Embracing Relapse: How to Not Give Up When You Mess Up

When it comes to behavior change in our lives, relapse can be a cycle in that process. Relapse is often referred to when it comes to recovery, however, we can relapse in other behavior changes as well (i.e going to the gym, improving our diet or nutrition, setting boundaries, or improving our relationships). Consistent behavior change can be difficult to obtain and maintain, especially regarding sobriety. Here are a few helpful things to keep in mind if you have relapsed.

  • It is important to acknowledge the behavior or behaviors that you have engaged in. Awareness is one of the most important aspects of implementing change in our life. It is crucial after a slip in consistency to acknowledge all thoughts, emotions, and behaviors that played a role in relapse. Also remember, increasing awareness will help us to not to get immersed in the cycle that will keep the relapse continuing and increasing emotional pain.


  • Identifying guilt, shame, and resentment will help to decrease emotional pain. We start to heal our pain when we feel it. Guilt and shame can be present after a relapse due to fear of judgment or expectations that we have on ourselves. If we try to minimize shaming ourselves and self-resentments regarding the decisions we have made, hopefully it will help us get back on track and not stay in the cycle.


  • Have empathy and compassion for yourself in your process. We are all human. We have difficult moments and we can make choices that we regret. Identify your strengths, goals, hopes, and aspirations. Addiction is a disease that wants you to be alone and wants you to use alcohol and drugs. You’re fighting, and relapse can be a part of that process.


  • Reach out to those who help support you. This can be friends, family, therapists, spiritual higher powers, people at church, or people at meetings. NA and AA are found beneficial because of the support and normalizing of difficulties that people experience in recovery. Talk about what is going on before, during, or after the relapse. The more you talk about it and bring it to light, the less it holds onto you and drags you down to the dark.

  • Reframe and refocus on recovery goals. It can help mend and refocus on your recovery if you remind yourself why you made this step in the first place. If your internal motivation is not enough in this moment, reflect on your support or things you could lose in your recovery (i.e job, place to live, personal freedom, relationships, trust from others). Remind yourself of what you do have and what you are grateful for. Think about realistic goals you can work toward and how you can use this experience to learn and grow in your recovery.


  • Do something different in your recovery. “Nothing changes if nothing changes, and if I keep doing what I’ve always done, I’ll keep getting what I’ve always got, and will keep feeling what I always felt.” There is no end to the changes we can make in our lives to improve our emotions and events. Some changes include, find new hobbies, find new supports in recovery, try new skills, get a sponsor, try a meeting or a new meeting, give back in the community, or join a club. Trying new things can help improve our view of life and improve our self-worth.

Relapse can be a part of recovery, but it does not have to dictate your recovery. It can be difficult to get back on track. We can feel low about ourselves in the process. However, relapse is not the end. Use the resources you have and keep fighting.


Author: Stephanie Pruefer, MA, LPC, CADC – Footprints to Recovery – Primary Counselor

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