One of the most unfortunate aspects of this powerful shame is that it is one of the primary contributing factors in addiction. Shame is a deeply personal – and very painful – emotion. Most people who are feeling shame – regardless of the source of their shame – do everything they can to make it go away – even if only temporarily.
Addiction and shame go hand in hand. It is hard to understand where one starts and the other ends. Addiction leaves the person powerless, isolated and unworthy whether the addicted person or the family member. There is a strong sense of secrecy and silence about addiction. It is something that is easier to hide and just not talk about.
It goes like this: the shame of addiction makes the person feel awful, so he/she self-medicate it with a substance or activity (i.e. “drug of choice” to speak up); the person feels better that reinforces the addictive behavior, but in return he/she feel bad that he/she gave in and the shame quickly returns, driving the person to self-medicate once again.
With each instance of that vicious cycle the self-esteem takes a blow. The person feels out of control, powerless, hopeless, disgusted, angry, or disappointed with oneself. The person mentally beat oneself for not being strong enough to not give in to the urge to use.
Children can begin to feel one emotion over the other at an early age. Family influence plays a major role in how a child views himself. Shaming or putting down someone does not change their behavior. A child who feels shame may start to act out or shut down as shame becomes part of their nature. If a child is repeatedly humiliated by someone they look up to, it can often turn into shame.
Shame must be differentiated from guilt, although both affects often work in concert with each other. Guilt is about action and behavior, while shame is about identity and self. Guilt involves a violation of an external rule or standard that can be redressed by restitution or an apology. Shame, on the other hand, slices uninvited through the ego boundary to inflict a deep wound on the self that is experienced as an “inner torment” or a sickness of the soul. Shame patrols the boundary between our public and private lives.
Malignant shame, the core affect of addiction, can be treacherous, dangerous and even lethal to the addict as well as to family members and others when it is expressed as rage, fear, anxiety or despair.
People that are more prone to feel shame rather than guilt have a higher risk for addiction. It is a vicious cycle, and one that is tough to change, but not impossible.
Fundamentally, the healing approach for the disease of addiction is based on caring rather than curing (Kurtz.). People who tend to feel the emotion of shame can change and learn the healthier emotion guilt. Here are fours ways to become more shame resistant.
Courage: There is no more powerful relationship than the one that exists between fear and shame. Shame leads to fear and fear leads to shame. When we fear disconnection, it causes us to be afraid of many things. It takes courage to tell our addiction story, and all that we have gone through, with others. When we do, it brings us closer to letting go of our shame and reconnecting with other people.
Connection: We heal through our connections with others. Involving ourselves with others in a similar situation such as addiction, allows us to support each other and learn from other’s experiences. With connection we develop a social network and we gain power when we come across others in the same situation. We move from being disconnected to being connected to others.
Compassion: This is necessary part of feeling empathy. We are willing to hear someone else’s pain. We don’t have to be born compassionate. We can learn and be committed to the idea of being understanding and loving to others. We need to be willing to practice listening and understanding other’s painful stories. We can feel compassion for someone else’s story if we have accepted our story with all its flaws. Compassion is not about healing the other person, compassion are about two similar people listening to each other.
Empathy: Responding to others in a meaningful and caring way is the strongest remedy for shame. Being empathetic allows us to use our own experiences to connect with a story that someone is sharing with us, and to be able to see, hear and feel another’s situation. When we understand, share the feelings of others, or put ourselves in someone else’s shoes, we connect on a much deeper level. People who are able to resist feeling shame can both give and receive empathy.