How to Minimize Shame in Your Addiction and Recovery
It’s commonly a contributor to addiction and an enemy to recovery. Discover what it is and how to beat it:
The National Institute on Drug Abuse notes in its official advice on maintaining abstinence: “Addiction invariably produces feelings of shame and guilt … Individuals … may not feel worthy or deserving of recovery.” Often, they suffered from chronic shame before ever becoming addicted: feelings of worthlessness are a key factor in triggering many cases of substance abuse.
Where shame is reduced, people become more likely to seek help for addiction and more likely to respond to treatment. This article looks at ways to minimize shame in addiction and recovery.
SHAME OR GUILT?
While “I feel guilty” and “I’m ashamed of myself” are often used synonymously, psychologists recognize a difference between shame and guilt. Guilt says “I did something wrong.” Shame says, “I am inherently defective.” Since it’s easier to make amends for individual deeds than to overhaul one’s basic nature, people who feel shame have a harder time committing to change or convincing themselves it would even work.
If you see yourself as “weak,” “a failure,” “a born loser,” “selfish,” “bad” or anything similar, changing that self-image is a vital part of addiction recovery. Otherwise, even if you get clean from drugs, the shame will remain to increase your risk of relapse. It’s important to accept your limitations and weaknesses, but if you focus only on your weak spots, you learn to identify with them until it feels there is nothing else to you. And if this fault-ridden persona is the inherent “you,” what’s the use in trying to get rid of it—and what would you have left if you did?
Symptoms of a shame-based self-image that needs therapy:
- Talking about your shortcomings with negative emphasis, labeling them inherently “bad” or saying you “shouldn’t” be that way
- Regularly working to the point of exhaustion, and still never feeling you’ve done enough
- Starting every project with thoughts of “I’ll probably fail,” combined with wild imaginings of worst-case scenarios
- Noticing every tiny imperfection in your best efforts
- Brushing off or contradicting compliments
- Difficulty saying “no” to any request—and experiencing lingering guilt when you do say “no”
Ironically, many people living shame-based lives are great achievers, driven by the misconception they have to be 100% flawless and complete, because the sole alternative is being a big zero.
OFTEN, SOCIETY IS NO HELP
For those with substance addiction, shame is compounded by having a problem that society treats as a fault. Though many genetic and neurobiological factors are involved in determining whether “casual” use becomes addiction, most outside observers see only that substances are imbibed by apparent voluntary action.
The good news is, the tendency to blame the addict has lessened in the 21st century: a 2006 Gallup Poll survey found that 75% of Americans who had family members with addiction agreed it was a disease and not simply a character defect. Nonetheless, about half the people who recognized addiction in their families admitted to still feeling “a sense of shame,” and society still leans toward expecting people to overcome addiction by personal willpower. Government researchers report that nearly 21 million Americans struggle with substance abuse (more than have cancer), yet only 10% are getting any treatment.
And even when addiction treatment is obtained, it’s not always shame-free. Patients who are arrested for drug offenses and involuntarily committed to overcrowded state-run programs run particular risk of being berated, threatened or expected to “tough out” withdrawal symptoms. Other patients, with limited funds and insurance, make treatment-center decisions based solely on “what they can afford,” without otherwise evaluating the quality of care.
Evaluate potential treatment programs with these questions:
- Do they respect patients as individuals?
- Do they keep high staff-to-patient ratios?
- Do they show understanding of the “illness” element of addiction, and of a variety of treatment options?
- Do they have licensed M.D.s and psychiatrists on staff?
- Do they offer financial assistance to pay for treatment?
- Do they encourage patients’ families to stay involved throughout detox and rehab?
- Are patients free to interact with and support each other?
Sacrilegious as it sounds, even organized 12 Steps programs can foster shame. There is, of course, nothing inherently shameful in admitting inability to cope without help, in being honest about one’s struggles or in making amends to persons one has wronged. In most cases, these approaches reduce shame by helping members understand they don’t have to be perfect and there’s always hope of making things better. However, a poorly managed program can do more harm than good if it lays too much emphasis on avoiding and correcting mistakes, without regard for members’ individual struggles.
HOW TO MINIMIZE SHAME
So, to best nurture your recovery, choose a support group with an atmosphere that is encouraging, empathetic and kind. And suspend relationships with any acquaintances who feed your shame through emotional abuse. Associate with people who are optimistic and are supportive without being enablers.
Other hints for minimizing shame in addiction recovery:
- When making a “searching and fearless” self-inventory as noted in Step 4 of the 12 Steps, include your positive attributes—and remember that not all weaknesses are faults.
- Accept your limitations and don’t feel guilty for not pushing them at every turn. Understand that “nobody’s perfect” (or should be expected to be) applies to you.
- Affirm your positive qualities regularly.
- Accept compliments. Never dispute a kind word.
- Keep a journal of your victories, no matter how small they seem. Reread old entries when you start to feel discouraged.
- Stay mindful, concentrating on what is and not always thinking about what should
- Practice positive language. Say “challenge” rather than “problem,” “learning experience” rather than “failure.” This isn’t denial: it’s simply putting life’s inevitable tests into better perspective.
- Do everything you can to avoid relapse—but if a relapse does happen, don’t let shame keep you from returning to sobriety.
- Be fully open with your support group about your struggles and mistakes. This is one place where you shouldn’t have to worry about repercussions—and where you should be able to count on help putting any false guilt into perspective.
- Remember that “making amends” doesn’t mean punishing yourself. The point is to restore as best you can whatever the other party lost—including the trust and closeness of your relationship.
- Accept forgiveness when it’s offered. Forgive yourself as well.
- Take the initiative in showing kindness, consideration and empathy to others—because you want to, not because you feel obligated. Never mind whether you can “solve” their problems: as any support group knows, often the best help is a quiet listening ear.
- Develop new interests that strengthen your body and brain.
Note to those who have loved ones in addiction or recovery:
If you feel an intervention is necessary, seek professional advice to keep the intervention free of personal accusations that could impose additional shame.
If your loved one is in recovery, be a fellow participant and be supportive in whatever ways the situation requires—and never make an issue of “what if someone outside the family finds out?” To truly minimize shame, it’s essential to accept the situation as is—and then work on improving it.
NPR. “Shame, Guilt Pose Significant Hurdles for Those Recovering from Addiction.” All Things Considered, July 15, 2017. Accessed August 1, 2017.
Taughinbaugh, Cathy. “4 Life-Changing Ways to Release the Shame of Addiction.” CathyTaughinbaugh.com. Accessed August 1, 2017.