Co-written by Karen Doll, Ph.D. and Rachel Beckstead, BA.
What is shame? At it’s core, shame is a catalyst that ignites and reinforces destructive and addictive behavior. It is an isolating and debilitating emotion that stands in the way of our desire to seek help when we need it the most. Shame lies outright and teaches us that we have to do all things on our own, that we cannot be helped, that we are only capable of letting others down, or that we do not deserve to be helped. Shame is even powerful enough to create in our minds the extreme and false belief that we are unworthy, unlovable, or undeserving of love.
While almost everyone will experience shame at some point in their lives, some of us are able to shake it off and healthily re-frame the way we view ourselves and our experiences. But what about those of us who can’t do this as easily because shame has become an ingrained way of thinking? What happens when we consistently face shame?
Shame Is A Natural, Yet Unhealthy Reaction
As humans, we have an amazingly strong instinctual desire to run away from things or emotions that are uncomfortable or hard. This reaction is our brain’s natural defense mechanism kicking in. This same mechanism kicks in when we face the extremely uncomfortable emotional and even physiological pain caused by shame.
Because this pain is often unbearable, some turn to drugs, alcohol, or other addictive or abusive behaviors as a way to relieve it. Unfortunately, that relief is fleeting and these behaviors only mask and perpetuate the hurt rather than treat or resolve it.
The Difference Between Shame And Guilt
While feelings of guilt and shame both tend to stem from actions or decisions that we are not proud of, shame comes from within, and is generally based on feelings of inadequacy directly focused on ourselves.
Shame needs 3 things to grow exponentially in our lives: secrecy, silence, and judgement … it will creep into every corner and crevice of your life …. shame cannot survive empathy … shame depends on me buying into the belief that I’m alone.– Brenè Brown
For instance, maybe we just did something we regret or feel bad about. Guilt will allow us to recognize the mistake as a temporary lapse in judgement, make amends and self correction, and then move forward. In many ways, guilt can be a healthy emotion, one that causes us to examine behavior we are not proud of and inspire us to make changes in our lives or to seek to right wrongs.
Shame, on the other hand, looks much different and is more difficult to alleviate. It stems from the belief that we were bound to make this mistake and makes us feel as if we are inherently bad, weak, or lacking. In all of its forms, shame is unhealthy and makes people feel unmotivated and debilitated, as if they are unable to change their actions and outcomes because of consistently proven personal flaws.
Shame and Guilt Are Inversely Related
In an interview on the Oprah Winfrey Network, Dr. Brene Brown, Ph.D., makes a fantastic distinction between shame and guilt and discusses how studies have shown that shame is “highly correlated with addiction, depression, eating disorders, violence, bullying, and aggression.”
Guilt on the other hand, she says, “[is] inversely correlated with those [behaviors]. People who are able to really change the self talk and believe it have far better outcomes on all those measures.”
Dr. Brown says the difference between guilt and shame is the difference between saying, ‘I did something bad’ and ‘I am bad’, or ‘I’m sorry, I made a mistake’ and ‘I’m sorry, I am a mistake’.
In her interview, Dr. Brown gives an all too relatable example of guilt and shame.
I drank too much on Thursday night. I’m so hung over Friday, that I get to work, I miss a meeting, and my self talk is, ‘God, I’m an idiot, I’m such a loser’ … shame … ‘I’m an idiot, I’m a loser.’ Same scenario, I get to work but my self talk is, ‘that was a really stupid thing to do. I wasn’t thinking.’
So the focus [is] on self verses the focus on behavior … is this linguistics, is this a pet peeve, what’s the deal? This is serious! We measure shame and guilt in people by how they talk to themselves. What are the messages? How do they speak to themselves?
Watch this part of the interview with Dr. Brown on Why Guilt is Better Than Shame.
Shame Cannot Survive Exposure, Community, or Empathy
Another valuable thing to remember about shame is that shame needs to be brought out in the open and discussed because it cannot survive being exposed or invalidated by empathy and compassion. In this same interview with Oprah, Dr. Brown continues to define shame by saying,
We all have it … [its] the intensely, painful felling that we are unworthy and unlovable …. shame is lethal. I think shame is deadly. and I think we are swimming in it deep …. here’s the bottom line with shame, the less you talk about it, the more you’ve got it.
Shame needs 3 things to grow exponentially in our lives: secrecy, silence, and judgement … it will creep into every corner and crevice of your life …. shame cannot survive empathy … shame depends on me buying into the belief that I’m alone.
Watch the second segment of the interview with Dr. Brene Brown about Why Shame is Lethal.
Shame And Self Worth
Feelings of shame can foster a sense of low self worth, making sufferers feel that they are simply not worth the effort to fix or change and that they will never measure up to the perfection they see in those around them. They put others on a imaginary pedestal of perfection that they themselves don’t feel capable of measuring up to and then ridicule themselves with demeaning and harmful self-talk for not meeting those standards.
While shame can cause someone to spiral into addiction, it also has the power to keep them there.
Feelings of shame can also be a barrier to self help, as many people who struggle with substance abuse or addiction issues don’t see themselves as worthy of help or attention. They can also feel anxious about and incapable of facing the discomfort that is required to uncover the emotions or trauma that have driven their addiction.
The Shame Cycle
While shame can cause someone to spiral into addiction, it also has the power to keep them there. The shame of being an addict continually feeds them back into a perpetuating negative shame cycle. This cycle puts distance between those around them and deters them from making truthful observations about their negative behavior and what is really driving it.
Instead of ‘I need help’ and ‘if I seek help, I can learn how to stop my addiction,’ people think things like, ‘I don’t deserve help or I can’t be helped, maybe this is just who I am.’ This belief can be extremely damaging, and it’s why many addiction treatment programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous and other 12 Step Programs encourage honest and hopeful personal reflection along with the admission that not all personal shortcomings can or should be dealt with alone.
Shame And Codependency
In relationships between addicts there comes a level of codependency or co-addiction that actively impedes getting help and finding recovery.
Focusing solely on the needs of another person can help to temporarily blot out personal feelings of shame and is an addiction of it’s own. This behavior diverts a codependent addict’s energy into the endless black hole of another addict’s destructive behavior and further isolates them from the rest of the world. It also skews their view of what a normal, healthy relationship should be like. Addicts in codependent relationships often find it difficult to see themselves existing outside the context of the other person, and this unhealthy dependence makes it harder for the addict to move away from substance abuse.
How Shame Blocks and Limits Recovery
Recovery from addiction requires people to accept that they are viewing themselves incorrectly, and, more importantly, that they deserve to get better and experience life from a healthy perspective.
Being mired down by shame can convince people that life will never get better because there will always be something fundamentally wrong with them. This is a lie. People may also be ashamed or embarrassed of their need for help, making it difficult to tell family or friends that they are struggling or feeling utterly alone. Shame can also make it hard to be truthful and fully transparent with support groups, counselors, and medical personnel, thereby blocking some of the healthiest and most successful routes to recovery and sobriety.
How To Leave Shame Behind
Shame is very much a prison of its own making, and the recognition of it and the realization that you don’t deserve to be in that prison is one that can be hard to reach. The first step towards recovering from shame is to find enough courage inside to allow yourself to acknowledge it and lovingly admit to yourself that you have a problem; and a treatable one at that. Next, tell someone you trust about it. Talk about your shame and start to enjoy what it feels like to overcome your fears of being ridiculed or rejected. At this point you should start to feel some level of relief and lightness. Then keep pushing forward and find a way to seek external, professional help in changing and eliminating your shaming self-talk.
Connecting, reconnecting, honestly speaking your feelings to other people, making a conscious effort to have more empathy with yourself, changing the way you talk to yourself, and getting help will allow you see shame for the horrible lie that it is. You are not stuck. You are strong, capable, and shame does not deserve to drag you into destructive thoughts or behaviors.
If shame is fueling substance abuse and you want professional help to learn how to stop it, we want to help. Contact The Addiction Advisor and learn more about what options you have. Call 1-800-259-1361.