Shame, Substance Use and Addiction Recovery - Getting Free


Sober Recovery Expert Author

Shame is a powerful, negative emotion that can undermine a person's positive efforts toward addiction recovery. Shame is usually expressed in a combination of depressed emotional states and sometimes confused with guilt.

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 she is bad.

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.

The Difference Between Shame and Guilt

Guilt is an emotion that can motivate you to correct or repair an error and set everything right. On the other hand, Shame is an intense, all-over feeling of inadequacy, self-loathing, and inferiority. This emotion causes the sufferer 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 people who struggle with addiction, shame 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 a person’s only friend.

Addiction is a personal phenomenon that involves two failures not common to people who don't suffer from addiction. 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 one aspires to have, free of substance use.

Why Not To Hide Your Shame

A major problem with shame is that it is so painful that people hide the feelings even from themselves. So no matter what happens in the sufferer'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 to compensate for their own feelings of inadequacy and inferiority.

Shame is often a lingering component of addiction. Many people who struggled with addiction, have done things they're not proud of to sustain that addiction. Some of these acts are truly horrific and terrifying, and sometimes disgusting to admit. While many have done things of which they are not proud, shame steps outside that realm into a deeper place and relates heavily to the often-diagnosed “low self-esteem” of the newly recovering person.

One of the ways a person can work through their sense of shame in recovery is to hear from others the things that they were willing to do or did during their addiction, which lessens the impact. When shared, this sense of being wrong as a human endeavor can be slowly disintegrated, and one can start to see themselves as fit for the process of recovery.

Shame and Substance Use: A Vicious Cycle

Some behavioral psychologists believe that shame leads to more substance use, leading to more shame, and this vicious circle is carried on and maintained. Overcoming shame, then, is crucial for overcoming addiction. On the other hand, other psychologists believe that shame ultimately forces people to reclaim their lives. In this perspective, shame can then be a motivating factor for positive change. However, for this to work, the person 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 Ph.D. 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 who believed their misdoings could be rectified were more inclined to seek help and enter recovery.

One conclusion that you may draw from a multitude of ideas and studies conducted over the years is that addiction, unlike cancer, is not a totally biological disorder but involves complex psycho-social elements. In any case, those involved in any capacity in the life of a person who struggles with addiction would do well to avoid adding to their personal feelings of shame. You must eliminate every look or word of disgust aimed at the addicted person. The addicted person must always be aware that it is not them that offends the people in their lives, but their behavior.

If you or someone you know is seeking help from addiction, please visit our directory of treatment centers or call 800-768-5069 to speak to a treatment specialist.

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