The Importance of Overcoming Shame in Addiction
We work an addiction treatment program, we learn the coping skills of long-term emotional sobriety, we grapple with some of our long-term traumas. If we still struggle with shame in addiction recovery, that’s not a big deal right? Wrong.
How internalized blame and guilt can derail our addiction recovery:
The Seeds of Addiction
While it is unclear whether the relationship between shame and addictive behaviors is causal, studies do show that those who experience high levels of guilt and internalized blame are more susceptible to substance use disorders (Rahim & Patton, 2015). The weight we carry around from childhood and the unkind voices in our heads may lead to some of the self-medicating behaviors that lead to addiction.
This can culminate in a vicious cycle: our active addiction causes behaviors that make us ashamed of ourselves, leading to increased use of drugs or alcohol to help us feel better. Our increasingly low self-esteem can also predict long-term mental health disorders like anxiety or depression, leading to eventual dual-diagnosis/co-occurring disorders. Unfortunately, this can be compounded when it impacts our support systems.
Long-term Damage to Support Systems
When we have chronically low self-perception, we accept treatment from others that we might not otherwise. What this means in practice is that we may fall into cycles of abuse from partners. This is especially true for women or those in sexual minorities.
This can also spiral into run-ins with the law, and further damage to previous support systems like family and friends, and further degrade our relationship with ourselves. Studies have shown that cycles of self-hatred increase our chances of distance and rifts from support systems, which in turn leads to increased levels of substance use.
Re-learning how to establish healthy boundaries with others is difficult during anyone’s addiction recovery. It is doubly difficult if you are still ashamed of who you are and what you may have done during active addiction.
Chronic Relapse and Shame in Addiction
More relevant for maintaining addiction recovery is the necessity of relapse prevention. Shame has been shown to devastate our efforts at maintaining sobriety. One study found that participants in recovery from alcoholism were up to 4 times more likely to relapse and drink if they expressed large amounts of shame in their conversations. Other studies have found that levels of shame were able to accurately predict which members of AA were more likely to relapse. (Luoma et al., 2018)
Emotional sobriety means creating a life you can be proud of and cultivating unshakeable self-love. When we lose sight of that love for ourselves and begin to judge ourselves or think of ourselves as lesser than, we begin to let our self-care routines slip. Doing so puts us at great risk for emotional relapse, which is the first stage of physical relapse.
In short, when we already have a low self-image, it is much easier to rationalize a “slip” that can knock us into a vicious relapse cycle.
If we accept that shame is ultimately harmful to our continued sobriety, how do we conquer shame?
Seek an Addiction Therapist
You may have heard us recommend this before, but finding the right therapist really will make a world of difference in how you identify where shame comes from in your life and address it. There have been several studies on the benefits of compassion therapy, and the results are very promising. (Felver, 2013) Proper therapy has been shown to help reduce not only our shame but our risk of relapse, which is the main concern.
Ultimately, what works will differ from person to person, but being able to work through shame with someone who can see you more clearly and who can give you some tools to love yourself better is never a bad idea.
Find someone who can help you find why you feel shame and reshape your self-image.
Find Your Recovery Posse
One of the wonderful things about support groups is the ability to share yourself and your history with people who have had similar circumstances. Sharing can help you realize that you are not your past, and you don’t have to be defined by your active addiction experiences.
Even an online community with whom you can share can be helpful. The goal here is to recognize that even though other people have had similar experiences, they are not bad people, and neither are you. Peers can also be a great source of inspiration and a sense of belonging.
Finding a tribe of people who are along the same addiction recovery journey as you can be the difference between viewing yourself as a bad person who made bad choices and viewing yourself as part of a community that struggles with addiction. If hearing it from a stranger on the internet is helpful to you: “You are not a bad person. You have a substance use disorder, and you can get better.”
Why We Care about Shame in Addiction Recovery
In short, shame can secretly undermine our addiction recovery. Negative self-perception has been shown to make people more likely to suffer from addiction, damage relationships, and be a predictor of relapse.
We can fight off shame in many of the same ways that we fight addiction–find a therapist who works for you, and find a community of people who will love and support you, and show you that you don’t need to feel guilt for what may have occurred in your active addiction.
If you need help fighting active addiction and shame, feel free to contact us.
Felver, J. C. (2013). Steven C. Hayes & Michael E. Levin (Eds.): Mindfulness & Acceptance for Addictive Behaviors: Applying Contextual CBT to Substance Abuse & Behavioral Addictions. Mindfulness, 5(1), 1–354. https://doi.org/10.1007/s12671-013-0220-z
Luoma, J. B., Guinther, P. M., Lawless DesJardins, N. M., & Vilardaga, R. (2018). Is shame a proximal trigger for drinking? A daily process study with a community sample. Experimental and Clinical Psychopharmacology, 26(3), 290–301. https://doi.org/10.1037/pha0000189
Rahim, M., & Patton, R. (2015). The association between shame and substance use in young people: a systematic review. PeerJ, 3, e737. https://doi.org/10.7717/peerj.737