One of the hardest things about dealing with addiction is the overwhelming sense of shame that often comes with it.
You feel shame for getting in this situation and for not being able to get out of it on your own. You might even be afraid of the shame you’ll feel if someone finds out about your addiction.
Shame can cripple you.
Shame can prevent you from reaching out to a sympathetic friend.
It can stop you from calling a treatment center that can help you.
It can make it impossible to admit you have a problem.
When left unchecked, shame can feel as if it’s consuming your entire body. It can be a darkness that spreads over you and shuts out the light, preventing you from seeing hope or finding a way out of your situation.
Somewhere along the line, you messed up. You made a mistake. You probably made several mistakes to get you to where you are now. The shame of making these mistakes can get so big that it paralyzes you.
Shame prevents many addicts from receiving treatment. It often feels easier to stay stuck in addiction than to confront the burden of shame, even when substance use is ruining your life.
Do you feel shame or guilt while trying to overcome your addiction?
That’s actually a good sign. The shame you feel means you recognize your mistakes. It means you genuinely want to change.
Shame vs. Guilt
Telling the difference between shame and guilt can be difficult. As a society, we often use the words interchangeably. We say, “I feel ashamed,” or, “I feel guilty,” about bad things that are happening in our lives. But what do they mean?
They’re both uncomfortable and unpleasant, but they aren’t quite the same thing.
Guilt is our conscience telling us we’ve done something wrong. It focuses on the action we’ve taken. If guilt were a phrase, it would be, “I did something bad.”
Shame focuses inward. It takes that guilt and translates it into a statement about yourself. If shame were a phrase, it would be, “I am bad.”
Guilt can even be used to your advantage. If you feel bad about something you’ve done, that guilt can motivate you to change. Recognizing a bad behavior is the first step to trying to change it. If you don’t see that something is bad, you probably won’t be motivated to make different choices. Guilt might be an appropriate response to recognizing your addiction has caused serious issues for you and the people around you.
Shame, on the other hand, only hurts you. It takes guilt and makes it a personal statement about yourself. With substance use this can create a toxic cycle of feeling bad because of your behavior, then repeating the behavior to try to feel better. Shame runs you into the ground and prevents you from changing what’s happening. By recognizing when you feel shame, you can separate yourself from your actions and start the process of recovery.
Why Some People Get Trapped in Shame
Different people experience shame differently. That sounds obvious, but it’s important. One person might feel ashamed about behavior during a blackout. They apologize, make amends, then move on. Another person might feel ashamed about a similar behavior, but can’t face it. They might isolate themselves and avoid the people involved. They simply can’t let go of that sick, humiliating feeling.
If you were raised by parents who used shame as a tool for punishment you may be more prone to turn momentary shame into an overall feeling that you’re fundamentally and irrevocably flawed. You may feel there is no hope for redemption. This type of persistent shame may come from low self-esteem and a lack of resilience. It’s common to people with a history of what mental health professionals call Adverse Childhood Experiences, or ACEs.
When it comes to addiction, how you view yourself can prevent you from getting the help you need. If you think you don’t deserve help, or think you’re incapable of shaking your substance use, that makes it hard to recover. Again, you must separate the behavior that made you feel shame from who you are as a person. The very fact you felt shame at all means you are clearly someone who cares about your behavior.
Unhealthy and Healthy Ways of Dealing with Shame
There are many ways you can deal with shame. Some of them are helpful, while others only cause more problems.
The worst thing you can do is let shame prevent you from seeking help and treatment.
The best thing you can do is break the cycle and try to change what made you feel ashamed in the first place.
Think of it this way:
Your mind gets caught in a cycle of shame. You feel ashamed because you can’t stop using. You feel like you’re a bad person because you can’t stop doing this thing that you know is incredibly harmful. Then you use again to bury the feelings of shame, which only magnifies those feelings.
So what are you going to do about it?
Start by changing the words you use. Start by changing how you frame your experience.
You can change “I’m worthless,” to “My substance use has put me in terrible situations and harmed by self-worth. If I deal with it, I can improve my life.”
You can change “No one will ever trust me again” to “My behavior has caused people not to trust me. If I take the first step to change my behavior, I can rebuild trust.”
Granted, not everyone will forgive and forget, but there are some people in your life who will love you and support you on your journey positive change. And if those people aren’t in your life now, you’ll find them in recovery.
Every time you start beating yourself up, recognize the feeling for what it is and ask yourself this question:
“What can I do to change this?”
Chances are you can’t quit cold turkey, so be realistic. What can you do to change this? You can reach out and get professional help, build a community of support, and start the journey to a better life.
Help is out there.
You can put the shame aside and take the first step.