Shame plays a role in many mental health issues, addiction included. Shame and addiction often go hand in hand and can be debilitating if one does not find the proper treatment.
Even though shame is a natural emotion – it is a physiologic response of your autonomic nervous system – most people will do anything they can to avoid this emotion.
Shame can trigger the following reactions:
- Increased heartbeat
- Slumping your shoulders
- Hanging your head
- Avoiding eye contact
Shame might be just an emotion, but it can also be a powerful driving force in people’s lives.
It is worth clarifying the distinction between guilt and shame to better understand how shame and addiction recovery are interlinked.
Guilt vs. Shame
While the words guilt and shame are sometimes used interchangeably, there are pronounced differences between these terms. In essence, guilt involves harming yourself, while shame implies harming others.
Guilt manifests when you feel bad about something you have done, or about something you committed to doing and then failed to achieve. An example of guilt is feeling bad for being repeatedly rude to someone while intoxicated. Alternatively, you may feel guilty after promising to drink in moderation but then getting blind drunk.
Shame takes things one stage further. Guilt involves acknowledging and feeling bad about something you did or something you failed to do. Shame involves internalizing that guilt to the extent that you start believing yourself to be bad because of your poor behaviors.
When Does Shame Become Harmful?
In most normal scenarios in life, you are likely to do everything possible to avoid painful emotions like shame. In the throes of active addiction, though, shame can become unavoidable.
When shame manifests, it can induce a deep sense of separation, both from others and from yourself. Shame causes you to lose touch with aspects of yourself, triggering feelings of disconnection. Despite this, some feelings remain constant when you are dealing with emotions like shame:
- I am a bad person.
- I don’t deserve anyone to love me.
- I am a failure.
- I’m not important or worthwhile.
- I will never be happy.
- I should be alone.
- I am a loser.
- It’s not worth the effort of fixing things.
- I will never be good enough for friends and family.
- Nothing is worth making the effort to fix.
What role does shame play in addiction, then?
Shame And Addiction
Recent SAMHSA data shows a dramatic uptick in addiction in the United States. Per NSDUH 2020, there are 40 million over-12s with substance use disorder and 28.5 million with alcohol use disorder.
For these tens of millions of people mired in addiction to drink or drugs, feelings of shame can become almost unbearably strong.
Shame is characterized by feelings of inferiority and unworthiness. The more shame sets in, the more you may believe you are not worthy of respect, love, or happiness. Resultantly, depression, numbness, and hopelessness become chronic, exacerbating problems with substance abuse.
If you find yourself dealing with powerful feelings of shame, this can become a barrier to seeking the treatment you need to tackle the physical and psychological components of addiction. You may ultimately feel you are not worth the help and attention required from others to enable your sustained recovery.
So, not only can shame cause you to start spiraling into more addictive behaviors, but it can also perpetuate the vicious cycle of addiction.
An example of shame in action might start with outside stressors becoming overwhelming and debilitating. Whether it’s stress stemming from finances, work, or your relationship, you start self-medicating and managing the symptoms of stress by using drink or drugs. Using addictive substances causes a myriad of problems, including lowering your self-esteem and reducing the control you have over your actions and your life. As feelings of disappointment and hopelessness deepen, the resultant shame then strengthens, and so the cycle continues.
There’s some good news, though – it doesn’t need to be that way.
How to Break the Cycle of Guilt and Shame in Addiction Recovery
Engaging with treatment for addiction is anyway challenging, so it might not be a quick or easy task to put a stop to shame consuming you from time to time. Nevertheless, there are some simple steps you can take to remove yourself from the destructive emotion of shame, eliminating the power these feelings have over you.
Here is how to start reducing the impact of emotional shame in five easy steps:
- Recognize the futility and counter-productive nature of shame
- Ask your loved ones for forgiveness
- Forgive yourself
- Release things you cannot control
- Commit completely to your recovery
1) Recognize the futility and counter-productive nature of shame
Transitioning from active addiction to recovery often leads people to become intensely self-critical, especially concerning behaviors triggered by addiction.
You should take a step back, though. Acknowledge to yourself that not only is shame a counterproductive emotion but is also incredibly destructive if left to simmer.
Even if you cannot prevent feelings of shame from cropping up, you can decide not to dwell on these damaging emotions.
Beyond this, accept that shame might be counterproductive, but that doesn’t mean you can’t take direct action when confronted by feelings of shame.
2) Ask your loved ones for forgiveness
If you are making the decision to change your life and battle an addiction to alcohol or drugs, your journey will be more seamless if you have the support of friends and family.
Start by asking the people you have wronged and feel shameful about for forgiveness. You might be surprised at the reaction and find you have no reason to keep beating yourself up.
You should also be prepared that some people may not be placed to forgive you immediately, but you will have done what you can for now simply by admitting your wrongdoings and asking for forgiveness.
3) Forgive yourself
Crucially, you should also initiate the process of forgiving yourself for transgressions committed while addicted to alcohol or drugs.
Again, by dwelling on past errors, you will not be doing anything positive or constructive. The choices you make today are fundamental to your recovery, not choices you made when impaired by addiction.
4) Release things you cannot control
Accept that the only person you are in full control of is yourself. Many things fall outside your control and there is nothing you can do to change them. Things you did in the past while addicted to alcohol or drugs fall firmly in this category.
By releasing the things in your past, you’ll be making a substantial leap forward in your recovery.
5) Commit completely to your recovery
Perhaps the most effective way to keep any lingering feelings of shame and addiction at bay is to engage fully with your recovery.
While addiction is a chronic and relapsing brain disease, it also responds favorably to treatment. Pursue counseling and psychotherapy sessions while maintaining any medication-assisted treatment and you should soon find yourself affected less and less by feelings of shame.
Bottom line, if you are diagnosed with alcohol use disorder or substance use disorder, shame can be a tough obstacle to surmount. Shame can be compounded if you are also grappling with a mental health disorder like anxiety or depression co-occurring with addiction.
The most effective way to fight back is to get help in the form of professional counseling and therapy. By working closely with a therapist, you will learn how to deal with challenging emotions like shame and guilt without buckling and resorting to poor behaviors like substance abuse.