In much of my writing on addiction and self-improvement, I delve deep into my own personal experience. My hope is to connect with and empower others who feel held back in similar ways.
But now I’d like to take a different tact. I’ll be sharing mostly from “the literature” about how to break free from the root pains and shame lurking at the core of entrenched addictions and other limiting behaviors.
Guilt and Shame
First, it’s important to understand that guilt and shame are not the same.
Guilt is based on behavior. When you do something that goes against your conscience, guilt is the regret you feel for what you did.
I might feel guilty for fluffing around on my phone instead of finishing a project. I know I could have finished the project, but chose not to.
Shame is based on character. When you see yourself not acting like the person you believe you should be, shame is the regret you feel for not measuring up.
When you’re ashamed, you don’t believe you could have done any better. Rather, you write yourself off as a failure, unlikeable, hopelessly addicted, etc.
In a USA Today article entitled “Shame, not Guilt Linked to Addiction,” the writer confirms, “Shame is the tendency to feel bad about yourself. Guilt is feeling bad about a specific behavior or action.”
Guilt serves to remind you of the potentially negative consequences of your behavior. It motivates you to make better choices.
By contrast, according to author and psychologist Sidney Callahan, “Shame makes you want to sink into the ground and hide.”
Writer and editor Kim Tranell also says of shame: “You start to feel helpless (and even hopeless), because you know you’ll do it again. You think: ‘Why can’t I stop?’ and, ‘Ugh, I feel so disgusting.’”
Again, guilt alone can be helpful. It shows you which behaviors you wish to change and why.
Since shame is feeling bad about yourself, it really only motivates you to escape (or destroy) yourself.
Shame and Addiction
Consider the obvious connection between wanting to escape yourself and using drugs or engaging in other compulsive behaviors.
Clinical Psychologist Dr. Susan Raeburn confirms, “Shame has been described as the original motivator of self-destructive and addictive behavior as the person experiences him or herself as an object of contempt and needs to disassociate from that experience. Common aftereffects of shame include engaging in distracting, impulsive behaviors to divert one’s attention.”
Callahan writes, “Guilty persons can act to make reparation, but shame cannot be so easily corrected. While the guilty may atone, the ashamed often strike out to save face.”
The same USA Today writer states, “It is important to distinguish between feelings of shame and guilt when providing treatment for substance abuse and in developing substance-abuse prevention programs. It appears that individuals who are prone to shame may turn toward alcohol and other drugs to cope with this emotion. Guilt largely was unrelated to substance use.”
Author, journalist, and broadcaster Leslie Garrett also writes “Addiction is nothing more than an attempt to self-medicate emotional pain.”
I once defined addiction this way: “Addiction is [secretly?] doing what you tell yourself not to.”
Let’s take a moment to consider that little word hidden in brackets: “secretly”
When you feel ashamed and try to escape yourself by engaging in compulsive behaviors, there’s always some measure of self-deception or outright lies involved.
Shame motivates you to hide yourself (or to hide from yourself) as Garrett goes on to explain: “If there’s one constant among addicts of all types, it’s shame. It’s what makes us lie and hide. It’s what keeps us from asking for help—though we don’t think we need it, since we’re also good at lying to ourselves.”
I mean, just do a quick scan through top search results for “signs of addiction.” Addicts are primarily known for being dishonest with themselves and their loved ones about their habits, doing all they can to deny the snow-balling scope of what’s fast consuming their lives. They usually have themselves thoroughly convinced they could “quit anytime” if they needed to.
Shame compels you to lie, run, hide, and do all you can to avoid admitting your inabilities and limitations, for it’s precisely such shortcomings you’re unable to truly face.
To put it simply: You feel ashamed, you run to something self-destructive to avoid the shame, and then you feel even more ashamed because of it. The result is a vicious, deceptive cycle that only ends up binding you more and more to everything you hate and won’t accept about yourself.
Writer and speaker Karen Rabbitt M.S.W. describes her shame cycle this way: “It was the classic addiction cycle: feeling pain, using a substance to numb the pain, feeling shame about using the substance, and then using the substance to numb the pain from the shame. An endless cycle—unless the shame is broken and the original pain is healed.”
Breaking the Cycle
My writing on addiction is about discovering and resolving that original (unique) pain at the base of your individual shame cycles and addictive tendencies.
Yet when it comes to unraveling shame/addiction cycles on a wider scale, we must first remove the shameful stigmas currently associated with addiction across the board.
When you hear words like “addict,” “user,” or “druggy” what pictures come to mind?
We tend to prejudge addicts as irrational, out of control, untrustworthy, dirty underachievers with disease-like habits, doomed to drift forever amongst society’s dregs.
How can we ever hope to break the limiting power of shame that chains people to their addictions if we continue to label and stigmatize addicts as basically human failures?
Research Officer Rebecca Gray writes, “Shame is understood to be compounded by the stigma of drug use and the negative labels applied to clients, such as ‘addict’ or ‘junkie.’ Negative attributes are potentially shaming and, if located in the individual rather than the behavior, can tie the shame to the person.”
12-step programs, for example, though a practically effective prescription for addiction recovery, automatically locate the negative attributes in the individual.
I say 12-steps are practically effective because many have successfully maintained sobriety post addiction by attending meetings and applying the steps.
Yet the 12-steps basically begin with a full embracing of shame as you stand and take ownership of the “addict” label and all it represents.
Once you own your inability to control your addiction, you then rely on the prescription (the steps) to outrun the disease (addiction), which the prescription itself says can’t ever really be cured.
Instead of uncovering and healing the underlying pains at the base of your shame/addiction cycle, prescriptions have you focus solely on how to respond when faced with specific triggers and temptations.
I see great benefit in learning to take responsibility for every aspect of yourself, and in getting gradually better and better at working with all your competing compulsions, desires, motivations, thoughts, etc., all at once.
Diseases aren’t obstacles you improve yourself by learning to overcome, right?
As Gray writes, “Presumably, terms that mobilize the ‘disease model’ offer less scope for helping a client to develop alternative ways of being.”
Since prescription models both foster and stem from the shameful stigmas currently tied to addiction, they render all discussion artificially black-and-white. You’re either a sober, upstanding citizen or a diseased, worthless addict completely incapable of self-control.
See Yourself and Grow
Some might argue that removing shame and negative stigmas would just allow addicts to carry on unhindered, fully giving in to temptation without remorse.
But thinking that way is emblematic of our stigma-driven, disease-and-prescription-model approach to addiction. It reduces the individual to nothing but a powerless host for their substance or behavior to use—a machine driven freely to carry out the whims of some compulsion.
And none of us are driven by only a single force.
Even the worst of addicts still have lives, which they would prefer (all things being equal) to live as well as possible, right?
Remove shame, and the addict is left with only guilt regarding the potential negative consequences of their actions.
I’d argue that only when guilt replaces shame can the person begin working with all the various forces driving them at all times, both harmful and helpful.
The apparent downside: There will surely have to be a lot more guesswork, experimentation, and sensitivity involved if we abandon the simplicity of easy labels and prescriptions.
But I believe the benefits—such as maturity and self-confidence—make that uncertain, unpredictable process entirely worthwhile.
As Gray writes, “Rather than being offered a dichotomous dynamic that labels them as either ‘addicts’ or ‘sober’ citizens, clients could be provided with the opportunity to develop or revise their own sense of morality, should they choose it, based upon their chosen identity and affiliations. This might allow for more nuanced and complex possibilities and prevent predetermined and loaded understandings of the client’s sense of self which are limiting and imbued with negative judgment.”
It’s so easy just to say, “Addicts are bad, and what they do is wrong”; but real empowerment to change and grow begins with a new perspective that can only come from seeing life holistically and objectively over time.
The Power of Your Story
Gray writes, “Given that [clients] offered definitions of ‘addiction’ that often altered as a result of discussion in the interview, it is possible that understandings of drug use can shift to incorporate client narratives and understandings.”
Again, your narrative—your story—is the source of your power to change. As you come to see and share your cumulative understanding and real experience over time, you’re forced to truly face your deepest pains and shame for exactly what they are. You’re unable to ignore why you want to escape (or destroy) yourself, and how much power shame and addiction have over your life.
As you engage in that process, you see yourself actually change. That’s when the power shame has over you breaks.
You still feel guilty when you see yourself doing what you’ve told yourself not to do—for the potential negative consequences of your actions; but along with the guilt, you also have a firm and evolving sense of how to best work with all your compulsions, values, motivations, feelings, interpretations…
No-longer tied to shame, you give yourself the freedom and trust to navigate the grey—to own and work at balancing every shifting aspect of yourself in real time.
Making that process public holds you accountable to it, which solidifies your progress so it’s never lost despite the limitations you know you still must face in turn.
With each passing day, you see yourself becoming a little more the person you’ve always wanted to be.
That sounds like the opposite of shame to me. And the results are the opposite as well.
Callahan, Sidney. “The shaming of America.” Commonweal 125.19 (1998): 8.
Garrett, Leslie. “The addict within: we’re a culture of addicts, says Canadian physician Gabor Mate, whose controversial ideas just might heal us all.” Spirituality & Health Magazine Sept.-Oct. 2012: 72+.
Gray, Rebecca. “Shame, labeling and stigma: challenges to counseling clients in alcohol and other drug settings.” Contemporary Drug Problems Winter 2010: 685+.
Rabbitt, Karen. “‘I was a food addict.’ Could I find support someplace other than my kitchen?” Today’s Christian Woman Jan.-Feb. 2007: 54+.
Raeburn, Susan D. “The ring of fire: shame, fame, and rock ‘n’ roll.” Medical Problems of Performing Artists 22.1 (2007): 3+.
“Shame, not guilt linked to addiction” USA Today [Magazine] Oct. 2005: 12+.
Tranell, Kim. “The secret new eating disorder: we all overdo it one the Oreos sometimes, but more girls than ever say food feels like an addiction they can’t control. Here’s how to stop the cycle.” Seventeen Apr. 2011: 110.