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Is Shame a Good Motivator in Recovery?

Shame – a condition of humiliating disgrace or disrepute.

In colonial America, we had the stockades. We put someone on display for a few days to teach them a lesson about their crime. Today, we have the Internet. If someone gets caught in a less-than-flattering pose or questionable action, they are shamed across the entire World Wide Web. Angry Tweets may follow them for weeks.

Is this helpful? Perhaps in some circumstances. After all, shame can curb some bad behaviors. However, it’s generally a healthy emotion that stops us from continuing behaviors that cause damage to ourselves or others. It lets others know you regret your actions and spurs you not to repeat them.

Unfortunately, shame is rarely found in a pure, healthy form. Instead, it is thrown down upon us and used as a weapon to crush us. This is exactly what happens when addicts are shamed. Attempting to “shame someone clean” usually ends up doing the exact opposite, send the person farther into the pit of addiction.

Why isn’t Shame a Good Deterrent?

Shame is actually a common cause of addiction. Those who abuse substances often do so in part to cope with chronic shame. If it is what led an addict to the road they are on, how could it possibly provide the way out?

It can’t.

Guilt can motivate change. Shame, on the other hand, does nothing but promote self-loathing. Instead of curbing addictive behaviors, shame becomes associated with an addict’s sense of value. It has then lost all healthy use and only spirals the addict further in the cycle of shame and substance abuse.

Study Proves Negative Effects of Shaming

A recent study has provided evidence to support this long-believed effect of shame on recovery. Jessica Tracy and Daniel Randles of the University of British Columbia conducted research using universal body language to measure shame.

Their findings, published in Clinical Psychological Science, showed a definite connection between shame and relapse. Those most ashamed were more likely to relapse, and have relapses that were more severe. These results demonstrate that shame does not appear to promote sobriety but in fact promotes addiction.

Shaming Inhibits Recovery

Shaming someone in such a vulnerable state is not helpful, but dangerous. Experiencing shame during recovery can have detrimental effects on multiple fronts.

  • Shame can cause an individual to avoid forming the supportive relationships needed for successful recovery.
  • Shame prevents enjoyment of success. Those in recovery need to be capable of celebrating their successes.
  • Shame may cause an addict to feel they don’t deserve a better life. Their shame will prevent them from making efforts toward recovery.
  • Shame has been shown to increase the risk of other conditions that worsen addiction, such as depression.
  • Shame adds further discomfort to the difficult recovery process. An addict experiencing shame in their life in recovery will likely relapse.
  • Shame is self-destructive. Even if the addict gets sober, they may continue other self-destructive behaviors due to their shame.


Additional Reading: 7 Sure-Fire Ways to Screw Up Your Recovery

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