Managing shame and guilt in addiction: A pathway to recovery

Anke Snoek*, Victoria McGeer, Daphne Brandenburg, Jeanette Kennett

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review


A dominant view of guilt and shame is that they have opposing action tendencies: guilt- prone people are more likely to avoid or overcome dysfunctional patterns of behaviour, making amends for past misdoings, whereas shame-prone people are more likely to persist in dysfunctional patterns of behaviour, avoiding responsibility for past misdoings and/or lashing out in defensive aggression. Some have suggested that addiction treatment should make use of these insights, tailoring therapy according to people's degree of guilt-proneness versus shame-proneness. In this paper, we challenge this dominant view, reviewing empirical findings from others as well as our own to question (1) whether shame and guilt can be so easily disentangled in the experience of people with addiction, and (2) whether shame and guilt have the opposing action tendencies standardly attributed to them. We recommend a shift in theoretical perspective that explains our main finding that both emotions can be either destructive or constructive for recovery, depending on how these emotions are managed. We argue such management depends in turn on a person's quality of self-blame (retributive or ‘scaffolding’), impacting upon their attitude towards their own agency as someone with fixed and unchanging dispositions (shame and guilt destructive for recovery) or as someone capable of changing themselves (shame and guilt productive for recovery). With an eye to therapeutic intervention, we then explore how this shift in attitude towards the self can be accomplished. Specifically, we discuss empathy-driven affective and narratively-driven cognitive components of a process that allow individuals to move away from the register of retributive self-blame into a register of scaffolding ‘reproach’, thereby enabling them to manage their experiences of both shame and guilt in a more generative way.
Original languageEnglish
Article number106954
JournalAddictive Behaviors
Publication statusPublished - 1 Sept 2021
Externally publishedYes

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