Recovery from a drug or alcohol addiction often requires addressing the powerful dynamic of shame. But you also can’t really address shame without first understanding where it comes from. That often means exploring how one’s family of origin — in patterns sometimes extending back to very early childhood — may have given rise to and/or perpetuated shame-driven thoughts, feelings and behaviors that in turn supported an addiction. So addressing family-based shame is a critical component of recovery, and what follows is advice for how to do that.
What is Shame?
First, what is shame? Shame is an inherent sense of unworthiness — of not being enough or of not measuring up. “It is the self judging the self,” in the words of Dr. Carol Morgaine, a professor of Child and Family Studies at Portland State University. Morgaine defines shame as “the emotion that occurs when others ridicule, demean, discount, or minimize personal needs, feelings, and sexuality.”
Whereas guilt describes what we might feel when we think we have done something bad or wrong, shame describes what we feel when we think we ourselves are bad or wrong. That’s a helpful distinction that social scientist and bestselling author Brené Brown makes. (Brown is probably best known for her TED Talk on the power of vulnerability, reportedly one of the most successful TED Talks of all time, having drawn millions of online viewers.)
Shame and Addiction in the Family
Family-based shame can often originate in early childhood via the messages we hear as children from parents or other primary caregivers. Some of us can count on our fingers those times when a parent, grandparent or other caregiver in authority spanked us or maybe washed our mouth out with soap. Those experiences can be traumatic enough — but the shaming messages we may have received while growing up are often even more seared into our memory:
- Maybe it was “You should be ashamed of yourself,” in stern, loud tones from a mom who probably received similar messages when she was growing up.
- Maybe it was the impression that your dad’s approval depended on your performance.
- Or maybe how you felt and the emotions you were experiencing at any given time never seemed to matter.
Addiction can amplify these shaming messages emanating from one’s family of origin, even as it can serve as a form of escape from them. And shame, which survives best in locked, dark rooms, can keep a substance use disorder a safely guarded family secret — and, in turn, can mean the difference between getting much-needed treatment and a worsening of the condition.
3 Tips for Addressing Family-Based Shame
On that note, here are three tips for addressing and building “resilience” (a term Brown uses) to family-based shame:
- Call shame out of that dark, locked room. What I mean by that is this: something that is hidden can’t be openly discussed and dealt with. I like to use the analogy of a clay pot here: you can’t shape a ball of clay into a pot by simply staring at the ball of clay without first touching it or moving it between your fingers; but that ball of clay can begin to change form as soon as you begin to touch it.
Similarly, in order to address family-based shame, you’ve got to name it first. Just that slightest “touch” of your fingers on the ball of clay will begin to initiate healthy change. And naming shame — calling it out of that dark, locked room — means talking openly and honestly with one another about when and how you have experienced shame in your family history and life together. By sharing specific times when you have felt shame within your family, you’ll be building greater self-awareness about the presence of shame, so that you can better address it.
- Practice vulnerability with one another. Vulnerability is the honest, direct expression of how you are feeling. When that honest, direct expression of feelings and needs is not there, and when family members hide, disguise, ignore, or discount their emotions, shame only festers, thereby feeding the same cycle of addiction you’re seeking to avoid.
- Practice empathy with one another. Whereas shame is an alienating force, isolating you from your loved ones, empathy can deepen your connection with one another. Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. Practicing empathy therefore means listening attentively to your loved one when they honestly and directly share their needs and feelings with you in a courageous display of vulnerability.
In fact, empathy and vulnerability depend greatly on one another. Someone can’t be consistently vulnerable with you if they don’t have at least some assurance that you care about how they are feeling and are genuinely trying to listen. Similarly, in the absence of another’s show of vulnerability, you won’t find much of an opening in which to empathize.