Shame And Addiction | How To Help Someone Overcome Shame

Shame And Addiction

Shame is an isolating, debilitating emotion that can cause many to suffer from feelings of self-doubt and unworthiness. Routinely experiencing shame can feed the cycle of addiction, especially if substance misuse is prevalent or if alcohol and drugs are easily accessible. Many individuals use substances to cope with drastic feelings of shame and, with time, shame and addiction can easily become intertwined.

In this article, we’re discussing the mental health implication of experiencing shame and its impacts on those battling the disease of addiction. It’s important to note that strong feelings of inadequacy can lead to abuse of substances to mask or temporarily relieve symptoms and shame triggers. For more information on addiction treatment options, contact AspenRidge Recovery directly at 855-281-5588.

Addiction Shame


What is Shame?

To understand how shame fuels drug and alcohol addiction, it’s critical to assess and distinguish the feelings of guilt vs. shame. Guilt, on the one hand, is a natural feeling that coincides with choices or mistakes. Guilt often stems from moral conscience and can help us distinguish right from wrong.

On the other hand, shame ties into feelings of inadequacy and self-loathing. Where guilt can push some to correct a mistake or error in behavior, shame actually causes many sufferers to seek isolation in order to minimize embarrassment and judgments.

According to a study published by leading clinical psychologist and author Paul Gilbert, Ph.D., shame is an emotion of social comparison where individual fear or anticipates eliciting disgust in others. Increased symptom severity and lack of response to treatment are most commonly associated with other conditions such as eating disorders, PTSD, depression, and occurrences of shame and addiction.

Signs Associated with Shame

Highly shame-prone individuals sometimes find it challenging to benefit from traditional cognitive behavioral therapies and may benefit from a compassion-focused approach. Shame, at its core, can convince many that they are bad or wrong. Some may feel shame even after correcting a misdeed or even for no reason at all. If shame is left untreated, it can fester and progress into more serious mental health conditions such as anxiety and depression.

Getting help for shame often begins with identifying or recognizing shameful emotions. Those experiencing constant shame may feel terrified of receiving support as it means facing and disclosing shameful feelings and behaviors to others. They may be fearful that those with who they seek help will eventually discover that the shame is deserved. In addition, they may also fear exposure and rejection.

One approach to overcoming feelings of shame is through therapy and taking steps to define shame as four distinguished components, including:

  • Recognizing signs of shame and understanding a person’s triggers for shame
  • Critical awareness of shame, including cultural and social functions
  • Reach out to others to share an uncomfortable story or feelings
  • Giving voice to feelings of shame

Shame and Addiction

According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, mental health concerns and substance use disorders impact millions of Americans every year, from every walk of life and all age groups. The coexistence of both mental health issues like feeling ashamed and substance dependency is commonly referred to as a co-occurring disorder.

Shame and addiction are co-occurring disorders that often appear together. The feelings of being ashamed are natural emotions that nearly every person experiences at some time. Some may take drastic measures to avoid feeling ashamed. Further, in addictive addiction, shame becomes almost unavoidable.

Individuals that are greatly impacted by shame are often isolated or separated from others. At times, they may even feel disconnected from everything, and with prolonged isolation, substance abuse is more likely to occur.

Feelings of shame often manifest in negative dialogue and can include thoughts such as:

  • I’m a failure
  • I don’t deserve happiness
  • I’m not a good person
  • Everything I do is always wrong
  • I will never measure up
  • I deserve to be alone

The chronic feeling of unworthiness and inferiority can make a person feel undeserving of happiness, health, life, and even love. Becoming ashamed of who you are as a person can also manifest in other ways like depression, thoughts of suicide, and risky behavior to relieve oneself of being ashamed.

How To Help Someone Overcome Shame


Impacts of Shame and Addiction

Shame is prone to spiraling into self-medicating and addiction or keeping you within the cycle of addiction. Stresses caused by work, finances, and relationships can quickly become overwhelming and lead to individuals seeking relief through drugs and alcohol use. The same is also true for mental health issues like experiencing extremely negative emotions and thoughts of shame.

Drugs and alcohol are known to lower self-esteem. According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine, self-esteem is one of the most important variables and concepts that might have a meaningful influence on addiction. The study determined that individuals experiencing higher rates of shame and low self-esteem were more prone to drug and alcohol use. Comments within the study conclude:

“Our perceptions toward ourselves are developed through the process of acting, and then thinking about our actions as well as how others perceive those actions. External factors such as social prestige, wealth, education level, and even job title do not have a meaningful effect on self-esteem and feelings of shame.”

How To Help Someone Overcome Shame

Witnessing someone you love deal with addiction shame can emotionally taxing. It’s hard to know how to help someone overcome shame. Since shame is an emotion that many who are suffering from substance abuse endure, it’s important to know the steps to take to address it. On a basic level, shame is an unwavering belief that a person is unacceptable. While this is a general statement, the way in which the person may harbor feelings of shame can be unique to their situation. Feeling shame can be destructive and can serve as a relapse trigger, which is why addressing it in early recovery is critical.

How Is Shame Different From Guilt?

While guilt and shame often go hand-in-hand, they’re two different psychological feelings and belief systems. Guilt usually pertains to a person’s sense of having done something wrong. Shame, on the other hand, is that a person is somehow wrong or defective. Many people crippled by shame battle against the pain of it. It can lead to a person feeling hopeless, worthless, or even unwanted. In recovery, it can impede growth and cause regression when addressing emotional progress, especially for co-occurring disorders.

It’s important to understand that all emotions in recovery are considered “normal.” Since emotional well-being is often hindered by alcohol or drugs, overcoming substance abuse may mean experiencing a flood of emotions. The mind and body begin to overcome the imbalances caused by frequent drug use. Learning how to help someone overcome shame and other negative emotions can make a world of difference in long-term sobriety.

Helping Someone Combat Shame

Feeling worthless can cause unhealthy coping mechanisms, which is why it’s often linked to addiction, eating disorders, and self-harm. Recovering from shame takes time, but some ways to address shame and addiction include:

  • Facing the root of your shame – understand and examine why a person may be feeling unworthy
  • Positive talk – establishing positive mindsets can help a person to alleviate negative thoughts and feelings
  • Have compassion – everyone has flaws and makes mistakes. Finding ways to learn from the past and make it constructive can be helpful.
  • Practice mindfulness – observing thoughts and feelings helps you to recognize certain triggers. Is there something occurring that leads to feelings of guilt and shame? How can a person avoid these triggers?
  • Seek support – asking for help can be difficult but at times necessary. Therapy and other treatment options provide an outlet and can help create strategies for a relapse prevention plan that specifically addresses shame.

Without a clearly established plan that considers how to avoid relapse triggers, individuals may succumb to impulsive urges. Shame can easily deter from staying sober.

Treating Shame and Addiction

Shame often stems from a traumatic experience. People may fear that they deserved the trauma, experience guilt and shame about having survived, or feel ashamed of abuse. When shame and addiction co-occur, treatment options usually include a dual diagnosis approach. On one side, treatment programs should offer individual therapy and even group therapy that addresses the root causes of shame and underlying mental health conditions that may trigger substance abuse. Some treatment options include:

  • Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT): CBT helps people understand the connection between their thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. Licensed therapists often focus on automatic thoughts that typically go unnoticed, such as those listed previously.
  • Complex Trauma: therapy designed to address complex trauma and identify other symptoms of mental health issues that frequently appear with trauma, such as depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, and more

Substance Abuse Treatment

Experiencing shame long-term leads many to a life of alcohol and drugs. More alarmingly, due to the nature of shame and the stigmas surrounding substance abuse, it can cause many to fear treatment and even refuse treatment altogether. As the drug epidemic impacts more and more Americans, access to substance abuse programs is more critical than ever, particularly those that address dual diagnosis care and support.

Shame And Addiction


AspenRidge Recovery: Addressing Addiction Shame

Addiction treatment makes it easier for those experiencing shame and trauma to receive support and therapy based on individual needs. By integrating mental health strategies with existing evidence-based treatment modalities for addiction, the outcomes appear favorable.

Our staff are highly trained in assessment and can provide safe medication treatments, counseling options, and relapse prevention. Additionally, AspenRidge offers three different online and telehealth tools available during the COVID-19 pandemic. A list of our programs includes:

If you or a loved one is experiencing addiction, deeply seeded shame may be exacerbating the issue. Finding proper therapy and access to treatment is crucial. At AspenRidge Recovery, we understand that every situation is unique. Your therapist will work with you to create an individualized treatment plan specific to your needs. Don’t wait, and contact our 24/7 support center directly at 855-281-5588.

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