The Role of Shame in Active Addiction

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Shame is a powerful, negative emotion that can undermine an addict's positive efforts toward recovery. What makes shame so painful? Unlike guilt which is based on a judgment of being right or wrong, shame is personal. It tells the sufferer that he or she is bad.

The Difference Between Shame and Guilt

Guilt is an emotion that motivates a person to correct or repair an error and set everything right. Shame, on the other hand, is an intense, all-over feeling of inadequacy, self-loathing and inferiority. This emotion causes the person to want to disappear and never surface again.

Shame brings out such self-descriptions as:

  • I'm a failure.
  • I'm irrelevant.
  • I'm unlovable.
  • I do not deserve happiness.
  • I'm hopelessly flawed.

Shame will ebb away for most people given enough time. But for the addictive personality, it lingers often below the surface of consciousness and leads to other painful feelings and erratic behaviors. When shame becomes all-consuming, spontaneity fades leading to depression, numbness, and a disconnect from others. This leaves drugs and/or alcohol to remain as the abuser’s only friend.

Addiction is a personal phenomenon that involves two failures not common to non-addicts. One is the lack of impulse control regarding pleasure and pleasurable substances, and the other is shame at both this failure and the failure to live up to the standards of the good life an addict aspires to have, free of substance abuse.

The Problem with Hiding

A major problem with shame is that it is so painful that substance abusers hide the feelings even from themselves. So no matter what happens in the person's life, the shame builds upon itself. For example, one common behavior of the shamed person is bullying. The bully tears others down to build him or herself up in order to compensate for their own feelings of inadequacy and inferiority.

Some behavioral psychologists believe that shame leads to more substance abuse, which leads to more shame. Through this, the vicious cycle carries on and is maintained.

Some behavioral psychologists believe that shame leads to more substance abuse which leads to more shame and this vicious circle is carried on and maintained. Overcoming shame, then, is crucial for overcoming addiction. On the other hand, there are other psychologists who believe that shame ultimately forces the addict to attempt to reclaim his life. In this perspective, shame can then be a motivating factor for positive change. However, in order for this to work, the addict must forgive himself and the people around him must understand and forgive as well.

In a study conducted at the University of Connecticut, psychologist Colin Leach and PhD candidate Atilla Cidam discovered that participants who experienced the most shame were less inclined to seek help when they believed their bad habits were irreparable. As an example, they had no way of apologizing to all they may have offended. However, those participants who believed their misdoings could be rectified, were more inclined to seek help and enter recovery.

One conclusion that may be drawn from a multitude of ideas and studies that have been conducted over the years is that addiction, unlike cancer, is not a totally biological disorder, but involves complex psycho-social elements as well. In any case, those involved in any capacity in the addict's life would do well to avoid adding to the addict's personal feelings of shame. Every look or word of disgust aimed at the addict as a person must be eliminated. The addict must always be aware that it is not the person that offends them, but the person's behavior.

If you or someone you know is seeking help from addiction, please visit our directory of treatment centers or call 866-724-4427 to speak to a treatment specialist.

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