Get help today 888-319-2606 or sign up for 24/7 text support.
American Addiction Centers National Rehabs Directory

What’s Shame Got to Do With It? Successful Recovery From Addictive Behaviors

Ah, shame! We all know it well, especially those of us who won’t admit to it. But considering that our entire society is, unfortunately, built upon shame – and because we are human beings – it’s not something any of us can easily avoid.

I’m not a big fan of television commercials, but sometimes they are a bite-sized representation of what we are buying into – pun intended. For example, one that is airing right now is a women’s skin care product. The tag line is: “Are you having trouble sleeping?” This is followed very closely by what sounds like a young woman’s voice imploring, “Don’t let your skin show it!”

So…there’s no interest in why you might be having trouble sleeping, or how to better handle the daily stress and anxieties that we all face. There’s no thought to how we might be contributing to tired-looking skin by the potentially toxic substances we choose to ingest, like drugs, alcohol, caffeine, and high levels of refined sugar. No suggestion to see a doctor or counselor to discuss our unhealthy emotional patterns or how we stay stuck in our negative comfort zones…

No, what we’re encouraged to do is to be sure to always LOOK our best, even if we feel horrible at our deeper levels. And we’re strongly urged to spend the big bucks to look that way in order to line someone else’s pockets – even when many people simply don’t have the luxury of doing that.

The Link Between Shame and Addiction

Using addictive behaviors is the choice we make when we don’t want to look inside and change what we can about ourselves on that deeper level. This is another tenet our society is based on – as this commercial above shows us. Many people who only see their own beauty, or lack of it, as skin deep will use addictions to hide the shame they inevitably feel about not measuring up.

“I’m not enough” and “I’m not worthy” are perhaps the biggest shame pieces that catapult people into addiction in the first place. Most of us feel this in some way, and it often stems from faulty messages we received as children either from our families or at school – and sometimes both.

One of my clients is a woman in her mid-thirties. She was addicted to drugs such as meth and cocaine in the past, and even though she has been able to stay clean and sober for a little while now, her obsession about the way she looks often brings her to her knees with her shame about not being “perfect.” What she seems unable to believe is that none of us are perfect, not even those airbrushed models she so emulates and wants to be like. My theory is that, until she commits to doing the inner work it takes to combat this insidious base of shame, she will remain stuck in addictive behaviors. And the very sad news is that there are so many addicts in active addiction – women and men alike – who are struggling in exactly the same way for exactly the same reasons. The need to see themselves as better than they believe they are is what causes people to self-soothe in this very unhealthy way.

The emotions of shame and guilt are often confused, but a simple definition of each can provide clarity about the difference: guilt is “I made a mistake” (which we all do at times) and shame is “I am a mistake,” a much more potent and lethal message to give ourselves.

The reality is that none of us are a mistake. We each need to do the work it takes to stop believing that horribly dangerous falsehood – if we want to become holistically healthy and not use addictive behaviors.

Shame is crippling and debilitating, but what we often don’t realize is that we all fall prey to it at times. A while ago, I made a mistake in the way I handled a situation – I recognized later that I was triggered by an old, still unhealed childhood wound – and before I knew it, I’d made an inappropriate comment that hurt someone. In my life today, I don’t do that kind of thing very often, but I’m human and I make mistakes. When I realized what I’d done, I began to tell myself what a terrible, horrible person I am – which morphed into much more destructive self-talk until I finally reached out for some guidance from a trusted friend and healer. I initially felt guilt for the mistake I’d made, but that swiftly devolved into the shame of “I am a mistake” kind of thinking. If I’d allowed that to go on, I could have easily convinced myself that there was no hope for me, and my addiction – at bay now for over 29 years – could have come flooding back.

Unfortunately, for some people, shame is a constant way of life, becoming a nasty problem that negatively affects not only themselves, but those around them. As shame rears its head more and more often and the self-talk becomes worse and worse, many people look for some kind of a distraction to take themselves away from the emotional nightmare they find themselves living. Frequently, what they reach for is a mind-altering substance like alcohol or drugs, or mood-altering behaviors such as shopping, gambling, smoking, bingeing and purging, porn, or some sort of codependent relationship to prove to themselves that they’re lovable and worthy.

What Can We Do About Shame and Addiction?

When we don’t take the time to look deeper – at our own truths as well as our society’s lies – addiction’s grasp becomes harder to withstand. There are two acronyms for the word “FEAR” that really speak to this dilemma.

  • F.E.A.R.

The first is: Forget Everything And Run. This is quite self-explanatory; it basically means deciding to not deal with anything difficult and instead trying to avoid any pain by running away from it. Unfortunately, the nature of addiction is that it is progressive, meaning that without some kind of healthy intervention, it will only continue and inevitably get worse. As a result, that definition of FEAR doesn’t work for very long. Trying to hide from difficulties is simply not the way to deal with addictive behaviors – or any other part of life.

  • F.E.A.R.

I like the second acronym much better: Face Everything And Recover. Making the decision to live life this way not only contributes to our all-important self-respect, it is also a much stronger way to combat the shame that so often leads to addiction.

The next time you find yourself feeling some shame about yourself – when you catch yourself buying into your own ingrained negativity and not respecting yourself – which choice will you make: Will you forget everything and run, or will you face everything and recover? Your answer will either keep you in your shame cycle – or shift you right out of it.



Images Courtesy of iStock

Was this page helpful?
Thank you for your feedback.

American Addiction Centers (AAC) is committed to delivering original, truthful, accurate, unbiased, and medically current information. We strive to create content that is clear, concise, and easy to understand.

Read our full editorial policy

While we are unable to respond to your feedback directly, we'll use this information to improve our online help.