Shame and guilt are present in nearly every case of substance abuse and alcoholism and they are powerful and painful emotions that can hinder recovery. We feel shame as a natural emotion that not only affects our behavior, but creates a physiological response to the automatic nervous system. We blush, sweat, tense, hang our heads, avoid eye contact, even get nauseous and dizzy. Shame can be a painful emotion that we will do almost anything to avoid, including seeking help for fear of feeling even more shame in admitting our shortcomings. In your journey for recovery for addiction to drugs and alcohol understanding the root causes of shame and how it will affect you can help you overcome and heal from it.
The Root of Shame
Feelings of shame cause us to feel bad about ourselves, while guilt causes remorse over our actions. Both of these emotions can be caused by behaviors that break social norms and hurt others and our relationships with them. The cognitive model of shame sees the emotion as a self-evaluation in reaction to other’s perception of you and your failure to meet certain rules and standards. Shame can induce negative feelings such as:
- I’m a failure
- I’m unlovable
- I don’t deserve to be happy
- I’m defective
One of our most powerful and instinctual human emotions is attachment to others. From the beginning of human society and family life to the present day, a person is dependent on those around them for support. When that attachment is injured by an action not condoned by the norms of the group, that attachment/relationship is hurt and the offending party feels shame about themselves and guilt about their actions. These negative feelings of shame and guilt can spiral into feeling of anxiety and depression about not being accepted by the group and can lead to avoidance of those around us.
Like most feelings, shame can dissipate as time goes on. For addicts, however, shame can hide beneath the surface and can lead to painful emotions and problematic behaviors. Because of the need of attachment, shame can lead to codependency which is rooted in feelings of inferiority. Codependency can stem from shame’s need to control our surroundings or other’s behavior. The outcome of this control is often perfectionism, guilt, people pleasing, and low self-esteem. This behaviour can also lead to a performance-acceptance trap
where we constantly seek the approval of others through our work or personal successes.
Shame is a painful emotion that we seek to avoid at all costs. Avoidance is the worst way to deal with shame and guilt. In order to heal from shame we must first be aware of its existence and acknowledge that it is a powerful emotion that can negatively affect recovery and healing. Being aware of the root causes of shame can better equip us to confront and unpack the causes of shame in our own lives and how they are hurting us.
Healing from shame requires a safe environment where you can be vulnerable, express your true feelings, and receive acceptance and empathy. We need to create and internalize a new perspective about ourselves and this may require revisiting events in our past that caused the most amount of shame. Once identified, we can understand how these events added to our shame and create a new narrative that can help us better understand the root cause of that shame and how to move on from it.