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The Impact of Shame on Addiction

Shame, by definition, means a painful feeling of distress or humiliation which is consciously perceived. Some may feel that “shame” comes from others’ perceptions of our behavior — literally being “shamed” by close friends, family, or even strangers. Shame can feel triggering and extremely unfair at times.

Although shame is a normal feeling, it can creep up on you and change the direction of your whole day — or your life in extreme cases. You can combat the harmful effects of shame and learn healthy ways to express your feelings.

Shame and Guilt

Although they are not the same, shame and guilt often seem to go hand-in-hand. Shame is a feeling of humiliation and distress caused by the knowledge of “wrong” behavior. By contrast, guilt is feeling responsible or regretful. Guilt is more closely linked to perceiving the effects of our actions on others. 

One way to visualize the difference is that shame is more internal, while guilt can be internal and external depending on the source of the guilt’s impact. 

How Does Your Brain Deal With Shame?

The human brain derives a myriad of responses from feelings of shame. Most of them attempt to fight shame and create a defense against future shame. Sometimes, however, shame can find a way to pull acceptance from the experiencer. 

According to a study published in the Journal of Psychotherapy Practice and Research, these responses to shame may include:

  • Feelings of envy toward others, primarily those who are perceived to be “doing everything right”
  • Blaming someone else to avoid the feeling of shame (guilt will likely step in after this occurs)
  • Extreme questioning or probing for answers about something unrelated to make another person feel worse than the person feeling shame
  • Uncharacteristic narcissism or superiority over everyone else, so there is no need to feel any shame
  • Need for constant reassurance or praise to counter the feeling of shame
  • Isolation due to anxiety and avoidance of shame
  • Development of rigid rules and structure, teeter-tottering with feelings of emptiness
  • Anger, hostile words or actions, and bitterness toward others
  • In extreme cases, one could have a craving for mind-altering substances, such as alcohol or narcotics

The human brain does not want to experience shame, the same way the brain can “forget” in order to block out trauma or create feelings of exhaustion or fatigue to hinder extreme sadness.  Identifying your brain’s natural response to shame is good, so you can figure out what to do next if you consciously see yourself experiencing shame.

 Taking Responsibility Instead of Succumbing to Shame

If any of these tactics resonated with you have no fear — it’s natural and everyone does it. What you can do is find a way to identify feelings of shame and combat them consciously. 

According to Narcotics Anonymous, shame in addiction can be overpowering and scary when embracing recovery. Facing your object of shame can be difficult or even impossible. That’s okay. If your shame comes from another person, external organization, or societal expectation, that’s not something you can take responsibility for. You can only take responsibility for your actions.

According to Narcotics Anonymous and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), there are several ways to deal with shame both in and out of recovery:

  • Meet your needs. If this means going to a specialist, finding a new home, cleaning your space, switching careers, or monitoring your health in other ways, make sure that you meet your needs.
  • Getting therapy or professional help with your mental health is a great way to consciously combat shame. 
  • Seek new hobbies that benefit your favorite causes, such as art or a beach clean-up.
  • Volunteer/community work can also be cathartic and help you deal with shame in a positive and beneficial way. Contributing to your community can help boost feelings of happiness and self-esteem.
  • Exercise, meditation, and yoga can help ease feelings of shame as well. The natural release of endorphins and clear thinking that comes with physical activity can help process shame.
  • Apologize or make amends with anyone who experienced the wrath of your shame. Again, it’s natural to act out or combat the experience of shame. Owning up to this can help ease strains in relationships and ultimately lead to better future bonds.
  • The characterization of shame, or any emotion, can also be an effective way to process difficult emotions. You can create a character or entity that symbolizes shame. For example, the shame monster can often accompany the guilt goblin or the terror troll. Placing an imaginary characterization on strong emotions can be a positive way to cope with shame and recognize its role in your life as a minor one.

Shame can be both a catalyst and a result of dealing with addiction, feelings of incompetence, or lack of control. Shame is an extreme feeling — so powerful that your brain will likely block out the shame using control and suppression tactics. At RECO Intensive, we understand that shame is a huge part of addiction and can be overwhelming in its strength. We also understand that the typical actions used to combat shame are normal and can be redirected. At RECO Intensive, our experienced alumni, professional therapists, and staff specialists know that your pain is valid, and we can help you process your shame. It’s okay to feel extreme emotions. Here at RECO Intensive, we offer a safe space to express them. Feelings of shame, guilt, fear, anxiety, and depression are natural, and we want to help you find a balance between feelings of shame and hope for the future. Call RECO Intensive today at (561) 464-6533.

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