Shame & Guilt

Ernest Kurtz

Ernest Kurtz, Shame and Guilt
Ernest Kurtz, Shame & Guilt, second edition, revised and updated, July 2007, ISBN 978-0-595-45492-1, xiv + 60 pp., $10.95 U.S.

Originally published as Shame and Guilt: Characteristics of the Dependency Cycle (A Historical Perspective for Professionals). Center City, Minnesota: Hazelden; 1981.

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Particularly in its new and revised version this little book, though short, is one of the best and most insightful works ever written on the sense of shame -- feeling bad about our lives and what we perceive as our failures -- that inner pain which haunts so many alcoholics and addicts and so many other human beings. And from his deep wisdom and accumulated experience, Kurtz also tells us how the twelve step program can be used to heal that sense of worthlessness and fear of abandonment, and restore us to lives that are happy, joyous, and free.

By the author of Not-God: A History of Alcoholics Anonymous, originally published in 1979 and still the classic work on the subject.

Kurtz, who holds a Ph.D. from Harvard, is one of the top people from A.A.'s second generation of authors (the generation following Bill W., Richmond Walker, Ed Webster, and Father Ralph Pfau).

His book on the spiritual life is equally well known and has also been an enduring best seller through the years:  Ernest Kurtz and Katherine Ketcham, The Spirituality of Imperfection: Modern Wisdom from Classic Stories.

Some of the most important of his many articles and essays can be found in Ernest Kurtz, The Collected Ernie Kurtz (Wheeling, West Virginia: Bishop of Books, 1999).

A Lesson from Alcoholics Anonymous

From the Introduction

  Two distinct ways of feeling "bad" afflict every human being. How those afflictions work -- and how they can be healed -- find clearest expression in the lives of alcoholics and addicts. Neither experience is unique to the alcoholic, but each has a special place in the process of recovery from alcoholism. In this area perhaps more than in any other, alcoholism and its healing contribute to our knowledge of the human condition. They do this first by revealing the importance of distinguishing between these two often-confused phenomena. Most hurting people could profit from learning this distinction, but for alcoholics and addicts, learning and living it become a matter of life and death. The distinction is between guilt and shame.

Shame differs from guilt. Because they differ, any effective healing of their diverse ways of "feeling bad" must differ. Some modes of healing, for some conditions, can afford to ignore the distinction between guilt and shame. But such is not the case with the alcoholic or with many other sufferers. Most hurting persons, and certainly the alcoholic, suffer both guilt and shame. And for the alcoholic, distinguishing between guilt and shame and confronting each constructively is necessary not only to attain sobriety but -- perhaps more importantly -- to maintain ongoing recovery, to attain a life that is genuinely "happy, joyous, and free."

Confronting guilt, though painful, is not difficult. The beginner in Alcoholics Anonymous finds guilt allayed, indeed, by the very concepts of powerlessness and unmanageability that invite him to confront also his shame. The recovering alcoholic finds further help in dealing with guilt in the inventory and amendment Steps (Four, Five, Eight, and Nine) of the A.A. program, which guide directly to guilt's resolution.

The confrontation with shame, although also set in motion by A.A.'s First Step, proves more tricky -- and, for most, more difficult. Again, the A.A. program -- all of it, but especially Steps Two, Six, Seven, and Ten -- suggests shame's solution. It is Alcoholics Anonymous as fellowship that makes real this solution, but it is only in the conjunction with the Twelve Steps as program that the full benefits of A.A as fellowship can be real-ized -- made real.

The impressive success of Alcoholics Anonymous in dealing with alcoholism and addiction flows directly from A.A.'s effectiveness at healing shame.

Other therapies fail, especially over time, because un-faced shame proves much more dangerous to the alcoholic, especially in recovery, than does unresolved guilt. An appreciation of Alcoholics Anonymous as specifically a modality for the healing of shame thus can offer much . . . and not only to the alcoholic.