It’s normal to be disappointed if you relapse, especially if you’ve been sober for a while. You may feel like you’ve wasted all your hard work and disappointed the people who care about you. You may feel an impulse to punish yourself, either by beating yourself up emotionally, or engaging in some other self-destructive behavior. Although those feelings are understandable, they are not very helpful.

The notion that we should be punished for our mistakes is deeply ingrained. Our justice system in the US is mainly punitive, meaning we typically fine or imprison someone who is found guilty of a crime. However, that’s not the only possible aim of a justice system. Some cultures, for example, emphasize reconciling the parties and making the community whole again, which prison can never accomplish. Even in this country, drug courts recognize that many people who commit drug-related offenses need treatment rather than punishment.

We also have the idea that unless we punish others, whether it’s a dog, a child, or a burglar, they will continue to misbehave. From the behaviorist standpoint, we believe we need to condition people to avoid doing bad things, and that’s what punishments are for. This may be what’s behind the impulse of someone to punish herself after a relapse. She might feel that unless she feels the full weight of her error, she will continue to repeat it. However, most of the time, the impulse to punish oneself is preemptive. It’s a consequence of having internalized the criticism of people we care about, typically parents. By heaping scorn on ourselves for our mistakes, we hope that others will forgive us or spare us.

While this strategy might smooth things over socially, it’s not helpful psychologically, because now the critic is in your own head. And often, we are much harder on ourselves than others are. This merciless self-talk can lead to anxiety, depression, and a general sense of hopelessness. Telling yourself you’re a screw-up, and weak, and whatever else only digs you in deeper. It turns a mistake into a disaster.

What you need is not punishment for your mistake, but encouragement to try again. Relapse is extremely common. By some estimates, as many as 90 percent of people addicted to alcohol or opioids will relapse in the first year. Some even go so far as to say relapse is part of recovery. It’s fine to feel disappointed after a relapse, but remember that most people who have succeeded in recovery have relapsed at least once. Punishing yourself will only make matters worse, but encouraging yourself can make things better.

If you or someone you love is struggling with addiction or mental illness, we can help. Recovery Ways is a premier drug and alcohol addiction treatment facility located in Salt Lake City, Utah. We have the resources to effectively treat a dual diagnosis. Our mission is to provide the most cost-effective, accessible substance abuse treatment to as many people as possible. Request information online or call us today at 1-888-986-7848.