It’s a feeling that most of us at one point or another has experienced: Shame. Shame is an isolating, debilitating emotion that causes us feelings self-doubt and unworthiness.
While almost everyone experiences these feelings at one point or another – some of us aren’t able to escape it. For those in active addiction, shame isn’t just a one time occurrence – it’s something that is experienced almost daily. Sometimes, the shame can feel constant. And although you can’t visibly see or tangibly touch shame, it can be a persistent companion.
Understanding Shame Vs. Guilt
In order to understand how shame feeds drug and alcohol addiction, it’s important to distinguish it from guilt. Guilt is a natural feeling that can result following a poor choice or a mistake. Feelings of guilt stem from our moral conscience and let us know we’ve done something that violates our moral compass or “right vs. wrong.”
For example, say your spouse forgot to take out the trash and you came home to an infestation of ants in the kitchen. Of course, it was an honest mistake – but you react with anger and speak some harsh words. Shortly after losing your temper, you feel bad for how you behaved and the words that you spoke (or yelled). What you feel at this point is guilt: You said and did things that you regret. You made a mistake. That mistake can be repaired with an apology and a kind action towards your spouse.
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On the other hand, shame is a feeling of inadequacy. With shame, you may feel like simple mistakes are a sign that you’re defective as a person or that you’re incompetent. For example, after the harsh words you may have spoken with your spouse, shame might prompt you to isolate or go stay with another family member for the night. You may feel like you want to hide or disappear. You may want to go out drinking or get high in order to escape. This is because shame makes you feel exposed.
While guilt can give you motivation to correct your mistake or error in behavior, shame keeps you in a mindset of self-loathing. Guilt pushes you to connect with others in order to repair the wrong, while shame causes you to hid from others in order to minimize the embarrassment you feel.
Whereas guilt is a judgement about your behavior, shame is a judgement about yourself.
When Shame Becomes Painful
Even though shame can be a natural emotion that nearly everyone experiences at one time or another, it is such a painful emotion that most people will do anything to try to avoid it. In active addiction, however, shame becomes almost unavoidable.
Shame brings with it a profound sense of separation from others – and yourself. With shame, you lose touch with parts of yourself and you feel disconnected from everything. The only things that are constant are these types of feelings:
- “I don’t deserve to be loved.”
- “I’m not important.”
- “I’m not a good person.”
- “I’ve failed – and I’m a failure.”
- “I can’t be happy.”
- “I’m a loser.”
- “I deserve to be alone.”
- “I will never measure up to my friends or family.”
- “I’m not worth the effort to fix.”
Shame Feeds Addiction
In active addiction, feelings of shame can become almost unbarable. The chronic sense of unworthiness and inferiority make you believe that you aren’t worthy of love, respect – or even happiness. You become ashamed of who you are and, in result, depression, hopelessness and numbness become chronic.
These powerful feelings of shame become a barrier to self-help, as you may feel as though you’re not worth the help or attention. And while shame can initially cause you to spiral into addiction, it can also keep you in the cycle of addiction:
When stressors such as work, finances and relationships become overwhelming, you may self-medicate with drugs or alcohol. Drugs and alcohol lower self-esteem and the control that you have in your life – and the hopelessness and disappointment escalate. Each time you repeat this cycle, you become more let down by your inability to handle these pressures. You don’t want help from other people because each time you fail – the shame strengthens.
Because shame and addiction become a type of prison that can keep a person trapped in the negative cycle, healing requires a powerful approach. It requires a safe environment where you can identify your shame and be vulnerable enough to express yourself. In a professional addiction treatment program you will learn to combat shame by:
- Identifying Your Shame:
Learning to distinguish between “being a loser” and making a human error (i.e. spilling coffee, using harsh words in the heat-of-the-moment) is a crucial first step. You’ll be able to recognize that when shame arises, you can call it out for what it is, and refuse to feed it with self-hate.
- Finding Acceptance:
You are not perfect. No one is. Some of the mistakes that you have made has been done while in active addiction – but those errors can be addressed, so long as you let go of the idea of perfection and direct your energy towards mending relationships and repairing mistakes.
- Redefining Self-Worth:
Do you see yourself as a “loser”? An “addict”? Stop shaming yourself with labels and promote yourself as an individual. Of course there are things you may wish to change from your past, but your self-worth isn’t based on what you’ve done or haven’t done: It’s based on your ownership of those choices and the commitment to positive life changes.
Overcoming shame may require revisiting some difficult memories and traumatic pasts, and re-evaluating them from a new perspective. Healing from shame and addiction will likely take time, professional help and a tremendous amount of effort – but connection, re-connection and honesty will allow you to move forward.