Shame, Guilt and Addiction

A new study in Clinical Psychological Science confirms and lends proof to what many of us in the addiction field have known for years: shame can be a powerful barrier to recovery. The study, conducted by two psychologists at the University of British Columbia looked at the impact shame and guilt has on alcoholics in recovery.  Among the things they wanted to explore was whether behavioral displays of shame predicted whether recovering alcoholics would relapse in the future. The more shame addicts felt about their drinking, the more likely they would relapse. While those who only had feelings of guilt were less likely to relapse. Their findings demonstrate that shame-related behaviors may be predictors of relapse for those in recovery.  It is important to distinguish between these two emotions. Guilt meaning “I did something bad.” Shame interpreted and internalized as “I am bad.”

Shame is one of the most powerful and destructive emotions we humans experience. The genesis of shame can take many forms: abuse or neglect from parents, bullying by classmates, or negative messaging from society about our race, color, or sexual orientation. We live in a shame-based culture. To one degree or another we’ve all been shamed along the way.  Receiving consistent negative messaging and behaviors can lead to deep psychic wounds.

We humans internalize these negative messages leading to a negative self-perception. We may see ourselves as “bad”, ”defective”, or “unworthy.” The depression and anxiety that these internal messages trigger are not emotions most of us would want to reflect upon. So we seek escape: alcohol, drugs, gambling, sex, exercise, and the list goes on. Our negative self-concept can lead us to accept relationships in which we are not loved or appreciated and jobs where we are not acknowledged. Shame presents itself in insidious, unconscious ways through our body language, our thoughts, and the sensations in our physical selves.

Shame also has a positive, healthy purpose in our lives. Healthy shame is triggered when we commit a moral violation–shameful situations we create. For example a person commits a crime, and then to the extent that the person still has a conscience, the healthy, internal message is: “I did something I am ashamed of.” Perhaps this will lead the person to correct or make amends for the crime. We do not want to do things that would embarrass or ostracize us. Shame can serve as an internal steering wheel in the traffic of human relationships. If we feel shame or embarrassment, we acknowledge that we were disrespectful or inappropriate. We want to fit in, to belong. Shame can act as a guide in our socialization.

Recognizing the problems that unhealthy shame creates often prompts people to get professional help. Committing to work through an addiction or ceasing dysfunctional ways of living requires a deep exploration into the dark sides of our souls.  It can lead to the roots of our shame. In this process we can see how shame splits us off into a good self and a bad self. The “bad” self can run amuck and constantly question the thoughts and actions of the “good” self.

It is important and can be life altering to acknowledge our feelings of shame and move through them. They do not have to own us. The process requires us to explore the traumas in our lives and examine the messages they have left us with. We hold the shame in our minds and our bodies. Yes, we have all done things to feel guilty about; we do not have to feel ashamed of them.