worthy. So if you’re not worthy, then you deserve what you get.

You fall into this trap, which keeps you stuck. That is exactly how to keep drinking forever. That is not healing. That is not becoming whole. When you get stuck in a shame spiral, you are unable to see beyond your own toxic shame and guilt. Pulling you deeper into depression, deeper into isolation, and both of those are serious obstacles to actually healing. 

When you get stuck in a shame spiral, you are unable to see beyond your own toxic shame and guilt. Pulling you deeper into depression, deeper into isolation, and both of those are serious obstacles to actually healing.

It is so easy for people who are addicted to a substance, especially alcohol, to get into this, “I’m drinking because I don’t deserve to live anyway” mentality. We know what we’re doing is killing us. We know what we’re doing is stealing our lives from our kids. But we can sit there and do it because we’re so mad at ourselves. We feel so guilty that we almost feel justified in punishing ourselves with alcohol. That is the most dangerous part of addiction.

I suggest you keep a journal with you. When you catch your self-talk being unkind, beating yourself up and going towards that shame spiral – write those words down. Ask yourself, “Would I say that to a stranger? Would I say that to somebody I love?”. You’re the only person you’ve got. You’re stuck with you. You have to make the best of it. Even if you don’t feel emotions of self-acceptance, you need to try to work through that for the people that love you. 

The biggest gift you can give yourself.

The biggest gift you can give to yourself and to your family is to start to respect and love yourself, to own your behavior, to start to come out to them with your feelings of how you’re feeling about the guilt.

You’re creating awareness in them which enables them to be able to forgive you

That alone feels so good and helps you to heal as well. It brings you closer by sharing with them what you’re going through. Then, it creates really positive pressure on your actions in the future because then it’s not just you.

You became addicted to alcohol because of the society we live in. Yes, you had some choice, and now, importantly, now you have a different choice. The choice is to not beat yourself up. The choice is to not go into this shame spiral. The choice is to say guilt is a good thing and regret is a good thing because it motivates you to make changes. 

Take that guilt and regret and that awareness and funnel it into energy and motivation for change. Seeing you live your best life will be cathartic for both you and those you love and may have hurt in the past.