In early recovery, I really struggled when looking back on my past. All of the errors in judgement I had made, the people I had harmed, it seems every choice I made was followed up with one that was worse. My own family called me the “dumbest smart guy” they knew. I guess that fit at the time. The problem was, early on I realized I couldn’t change what I had done or the way I had behaved and that really created self-esteem that was built on shame. I felt that not only had I made mistakes but I WAS a mistake.

The thing about shame is that it has no value. If you feel guilt or remorse, it can move you to change and grow. But shame, shame can just sit there and spin you into deep depression and there is no value in that. It’s just a toxic cycle with no way of healing.

The process of turning shame into a productive and motivating factor in your life is very difficult one, but it’s 100% doable. If you are like me, my solution was to just bury it. Ignore the shame and it might go away. Kind the same way I fix my car. If the brakes are noisy, my solution is to just turn up the radio. If I just blast my Nickleback CD, I can’t hear my brakes so they must be better! (That is a joke I would never own a Nickleback CD) The point is, doing that always led me to relapse. Not facing your past is never a solution for long term recovery; therefor I had to find a way to get out of my shame so I could grow.

It took a little while, but here is a truth I found: The only way for me to heal shame, to come to grips with my past, is to add value to it. I believe that shame has no real value, so to heal it I need to add value to it. How do you do that? One word: empathy.

In my addiction, and I see this all the time with others new in recovery, I felt that no one would understand my story. I had lost or given away everything important in my life and certainly nobody would understand that. I was at a meeting once and a younger man shared his story of loss. While his story was different, the feelings and the end result were the same. He lost everything and felt shame. I remember thinking, “hey, this sounds familiar.” Then an amazing thing happened, he continued to share his story and how he had healed the relationships in his life. He had moved past shame and into growth. It was possible!

What happened by sharing his story with a group of people was amazing. By being honest, his mistakes were now part of his story and how he had grown. In other words, by sharing the mistakes he once made, he added value to his past. He was able to be truly empathetic with me because his experience was similar and he could feel what I felt at the time.

That is the secret for me. I no longer bury my past, I embrace it. Some of it is embarrassing, but since it has value to both myself and the newcomer, it is no longer based in shame. Yes it was hard to share at first, fear of being judged, fear of failure etc., but the end result was worth it. I don’t need to hide from my past because it is actually important. Maybe my mistakes can help someone to NOT make the same choice in life. Maybe someone is going through a feeling of loss and hears me share and thinks, “I feel the same way.”  Maybe you listen to my story and a light goes on and you think, “Man, if that old guy can do it…” Maybe my story can be a source of strength for another person that needs it. Regardless, by sharing it, it has value, and nothing of value can be based in shame.

So you have it in you, practice true empathy, as it will help you to heal yourself and others at the same time. The strength of your story is a powerful tool for others.  You are strong. You are valued. You are NOT shame.

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