Shame and Addiction: The Connection

Shame is something we’ve all experienced. It’s painful, gut-wrenching, and creates another host of emotions. While maybe we made a mistake or had a bad day, we find ways to accept or correct our wrongs or ask for forgiveness. This is how most people deal with these emotions and move forward in life. 

For others, it’s not that easy. Shame is often deeply rooted and can affect a person’s sense of self-worth. They feel inadequate and useless. For those susceptible to addiction or active in addiction, shame can be a constant and turn into a spiral of self-destructive behaviors. Individuals can often turn to drugs and alcohol in hopes of numbing the pain they feel from their shame. Even though they may not be responsible for their feelings of inadequacy, they feel that they are. When you feel this way, drug and alcohol use can easily develop into addiction – especially if you don’t understand your shame. 

Shame vs. Guilt

Guilt is a normal feeling that we’ve all experienced. Guilt occurs when you use poor judgement in your behavior. Shame is about yourself. According to PsychCentral, guilt motivates you to want to correct or repair the error. In contrast, shame is an intense global feeling of inadequacy, inferiority, or self-loathing. You want to hide or disappear. In front of others, you feel exposed and humiliated, as if they can see your flaws. The worst part of it is a profound sense of separation — from yourself and from others. It’s disintegrating, meaning that you lose touch with all the other parts of yourself, and you also feel disconnected from everyone else. 

People who feel shame often share these unconscious beliefs: 

  • I’m a failure.
  • I’m not important.
  • I’m unlovable.
  • I don’t deserve to be happy.
  • I’m a bad person.
  • I’m a phony.
  • I’m defective.

How Shame and Addiction Are Linked

When these types of negative messages continue over time, the individual begins to have very deep and extensive feelings of inadequacy seeing themselves as the reason they are unloved and unlovable. If this is not corrected and a positive message instilled, this shame continues to grow and fester, creating anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, and perfectionism and perpetuating a cycle of seeing yourself as inferior and unable to cope. These types of feelings are what cause people to want to “check out,” “forget about it all,” and “feel normal.” They believe drugs and alcohol is the way to cope and is initially a type of self-medication. 

Additionally, the use of alcohol and drugs creates further feelings of shame. According to Psychology Today, substances also lower self-esteem and contribute to the constant cycle of seeing yourself as inferior or unable to cope. This downward spiral can only be stopped by a significant and powerful intervention.

How Shame and Codependency Are Linked

In an article by PsychCentral, codependency is described as any enmeshed relationship in which one person loses their sense of independence and believes they need to tend to someone else. This often occurs in families and relationships where one is struggling with an addiction. Someone who is codependent may exhibit behaviors such as: making excuses, hiding the alcohol use, and protecting the person from any fallout or consequences from their actions.

With codependency, the need to support others goes beyond what is considered healthy.  It is not considered a mental health condition, so there aren’t any specific guidelines as to what makes someone codependent, but here are a few behaviors to watch for:

  • desperately needing approval from others
  • determining your self-worth based on what others think about you
  • taking on more work than you can realistically handle, both to earn praise or lighten a loved one’s burden
  • apologizing or taking on blame in order to keep the peace
  • avoiding conflict
  • minimizing or ignoring your own desires
  • having excessive concern about a loved one’s habits or behaviors and trying to manage their decisions
  • being in a mood that reflects how others feel, rather than your own emotions
  • experiencing guilt or anxiety when doing something for yourself
  • doing things you don’t really want to do, simply to make others happy
  • idealizing partners or other loved ones, often to the point of maintaining relationships that leave you unfulfilled
  • experiencing overwhelming fears of rejection or abandonment

If you think you may have codependency, ask yourself this question. Do you provide help temporarily when a loved one has a need or is in crisis? Or do you provide care for someone to the point you define yourself in relation to their needs? 

Getting Help for Shame and Addiction in Alabama

In order to heal your addiction, you must first deal with the shame. It’s important to find help at an addiction treatment center, highly experienced in the areas of recognizing shame, accepting self, and reconnecting with family and friends. It must be an environment where it’s safe to express your feelings, be vulnerable and find acceptance and empathy. Then you can begin to reshape your beliefs about your self-worth. Breaking the cycle of shame and addiction can be painful at first as you may have to revisit some shame-inducing events to see them from a different perspective, but healing is possible. 

If you or a loved one need help dealing with toxic shame or an addiction, we’re here to help. At Birmingham Recovery Center, we’ve created a safe, welcoming, intimate space at our alcohol and drug rehab facilities in Birmingham. Here, you can focus on what matters most. This includes dealing with shame and other triggers first in order to get clean and sober and restore yourself to health. We help each patient commit to a life-changing recovery journey.

Call 205-813-7400 for a confidential assessment.


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