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The Toxic Mix of Shame and Addiction

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Toxic-Shame-and-AddictionAccording to the popular poem “My Name Is Toxic Shame” by Leo Booth and John Bradsh'/aw, shame is the “voracious hole that fuels all addictions.” Shame and addiction go hand-in-hand. But shame is not a good motivator; when people are shamed, they shut down and their personal growth stalls.

Unfortunately, shaming people for what they have done has been an integral part of residential addiction treatment for decades. In the 1960’s, a residential program in Southern California called Synanon required participants to shave their heads and walk in the street for humiliation purposes.

The Myth of Shame as Motivator to Cure Addiction

One common myth about shame and addiction is that people need to be shamed in order to motivate change. The truth is that most people who seek treatment for substance addiction are already besieged by their own shame.

If you were to ask the average person receiving treatment for addiction how many negative thoughts they have in a day, their response would likely be, “all of them.”

Do such people really need yet more shame heaped upon them? Sadly, many addiction treatment centers would respond with a resounding yes.

However, shame doesn’t heal addiction; it only does damage.

It creates a kind of interior magnet that attracts more of the same. As the old saying goes, “when you're down people will kick you.” Fortunately, the flip side of this is when you are up, people will love you.

Guilt and Shame in Recovery

We believe there is no room for guilt and shame in recovery. Shifting from shame to positive thinking takes work, effort, commitment, and perseverance. But it is doable.

Positivity can be taught, but it takes time … and tearing people down only slows the process.

After all, if a addiction therapist or counselor treats you shamefully, why would you want to work intimately with them? Why would you offer them your trust?

There is no room in recovery for shame; it limits healing. It is really just that simple.

By contrast, when we actually like and trust the addiction therapist helping us, we go the extra mile. Think of the best coach or teacher you've ever had. When they connect with you, you're motivated to push yourself harder than you ever thought you could. And you're amazed about what you were able to accomplish!

When you're able to achieve this trust in treatment, we disclose issues that have been locked away for years, and as a result, finally have the opportunity to heal.

How to Heal From Debilitating Shame and Addiction

healing-from-debilitating-shame-and-addictionWhen we’re going through an emotional difficulty, we’re unable to think clearly. In times of turmoil, our minds often take us back to earlier periods of life. Sigmund Freud identified this as “regression."

When we regress, our minds are spinning and our emotions take over. We experience feelings of panic, anger, and overwhelm. If someone then proceeds to shame us, it can cause a great deal of emotional and psychological damage.

So how do we heal from such debilitating experiences?

There’s a vast body of psychological research on this subject. Much of the inquiry began in the 1940’s with Object Relations Therapy (ORT). At that time, Dr. Donald Winnicott advocated “creating a corrective emotional experience” to treat shame-based emotional wounding.

In other words, when more compassionate care is provided, more healing opportunities present themselves.

Changing the Language of Addiction Recovery

Often, clients in the process of treatment will recreate the dysfunctional dynamics of their family. If a therapist responds to them in a similar shame-based way, it will only cement in the self-defeating behavior.

What's needed in residential treatment is not more shame, but rather more compassion, connection, and hope.

One way that addiction treatment centers can facilitate this type of positive, healing environment is to change the language of recovery.

For example, they can …

  • Say “slip” instead of “relapse." 
    For those recovering from addiction, "relapse" has been a shameful event for years and years. Let's say goodbye to 'relapse' for good - it's a slip, and it's a natural part of recovery. Learn from it.
  • Let go of the traditional 12 Step way of handling relapse.
    In AA, relapse means that you
    start over at Step One and reset your sobriety timeline. This can be incredibly discouraging for people who have worked the steps faithfully already.
  • Revise harmful, defeating generalizations.
    Generalizations such as “some people are just constitutionally incapable of being honest with themselves." Instead, one might say, “Sometimes it’s challenging to be honest with oneself, but with practice it is possible.”
  • Give up hurtful recovery cliches.
    Cliches such as, “it works if you work it.” The implication of this popular 12 Step saying is that if you work the program and it doesn’t work, then it’s
    your fault for not trying harder or doing more. The program is cast as perfect while the person is cast as the problem. Many people thus come to the shaming conclusion, “There’s something wrong with me.”
  • Recognize dual diagnosis.
    Most people struggling with substances have a dual diagnosis - a co-occuring mental disorder such as depression or anxiety. People with a dual diagnosis need professional counseling to deal with the issues that are causing the feelings of depression, anxiety, self loathing and/or hopelessness.
  • Recognize that people who are struggling with substances are not broken.
    They're no flawed or inferior, they just have some issues that need some professional assistance.

Embrace Self-Forgiveness in Recovery

Self-forgiveness -- not shame! -- is a vital part of lasting recovery from addiction. That said, it’s important to define what forgiveness is and is not. It’s not denying that you’ve caused harm or justifying the behavior. Rather, it’s about letting go of our own self-judgment.

As co-founder of The Clearing Betsy Koelzer wrote in her post Self Forgiveness: An Important Step in Rehab and Recovery:

“Self Forgiveness is the process by which we release ourselves for judgments we’ve placed against ourselves. When we accept that we are the one holding the judgment, we become aware that we can be the only one to release it.”

True self-forgiveness isn’t a free pass to act poorly and cause harm to oneself and others. Instead, it’s an expression of personal responsibility … the kind that can change your life for good.

The Next Step

Do you suspect shame is fueling an addiction of yours or one you love? Learn more about beginning the healing process by reading our free eBook, "Healing Underlying Core Issues". 

Download eBook:

Healing Underlying Core Issues

Caroline McGraw

This post was written by Caroline McGraw

In addition to her work as "the voice of The Clearing", Caroline Garnet McGraw writes about trading perfectionism for possibility at A Wish Come Clear. Visit and receive your free Perfectionist Recovery Toolkit today!

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