Drinking guilt and its big brother shame

When I used to drink the drinking threw in a free gift of a helping of guilt and shame on the side – how kind!  Guilt is the emotion that we feel when we have behaved in a way that we perceive to be hurtful to others or as a moral lapse.  Guilt serves a purpose when we recognise, acknowledge and rectify the behaviour, such as apologising if necessary.  The thing is, when I was drinking, sometimes I didn’t remember the behaviour so what I got left with was guilt’s big brother, shame.

Shame is the emotion that we feel when ‘we’ as a person are at fault, not our behaviour.  It is the way we feel if we have fallen short of our own internalised ideals or if there is a public disclosure of a perceived weakness or defect. For me shame was the fast track path to self-loathing, failing self-esteem and crushed self-confidence and it was hard not to feel shame as I felt like I couldn’t control my drinking and therefore my behaviour.  Erik Erikson argued that “shame is blame turned against the self” and Pete Walker writes that “shame is the death of self-acceptance and self-worth.”  If I couldn’t manage this there was something wrong with ‘me’ right?

But if you drink alcohol, which is addictive and designed to make you thirsty (so you drink more) and acts as a disinhibitor (encouraging behaviour that you would not normally engage in) then how is that a weakness or defect in yourself?  Now I’m not handing total responsibility for my actions over to the booze monster as the choice to pick up the first drink was always mine.  What I didn’t fully choose was the addiction created by the substance to go on drinking to the point of total black out, guilt making antics and no memories to attach the guilt to therefore leaving me with an overwhelming sense of shame.  And then I would drink to forget the shame compounding the problem. Shame, drink, shame, lather, rinse, repeat.

The leading expert and queen of shame research is Brene Brown who I love.  Her PhD was studying vulnerability.  You can watch her TED talk on vulnerability here and her follow up TED talk on ‘Listening to Shame’ here.

What her research found was that shame is highly highly correlated with addiction.  Shame is the voice in my head telling me that I’m ‘never good enough’ and I can’t do life sober.  Shame is that same internal critic saying ‘who do you think you are’ to blog about my sober journey thinking people would be interested in what I have to say.

This is the most toxic of emotions and now I don’t drink I don’t really experience it like I used to anymore.  I know that I can do life sober and have done it for over five months. I know that people are interested in what I have to say because they take the time to read my blog and comment.  My internal voice of shame has gone quiet and this gift is perhaps bigger than the gift of no hangover.  The no hangover is the physical gift of not drinking but the diminished feeling of shame is the psychological gift of sobriety.  And the two go hand in hand for me as part of the hangover distress was the angst caused by the shame.  In the words of Brene, for shame to survive it needs secrecy, silence and judgement (of self or of others).  Choosing not to drink and this blog is the answer to resolving my shame and I would chose this option hands down every day over drinking now 🙂

PS My other most popular blog post is my Goodbye Letter to Alcohol which you can read here

Edited to add: I found this brilliant card that summed up how this drinking shame and guilt felt for me so if this is how you feel too then can I recommend this self-compassion break  🙂

Overindulgence Disposal Unit

76 thoughts on “Drinking guilt and its big brother shame

  1. That was interesting. You’re doing a great job with your sobriety and your blog. I’m learning lots from you, so keep going. I’ve only been AF for 60+ days but already my shame and other hang ups are diminishing. I can’t believe how destructive alcohol actually is to the spirit and mind. I don’t ever want to go back to that shame and guilt. That dreaded feeling I used to get on waking up, trying to recall what I did or said. Eurgh!

  2. brilliant post. so true. love the line, ‘The no hangover is the physical gift of not drinking but the diminished feeling of shame is the psychological gift of sobriety.’ that says it so well. xx

  3. Thanks Lucy – that talk from Brene Brown blew me away. I loved the line right at the end: “Empathy is the antidote to shame. … The two most powerful words when we’re in struggle are ‘me too’.” That puts so simply exactly why we all find the sober blogging community such a support.
    MTM. x

  4. You are so right about shame being the most toxic of emotions! I have been amazed at how my personal shame levels have been melting away since deciding to take a break from alcohol!

  5. I love your blog, and this is my favorite post so far. I’m very proud of you. Thanks for writing so well about such a personal issue.

  6. I haven’t read Brene Brown but have heard she is great… I will check out the video! Thanks for posting it. Isn’t is wonderful how shame starts to diminish the longer we are sober? I hated feeling that way so much. Psychological healing is an amazing thing. xx

  7. Thank you so much! You’ve opened my eyes and now I need to open my heart to my family and pour my vodka down the drain…

    1. Hi kingdutka Thank you for reading and commenting on my blog! You are most welcome and good luck on your journey – it is so worth it, as are you 🙂

      1. I did it… I poured it down the drain with my family watching… I cried a lot but I think better days are coming.

      2. Good for you! 🙂 Hope your family will support you over the next few days, weeks and months and tears are good. I hope better days are coming too xx

    1. Hi el27! Thank you for reading and commenting on my blog and I’m happy that this post hit the spot for you 🙂 xx

  8. Hi there. Am 26, heavy alcoholism for about 5 years. Only the past 2 years have I felt the tremendous pains of drinking- other than the obvious daily hangovers. Sober now for almost 9 months, excited for more of the sober life.

    I enjoy the way you write youre feelings. I totally agree with the guilt and shame cycles and how it really does become a viscous cycle that I believe kept me “in the game” for so long. It sounds like you have done a lot introspection to come up with such a deep understanding of you and youre alcoholism. Please keep writing so long as it is an effective outlet for you because I believe people really do find support from others, whether in a group face to face or those just skimming through blogs. Wish everyone on here a safe and well supported trip on the road to recovery.

    1. Hi Michael Thank you for reading and commenting on my blog 🙂 Firstly huge congratulations on your 9 months sobriety! Happy that you liked what I wrote and I had a lot of practice at feeling that guilt and shame before the penny finally dropped. If only I’d figured it out at 26 like you have …. I’ll be here writing and hopefully we’ll see each other again on the road to recovery.

  9. Hi! Thank you so much for your post. I gave up drinking in 2013, and other than the occasional relapse, I love the sober life. This past weekend, I relapsed. I don’t even know why I did it, maybe it was a combo of boredom and loneliness. Either way, I woke up a complete guilty, anxious mess. I still feel the ebbing of anxiety, so I sought out on the internet to see if there are others like me. Your blog really helped me. Shame is the exact word for I feel. I feel like I’m the worst person in the entire world. I know that it’s because I drank. Absolutely now more. The pain just isn’t worth it. Thank you again for sharing your story, I will be following your blog regularly now for help to stay on the right side. Thank you and take care.

    1. Hi Alex Thank you for reading and commenting on my blog! I’m so sorry to hear that you relapsed but happy to hear that you found my blog and it helped with some of the shame that we feel when we stumble and drink. I’ll be here pretty much every day so I’ll be cheering you along from now 🙂

    2. This just happened to me. I’m feeling so ashamed of myself and depressed. I get anxious about how I acted and want to hide. I sometimes let my drinking get out of control. I keep drinking when I should stop. Then I feel like a failure. I have to recognize that I have a problem with alcohol and stay away from it. The remorse guilt shame embarrassment and the potential destruction in my life is too great. It’s August 1, 2016 and I am commit to giving up alcohol for good. The price on my life is just not worth it. I keep praying for some peace from this episode. Thank you so much for listening and creating a place to discuss this topic. Blessings to all.

      1. Hey Christina Thank you for reading and commenting on my blog 🙂 I’m sorry it’s taken me a while to respond but I’ve been away. I’m hoping that this is day 27 for you and that the guilt and shame fog are starting to lift. You can do this!

  10. I’m feeling the pain of a 2 day binge. I messed up so badly on sunday and drank completely out of control, then I drank yesterday to forget about it. It’s so helpful to be able to see you’re not alone out there. I am miserably guilty and ashamed of myself right now. I can’t believe I made the exact same mistake the very next day! You are so right about the vicious cycle. I put myself and my son in danger by driving when I shouldn’t have. I am so incredibly sorry and need to forgive myself.

    1. Hey Julie Thank you for reading and commenting on my blog 🙂 I’m so sorry you are feeling emotional pain after a drinking binge – I remember that feeling well. Please try to be kind to yourself today and as you say forgive yourself. Learn from this and focus on how you’ll do it differently next time xx

      1. I am feeling just like you, I had a really bad one day binge before the weekend. So bad that I did not know where I was or remember anything or how my husband got my car home. This is not the first. Apart from being alcoholic why do women do this. Women arent suppose to behave this way. The result is self loathing, shame, guilt and two sons who indicated they have had enough. I know it is my fault but how does one get through this. I had to cancel an overseas trip to my son as when he heard about this latest binge he indicated he did not want me to come so breaking up inside. Not to mention how they feel.

      2. Linda Thank you for reading and commenting on my blog. You ask how does one get through this. The first thing is to be kind to yourself as heaping shame and guilt on top of how we already feel just made me to want to drink more to escape and forget. The second thing is to remember that we all need to unwind and alcohol has become the shortcut for this. The problem is that it is an addictive substance so once our resistance is lowered by one or two drinks it is much harder to stop and that’s how binge’s and blackouts happen. Thirdly do something about it – whatever that means for you so that your family can see that you want things to be different and you’re serious as through change trust is rebuilt. There are many supportive communities both online and in real life who will be happy to help you, myself included 🙂

  11. hi,
    For some reason went on a few nites out over the xmas… all fine till I met a friend one of the days in town that I hadn’t planned on meeting. Drank all day and then that night remember feeling really cross and mad inside at everyone, friends family etc..,
    I can usually go out and have few drinks without this happening,,,
    but this is not the first time this has happened me when I have had a session this time also I got angry at everyone around me…… Still have not managed to face people I hurt and insulted for no reason,,, shame is cruel, Just beginning to think there maybe something deep inside me that is bothering me that only comes out when I drink excessively …. what do you think…? I ask because I can go weeks without drink if I need to for work etc, without having to drink or troubling me not drinking,,

    Thanks in advance,, great Posts

    1. Hey John Thank you for reading and commenting on my blog 🙂 They say that it isn’t how often we drink or how much but how it makes us feel that is the alarm bell to something being amiss in our relationship with alcohol. Certain types of alcohol are more well known for making us angry, all alcohol disinhibits so we say more than we would usually & for me it was often a release valve so things that were stored deep inside (sometimes unconsciously) would leak out under its influence. It is entirely possible that this is what happened for you as alcohol can be the cause of us speaking and behaving in ways that feel completely unlike our normal persona when sober. I certainly remember it well and don’t miss it one bit. Hope that helps and thank you!

  12. Thanks for all you do here. I have cut back a lot last year and have the occasional relapse. The guilt is hard to take. I think it is telling me no more alcohol.

    1. Hey Stew Thank you for reading and commenting on my blog 🙂 Happy to help and if you are finding the guilt too difficult then yes maybe it’s time to bid it farewell?

      1. Yes thanks, I can say I never drank that much but when I do it is always too much. Even if I don’t do anything to really make apologies for I feel terrible guilt. Or I will go over the conversations and find reasons to be feeling guilty. I think it has to do with living with a very alcoholic father and those bad memories. Last week I had lots of red wine combine with lots of water. That did not help at all. I am more used to beer. This guilt for over doing it is terrible. I actually made a conscious effort to cut back over the last couple years and only do it every couple weeks and always feel bad about it. This site has helped a lot

      2. Thanks for sharing more of your experience Stew. It’s oft said that it isn’t how much or how often we drink but how it makes us feel that matters. And if drinking makes you feel bad then we have a choice about whether we continue or not 🙂

  13. I’m struggling mightily with quitting drinking. I’m 30- I’m struggling so hard to quit. The guilt and shame! I’m destroying my life and it’s so very hard

    1. Hey Jack Thank you for reading and reaching out by commenting on my blog 🙂 I’m sorry to hear you are struggling with guilt and shame and finding it hard to quit. Reaching out is an important step to helping ourselves and maybe you could reach out to someone close to you to support you with this?

  14. I did it again kind of a relapse, I had probably 6 pints and now feel real bad about it. I can go for long periods with no alcohol and then I get bored. I can make up my mind that I am not going to drink that day and I end up doing it. I was all alone when I did this. It is usually when the family goes away.

    I sometimes even imagine that I said and did certain things which I did not. that is kind of weird

    1. Hey Stew, maybe some IRL support might help? I often would say I wasn’t going to drink and then would and yep on my own too. Boredom can be a trigger and it can take a while to find other things to do to replace drinking but you can do this 🙂

      1. What is IRL?
        I can go weeks never even think about alcohol. Then something triggers it. I am not a big guy so I can’t consume a lot well 6 or 7 pints. Then I feel terrible
        I am an artist and that helps with the relaxing. I will be leaving my job soon to devote more time to art.
        Plus I work out 7 days a week. Also, I take anti anxiety meds so that does not help.
        I am going to try Kava that you once suggested. I see a counsellor once in awhile.

      2. It means ‘in real life’ and seeing a counsellor is just that 🙂 Do try the kava next time the urge to drink arises and see if it does the trick. Good luck with your art too!

  15. You have a lot of insight
    I have accepted that I am an alcoholic and that taking an alcoholic drink leads me into a lot of pain and suffering. I know that that an ‘alcoholic’ is ‘what’ I am but it is not ‘who’ I am. Today, I do not allow the alcoholic label to define me as a person.
    I made the choice to get help for my problem and I got sober but that was not the end in itself. You’re so right in saying that the ‘shame drink cycle’ keeps you locked in to the belief that alcohol is the solution. I did the same thing for years expecting a different result each time – that’s insanity. The problem was that the shame I carried was from my childhood and the constant message was ‘ You’re not good enough’
    They were the thoughts and opinions of ‘others’ and as a child I had no way of evaluating whether they were right or wrong, whether I was a ‘good’ or bad person.
    My belief my ‘truth’ about myself was that I was a ‘wholly bad’ person.
    Strange as it may seem, I am glad that I am sober alcoholic. It made me examine my life, ditch the shame and false beliefs I had about myself and become a better person.
    Keep up the good work

    1. Hey Charlie Thank you for reading and commenting on my blog 🙂 Thanks also for sharing your experience and so glad that my insights were helpful for you too! I agree that ditching the shame and false beliefs can be a liberating thing.

  16. Hello there, wonderful post. Day 32 today and I have to say one of the best gifts of sobriety is not waking up with guilt. I keep having dreams about drinking and doing things I regret then I wake up relieved it was just a dream. I do not miss that sick feeling of shame and guilt. I’m looking forward to day 100!

    1. Hello Kimberly 🙂 Thank you for reading and commenting on my blog and huge congrats on day 32!! Couldn’t agree more about the gift of no guilt and drinking dreams I think are our subconscious minds way of keeping us on the sober path 😉 Day 100 is amazing and let me know when you get there xx

  17. Thank you so much for this post. I have been trying to deal with this very issue this week.

    “for shame to survive it needs secrecy, silence and judgement”

    This really stood out for me. Since I’ve come out with my drinking problem to my mother and 2 close friends, it feels as if a really big weight has lifted. There is no more shame. I can’t say the gult is gone comepletely, still have some work to do there.

    1. Hey HurrahforCoffee! Thanks for reading and commenting on my blog 🙂 So happy that this statement resonated for you and that through sharing your difficulties with alcohol you feel emotionally lighter. The further in the rear view mirror that drinking gets the easier on yourself you will be about past events that caused you guilt and shame.

  18. Incredibly insightful. It was the guilt and shame that told me I wasn’t good enough for a sober life. I know now that my value as a person doesn’t change because I’m an alcoholic. I’ve let go of the regret and I have been able to get sober!

    1. Hi Peter Thank you for reading and commenting on my blog! Happy to hear that you’ve let go of the regret and embraced sobriety 🙂

    1. Hey Merry! Thank you for reading and commenting on my blog and so glad you found me too 🙂

  19. HI Lucy,That’s a great TED talk from Brene Brown. I’ve just started my 10th year without drink, and i’ve also noticed that i feel a lot less shame. Certainly no longer wake on the weekends stressing about what i did the night before. Those days are long gone!
    Great post. :o))

    1. Hey James Congrats on 10 years without drinking and for sharing you have less shame too! Thank you for reading and commenting on my blog 🙂

    1. Hey Susanne Thanks for reading and commenting on my blog 🙂 I agree shame overload but I’m done hiding!

  20. Hi, I run content partnerships for OneStep, a new content platform that seeks to counter the stigma of addiction. We curate high-quality content (in both written and short-film form) to inspire people to rediscover life. Furthermore, we educate and empower people to take their next step towards recovery. We recently discovered your work. And we’re impressed by how inspiring, informative and hopeful it is.

    We’re looking to partner with content creators, like yourself, to reach the millions of people struggling with addiction via a new platform and approach. We also want to draw attention to the important work you’re doing.

    As a first step, I’d like to set up a conversation for us to get to know each other. So please email me at paul@onestep.life so we can set up a call next week.

    All the best,

    Paul

  21. Louise – I just found your site by doing research for a future course in Udemy. Awesome work you have going on here in this space. Thank you.

    I saw the original one and shared it every place I could. This TED Talk about shame so hit the nail on the head for me and deciding to share my drinking journey. My secret, silent, shame of suffering kept me in the alcohol trap for over 7 years. I drank for many, many years before I began to question my drinking. Once I started to question my drinking is when my silent shameful struggle began.

    Listening to this has sparked my drive to share my journey as loud as I can because if I can help one other woman break free from the alcohol trap, then it’s oh so worth it.

    Thanks for sharing this.

    1. Hey Debi Thanks for reading and commenting on my blog 🙂 Thank you also for sharing the message so widely!

  22. I am so glad I found your blog.. Every time I drink too much around people I don’t totally know I wake up in an immense feeling of shame and guilt and feel like this for days sometimes weeks. Just the other day I went to the bar and had a few too many, drove home and drank more.. I was with my husband and can recall most of the events from the very short evening before I passed out.. But I called and texted someone I really dont know and I dont remember it. When my brother called the next day asking why I called him I thought omg I thought I remembered everything.. Looked at my call list and saw I called someone I never would have sober… Dont even know if he answered because I was so scared to look at the call time, so I deleted it thinking it would help me forget if I didn’t know how long the call was.. Now 3 days later I feel the worst anxiety about the whole thing and can’t tell a soul about it.. This has happened to me in the past so I would not drink for a long time and forget that it happened.. Then I do it again and feel the pain, shame, fear, embarrassment all over again . I need to stop this vicious cycle of self harm. I feel so sick but typing this all out helps me a little bit. This blog says everything I feel.

    1. Hey Mandy Thank you for reading and commenting on my blog 🙂 I’m so glad that what I wrote resonated with your experience. I can promise you we are not alone in feeling this way! Sometimes the best way to leave the feelings behind is to do things differently and if drink is the cause then to stop the effect we have to stop drinking the substance. I don’t miss alcohol at all – or the feelings that used to haunt me after a drinking night out. It is truly liberating.

  23. I too face this.Very ashamed and guilty.All neuro crash,anxiety nd sleeplessness.I m trying to win this battle since 7 years.

    1. Hey Harshdeep Thank you for reading and commenting on my blog. All any of us can do is keep fighting the fight – don’t stop trying to stop if that is what you want!

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