One of the main obstacles to drug and alcohol recovery is the shame associated with substance abuse. A lifetime of addiction can leave behind a wake of regretful actions, damaged relationships, and poor decisions. It can feel overwhelming to face the reality of what life has become, but by sharing your story in Alcoholics Anonymous and other formats, you can move past your shame towards a healthy recovery.
What Is Shame?
Shame is different than guilt. When you feel guilty, you recognize that you did something wrong and act to correct it. Guilt is usually a healthy, motivating emotion. You may say to yourself, “I shouldn’t have done that, but it doesn’t represent who I am.”
Shame is different. It results in negative self-talk such as “I’m so terrible, I can’t believe I did that.” You see your regretful action as a reflection of who you are as a person. Unlike guilt, with shame, you may not try to repair the damage you’ve caused. Instead, you attempt to hide from or ignore the pain. You may disconnect from yourself and from others.
Healthy Shame vs Toxic Shame and Addiction
Believe it or not, not all shame is bad. Shame can serve as a moral compass and a reminder that you are not the all-powerful being you sometimes think you are. Good shame comes in the form of “innate moral shame.” When shame gets out of control, it becomes “internalized shame.” Internalized shame is toxic.
Healthy shame can guide you in the right direction when you have a difficult ethical decision to make. You may lie to your coworker and take a larger percentage of the profits than was agreed upon. The shame you feel for doing this can direct you to be more honest in the future. This type of shame is the foundation of humility and spirituality. Healthy shame can even push you to seek help for addiction when you recognize that substance abuse is the driving force behind your immoral behavior.
But shame isn’t always positive, and this is what makes it such a complicated emotion to understand. It’s internalized shame, or toxic shame, that fuels addictive behaviors. When shame consumes you and makes you feel that you are inherently a bad person, that’s when it can destroy you rather than motivate you towards recovery.
The Destructive Nature of Internalized Shame
Internalized shame makes you feel that you are the problem rather than the decisions you make and the actions you take. Rather than feeling regretful or embarrassed for a short period, you feel like a flawed person. Maybe you even go so far as to feel that you’re not worthy of love. Internalized shame can make you feel inherently defective. At that point, trying to improve yourself is a lost cause. The only way to escape your shame, and yourself, is to use substances to hide from what you’ve become.
Toxic shame is one of the most destructive emotions because it’s all-encompassing and becomes your state of being. Shame is soul sickness at its worst. Internalized shame is at the core of addictive behaviors.
Coping with Toxic Shame Through Substance Abuse
As toxic shame gets worse, you may take every means necessary to isolate yourself from the people who care about you. Distance is the only way to create a separate version of yourself and experience a break from the pain.
What better way to distance yourself than to abuse drugs and alcohol? It’s the easiest, fastest solution. If you’re already genetically predisposed to addiction, the combination of toxic shame and substance can be a lethal one. On one end you have the shame pushing you to seek something outside of yourself in order to feel okay. This can come in the form of money, power, sex, drugs or alcohol. Although these behaviors provide a momentary escape, they only add to the shame and regret after the buzz wears off.
The disease of addiction can take what would have been a healthy shame and turn it into toxic shame. This is especially true with young addicts, especially if their entire adult life has been consumed by addiction. Addiction is their identity. It can lead to a compulsive cycle that fuels more shame and more addictive behavior.
The Healing Power of Vulnerability
Healing toxic shame can be a painful process, but it’s an essential part of drug and alcohol recovery. If you’ve been using substances to escape from your feelings of shame, healing can be especially difficult. You’ll need to completely reverse your relationship with shame and meet it head-on.
It’s okay to recognize the shame that you feel for the decisions you’ve made. Healing begins when you admit that your shame doesn’t represent who you are as a person. Only then can you move forward in recovery.
Shame thrives when you’re in isolation. To beat it, you’re going to need to connect with others and share your story. By externalizing your shame and being vulnerable in front of people you trust, you can begin to recover. Psychologist Brene Brown is a massive proponent of the power of vulnerability to transform your life and become a leader in your community. Vulnerability is also an essential part of healing shame. When you trust someone to accept you for all your flaws you can start to change the negative beliefs you have about yourself.
Alcoholics Anonymous: Healing through Human Connection
Alcoholics Anonymous is a 12-step recovery program that works. Why is it so effective for so many people?
It relies on the power of vulnerability and human connection to heal toxic shame. Alcoholics Anonymous meetings are full of people who know the shame of addiction all too well. You can feel safe to share your experience, get feedback, and start to disconnect from the shame that you’ve identified with for so long.
With that being said, Alcoholics Anonymous isn’t for everyone. If you don’t feel comfortable speaking to a group of people you’ve only recently met, the same power of vulnerability can be experienced by sharing with another support group, mentor or therapist. For most recovering addicts, however, Alcoholics Anonymous is the most effective route to take.
Other recovering addicts will need more than just Alcoholics Anonymous. Inpatient and intensive outpatient substance abuse treatment programs can provide a solid foundation for addiction recovery.
Stonewall Institute Drug and Alcohol Treatment Center in Phoenix, Arizona provides services for drug and alcohol dependency and co-occurring issues. Services are delivered in a private upscale outpatient treatment setting using evidence-based treatment methods. Our program allows clients to sustain life responsibilities while providing an intensive treatment environment 3 evenings per week for 10 weeks. Clients in our Drug and Alcohol Treatment program will learn about underlying issues that contribute to substance dependence and obtain the vital skills necessary to sustain long-term sobriety and recovery.
If you or someone you love is struggling with substance abuse, Stonewall Institute Treatment Center is available to answer any questions you may have. Call us today at 602-535 6468 or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.