The shame of addiction

Addiction and shame always go hand in hand. Addiction and using drugs and substances that are often illegal, make us shameful liars! We hide the truth of our using from our families. We hide bottles, boxes and drink in secret. Keeping the secrets starts to keep us sick. Shame is that burning in our faces when we think those around us have finally figured out how worthless we are.  We think we’re inadequate or worthless.  It’s when addiction and shame manifest, and we hate to look anyone in the eye; when time seems to crawl and we wish we could disappear.  It makes us feel hopeless, helpless and empty.  Someone has seen our real self and we’re sure they’re disgusted.

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In families where there’s much addiction and shame, people are busy struggling to survive emotionally.  They have little energy left to support or nurture others.  When someone expresses a need, the others resent it. They fear there are not enough emotions to go around and they will somehow be cheated.

We all have basis needs including food, water, shelter, touch, attention, and sleep.  When any of our needs is repeatedly paired with a addiction and shame experience we become shame-based. Each time we have one of these needs we feel shame.  For example, people with eating disorders have been shamed for needing food.  “You’re eating again,” someone says.  “You’re a pig. How can anyone love you when you look like that? You make me sick.”  A compulsive cycle has been set up.  Each time the person needs food shame he will think of food.  Once we’ve become shame-based the addiction and shame is self-triggering.  Each time someone pays attention to us, even in a positive way, we feel ashamed.

The steps and addiction and shame

What is it about the Twelve Steps that brings people relief from these kinds of addiction and shame problems?  The power of the Steps comes from addressing the dynamics of shame, which is at the core of many compulsive behaviours.  Addicts, however, don’t have an exclusive claim on shame.  Everybody has shame, but we addicts have more than our fair share.  Many of us were once children in addictive families, where rules supported and even encouraged addictive behaviour.  The addiction can be to alcohol, other drugs, food, or to sex, or other compulsive behaviours; regardless, addictive families are shame-based families.

This means the very rules of addiction and shame are reinforced in a shaming manner.  When we broke the rules we were shamed.  Rather than being told we did a bad thing, we were told we were a bad person.  “You’re nothing but a milk spiller.  You always spill your milk.  Nobody can love a milk spiller.  You should be ashamed of yourself.”  The child has been labelled a milk spiller and told she is unlovable.  In this situation, there’s no way to redeem herself since she “always” spills her milk.  Even after she cleans up the milk she’ll still think of herself as a milk spiller.  Finally, the parent pours the child half a glass of milk, reminding her that she is a milk spiller and can’t be trusted with a full glass.

Years go by and the child becomes an adult.  But still she subconsciously thinks of herself as a milk spiller.  If she has children, she will likely pour them half a glass of milk since, no doubt, they will be milk spillers too.  If this sounds familiar, then you know what shame is.

What Twelve Step groups do is help us change our addiction and shame-based identity into a guilt-based identity.  That’s right, guilt.  Remember, guilt has gotten a bad name, because people have confused it with shame.  Guilt is the emotion that helps us learn, and stay within, our value system.  If we do something bad, it’s proper, even desirable, to feel guilty.  When I behave in a way that violates one of my values I feel guilty.  That motivates me to seek the person harmed and make amends.  Then my guilt goes away, because it’s no longer needed.  (If we feel bad or can’t seem to forgive ourselves long after we’ve made amends, chances are we aren’t feeling guilty; more likely it’s shame.)

Guilt also prevents people from behaving in ways that trigger more guilt.  I know if I do certain things I’ll feel guilty.  And since I don’t want to feel guilty I’ll more than likely avoid that behaviour. Healing from addiction and shame is serious business, and a team of specialists with degrees and psychological knowledge about addiction is paramount to underpin the addiction healing process.

If you or someone you know needs help with addiction and shame contact Drug Rehab Centres and we will try and assist wherever possible.

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