People who struggle with addictive behaviors are usually quite familiar with shame. Although you can’t tangibly see or touch shame, it’s a constant companion for many who are battling addictions. In fact, shame puts you at greater risk for relapse once recovery has begun. What is shame and why is it so potent?
Shame vs. Guilt
To clearly define shame, we need to distinguish it from guilt. Guilt is a natural feeling that follows a mistake or a poor choice. For example, say you were harsh with a co-worker over a simple error they made on a project you were both working on. Shortly after the incident, you feel badly for how you behaved. What you feel is guilt. You said things you regret, you made a mistake. That mistake can be repaired by apologizing and talking it out with your co-worker.
In contrast, shame is the feeling of being inadequate or defective as a person. Common mistakes are interpreted as a sign of your own incompetence or lack of intelligence. After the harsh words spoken to your co-worker, shame might prompt you to request a transfer to another department or find a new job. You want to hide or disappear. You feel exposed because others can see your flaws, which you work so hard to conceal.
Guilt has a built-in motivation to correct or repair the error in behavior. Shame usually results in self-loathing, feelings of inferiority, and persistent thoughts that you don’t measure up to those around you. Guilt propels you to engage with others to correct the wrong. Shame typically causes you to isolate from others to minimize the embarrassment or humiliation you feel.
How Shame Feeds the Addictive Cycle
Addictive behavior almost always has a shame element and commonly works like this: You have normal life stressors such as your job, financial worries, relationship problems and more. These stressors become overwhelming and prompt strong emotion, such as anxiety or depression that you don’t know how to handle. Because of this, you self-medicate with alcohol, drugs, food, or other addictive behaviors to help you cope.
The more you repeat this cycle, the less control you feel over your life and the more hopeless and disappointed you become with your inability to handle these life pressure without turning to your addiction. Other people try to help you, but each time you promise to quit and fail, the shame strengthens. Shame now has a death grip on your life. You seriously question whether you have the ability to break free.
Ways to Combat Shame
But there’s good news: Shame isn’t the final word. You can push back and reclaim those parts of your life if you’re willing to do the work. Here are five ways to identify and combat the shame that seems to control you:
- Identify your shame. The first and most important step is to identify shame when it rears its ugly head. For example, let’s say you’re running late to work one morning and accidently drop the glass container of orange juice on your kitchen floor. You reflexively start cursing at yourself saying how “stupid” you are. Here is where you push the pause button to answer this question: Are you really stupid or did you simply make a mistake? Shame says you’re stupid and that’s why you have made such a mess. Objectively speaking, you made a mistake. Yes, it’s a mess and you’re going to be late for work. But this is the first critical step: You must be able to recognize when shame pops up, call it what it is (shame), and refuse to feed it with negative self-talk.
- Accept your limitations. Another important way to combat shame is to accept your limitations as a human being. You’re not perfect and never will be. You’ve made mistakes in your life — everyone has. Some of these mistakes inevitably involve your addictive behavior. Shame tells you that you’ve made a wreck of your life and that you’ll never be good enough. But you must focus your energy on repairing the mistakes that can be mended and give up the dream of perfection.
- Redefine your self-worth. When your cycle of addiction has a long history, it’s easy to define yourself as an “addict” or a “loser.” Shame anchors you to the past and defines your self-worth by all of the missed opportunities, broken promises and failed attempts in your life. But your self-worth isn’t based on what you’ve done or failed to do if you take full responsibility for those choices and commit yourself to positive change. This is where new hope lies.
- Challenge shame-based thoughts. Because shame relentlessly creeps into your way of thinking, you need to constantly challenge shame-based thoughts. For example, take any significant goal you have for your life, such as getting a new job. If you listen closely to the shame-based thinking, you’ll hear a voice saying, “You’ll never land a decent-paying job.” When you hear that voice, you must begin to challenge those thoughts by asking questions such as:
- Is this shame-based thinking?
- What lies am I telling myself?
- What would my life look like if I were to let go of this thought?
- What do I need to do to help move in the right direction?
- Take action to push against the shame. Your final step it to take action. Shame can only be pushed to the side if you do something tangible to overtake the ground that it’s claimed in your life. For example, say that you’ve recently relapsed. You want to get back into recovery, but you feel ashamed. If you do nothing, you strengthen the shame and the addictive behavior. If you push against the shame in this situation, it means reaching out for help.
By taking action, you’re putting all five shame-combating principles together at one time: identifying shame, accepting that you’re not perfect, establishing that you’re worth saving, and challenging your distorted thoughts. Do this over and over again in different situations and you’ll be on your way to breaking free from a shame-based life.