Shame is a major factor in addiction. It often plays a role in developing addiction in the first place. A large percentage of people with substance use disorders have had experiences they’re deeply ashamed of. These typically include physical, emotional, or sexual abuse—usually as children, but often as adults, as well. Although these are not the victims’ fault, victims usually feel like they are at fault and that they are inherently bad. Drugs and alcohol often become an easy way to temporarily relieve the memories and emotions related to abuse; therefore, substance use often becomes a problem.
People who develop substance use issues may also do things while actively addicted that they feel ashamed of, compounding their already existing shame. All this shame can make recovery from addiction much harder. You don’t want to open up about it and you wonder if you even deserve to be happy. Coping with shame should be a priority in treatment or therapy and it’s likely something you will have to keep working on for a while. The following are some tips for coping with shame.
Acknowledge What You Feel
The real power of shame comes from keeping it hidden, sometimes even from ourselves. When you’re ashamed of something, the natural reflex is to bury it, but that only makes it worse. The first step in coping with shame is to acknowledge what you’re feeling. Several studies have found that just acknowledging emotions can minimize the negative impact they have on you. One study found that participants who were more accepting of their emotions were less likely to develop symptoms of depression following stressful situations. Acknowledging and accepting your feelings of shame are the first steps in the process of letting it go.
Distinguish Shame from Guilt
When you feel shame, it may be mixed up with other emotions, most commonly, guilt. Shame and guilt feel similar, but they are different in important ways. Guilt is a useful emotion that indicates we need to correct some behavior. For example, you might feel guilty that you forgot your mom’s birthday, and that guilt can prod you to apologize and make it up to her. Guilt itself is unpleasant, but it can lead us to improve our behavior.
Shame, on the other hand, is not the feeling that you did something bad, but that you are bad. You can feel guilty while understanding that everyone makes mistakes. However, shame is a judgment on your own inherent value. This actually stands in the way of improving your behavior, because you have a fixed idea of yourself as broken or corrupted. You may feel like you don’t even deserve to be happy or to be treated with kindness.
Pay Attention to Your Inner Dialog
The main insight of cognitive-based therapies, which are the most commonly used forms of therapy today, is that we are distressed by what we tell ourselves, not by what actually happens to us. Our thoughts, beliefs, and assumptions have a much bigger effect on our emotional lives than most of us realize. Furthermore, if you struggle with shame, you likely have certain triggers. For women, those triggers are usually around body image and for men, those triggers are usually around weakness.
So, for example, you might feel overwhelmed by shame because you were laid off at work. While that’s certainly inconvenient, it’s nothing to be ashamed of or even something to feel guilty about. It’s just something that happens. However, if you get laid off, you may be telling yourself something like, “I’m useless,” “I’m incompetent,” “I can’t provide for my family,” and so on. These thoughts are what really fuel your feelings of shame, and they make the whole situation worse than it needs to be, possibly even leading to drug or alcohol use.
Challenge Unhelpful Thoughts
We often don’t notice these thoughts that mediate between our circumstances and emotions, but they’re usually there if you look for them. A practice like mindfulness meditation can help you become more sensitive to what’s going on in your mind. When you are able to identify these troubling thoughts, the next step is to see if they’re really accurate. There are many common cognitive errors that seem superficially compelling but fall apart when you look at them closely, including overgeneralizations, jumping to conclusions, mind reading, and black-and-white thinking.
Thoughts like “I’m useless,” or “I’m incompetent” are great for kicking yourself while you’re down, but they don’t often hold up to scrutiny. For example, you can probably think of several useful things you’re good at and you probably know competent people who have been laid off.
Connect with People Who Understand
The final step in coping with shame is to get it out in the open. This means connecting with people who understand. In the context of addiction, these will often be the people in treatment, group therapy, or 12-Step meetings. These are places where there is no judgment and many people there will have had the same experiences. Opening up to a group can be intimidating at first, but many people find it liberating to discover they aren’t alone in what they’ve been feeling.
These aren’t your only options, either. You can make an effort to be more open with anyone you trust. We typically vastly overestimate how terrible it would be for someone close to us to learn what we’re ashamed of. The result is typically compassion, or at worst indifference. If you aren’t quite ready to open up to friends or family, therapy is a good option.
Your therapist is legally required to keep what you say confidential and they can help you work through the shame. If you’re not yet to the point where you feel like you can talk to your therapist about it, try writing about it. That will help you understand what you’re feeling more clearly and give you a sense of control over it.
Shame is a corrosive emotion, and it can stand in the way of someone even seeking help for a substance use or mental health issue. The important thing to remember is that shame grows in the dark. The better you are able to acknowledge, accept, and share whatever you’re ashamed of, the less shame will control your life.
At Hired Power, we know that recovery from addiction is an ongoing process. We provide services to help you create a plan for recovery and carry it through, including case management, sober assistants, sober monitoring, and more. For more information, call us today at 800.910.9299.