Shame is at the core of addiction. As much as it can seem that our addiction is why we feel shame, in actuality shame almost always precedes addiction.
People with addictions tend to come from families soaked with toxic shame. There is such a thing as healthy shame, when it belongs to a specific event and can be completed and released. It’s ok to be ashamed of how you behaved once in a while.
However, the shame most of us struggle with is chronic, ongoing, and unhealed- a wound that festers perennially inside our psyches. The problem with this kind of shame is that it connects into our sense of who we are. Toxic shame has a sense of “I am” in it.
Shame and Belonging
Shame is related to belonging. In order to feel all right psychologically, we need a good enough sense of belonging to the group of humans upon whom we depend for love and survival.
The trouble is that our right to belonging can be threatened in a variety of ways – whenever banishment, exclusion, or rejection are on the table. It’s important to understand that loss of love and belonging signals death, and we feel it as a threat to our lives when our belonging is at stake.
Many of us underwent traumatic experiences that caused us to conclude something about us was so bad as to make us undeserving of the love and belonging that we need in order to survive. This places us under enormous strain.
Shame Fosters Addiction
Shame pushes us to develop patterns of avoidance of reliving our intensely scary experiences. While understandable, avoidance also traps the shame energies in the body, and shame becomes a fetid, stagnant pool, never able to drain.
The effect of this on the psyche is to haunt us – at any moment we can plunge fully into the experience of shame, feeling that badness, unworthiness, and disconnection from life. Shame is so overwhelming to the human psyche that when it’s globalized like that and it’s all we can feel, we’ll do almost anything to change that feeling state. This is where our drug of choice comes in to “help” us.
The other thing to understand is that shame is a side-effect of trauma. If you have a lot of shame, that’s not because you’re actually especially shameful, but rather it means you have survived an above-average level of abuse.
Recovering from Shame
When we get into recovery, we have to heal our shame or we might not be able to stay sober. Left unhealed, shame binds us to the past, to bad behaviors, to situations and people who are not good for us.
Healing shame, thank goodness, is totally possible. The solution to shame is other people. Safe, loving people who can hear what our shame tells us, who also know what shame is and what it feels like, and who can serve in the role of witness to us to hear our stories. People who can hear what it is that we believe makes us so terrible, and yet who do not buy into our stories of unworthiness.
Typically when we are able to share our shame stories out loud with a loving other, we will start to feel better almost right away, as the healing light of another person’s safe loving presence will immediately begin to dry out the shame. In the presence of love, shame evaporates like a puddle of water in the sun. Shame is distilled, purified away, by the clean searing heat of neutral acceptance.
Unconditional Acceptance as an Antidote to Shame
Through this process we discover that healing shame lies not in what exactly we did or did not do, but rather in the mindset shift that no matter what we do, nothing can make a human being worth less than the infinite preciousness that we are. This unconditionality, the truth that humans are not defined nor summed up by any experience we may have endured, is where the healing is.
The good news in all of this is that the path of recovery will gradually lead us to reclaim our inherent innocence and worth, as we cast off the burdens we have been carrying. The secrets of our wounded families, of the ways we were treated, of what we accepted because we had to in order to get the love we needed to survive, how we replicated those patterns with others, the way abuse lived on in us helplessly – all of these fall away as shame is healed.
When we can at last deeply forgive ourselves, once and for all, we become grateful for the funny, bittersweet role that addiction has played in restoring us to ourselves. And in leading us first to our shame, addiction ultimately leads us home.