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Shame: Addiction’s Trojan Horse

It’s time to talk about shame. 

But first, let’s talk about what shame isn’t. Shame is not guilt. If I hurt a friend, I will probably feel guilty. This guilt will push me to make amends and restore the relationship to wholeness. That is a good thing. My guilt tells me to do the next right thing. Because I believe that I am worthy of the relationship being restored, I act on it and restore the relationship.

But what if, instead of the guilt convincing me to do the next right thing, the guilt becomes a fishing line that I cast far back into the past, dredging up memories of every time I have ever hurt someone? What if, with all of my past mistakes heavy on the line, I find myself paralyzed, feeling unworthy of a restored relationship, unable to even consider reaching out to the friend I hurt to make amends? At that point, my guilt has become shame. While guilt is a mature, useful emotion – even if it’s uncomfortable – shame is paralyzing and isolating.

Shame tells us that even those who love us most would not love us if they saw who we really are. It sells us the lie that what is inside us is somehow darker and more twisted than what is in other people. It keeps us trapped behind the masks that we create out of what we think others want to see in us. Ultimately, it cuts us off from all genuine connection to others. When shame is running the show, even compliments from loved ones are painful evidence that no one actually knows us – because, if they really knew us, they would know that we do not deserve them.

In response to shame, we isolate ourselves to keep from seeing the disappointment we expect in the eyes of our loved ones. We lash out at people around us as a temporary distraction from our own internal pain. We attack ourselves, telling ourselves that we will never be good enough and we don’t deserve more from life because of our failures. Or we distract ourselves, using anything at our disposal – alcohol, drugs, television, social media, sex, video games, work, perfectionism. None of these “solutions” works for long, but without them, shame quickly becomes overwhelming.

If you’ve read this far, you probably already have an idea how shame and addiction work together. Both shame and addiction thrive on disconnection and lack of community, and addiction provides a temporary solution to the pain of shame. But the high always ends. The hangover always comes – all too often accompanied by a shame spiral. 

In recovery, shame can be a kind of Trojan Horse for addiction. It sneaks in behind the defenses because it does not look quite like addiction. In alliance with addiction, it pushes people to isolate; to avoid sharing their struggles with their sponsor, community, family, or therapist; to beat themselves down for every stumble. These actions quickly increase the likelihood of returning to old solutions like drinking and using.

So what is the lasting antidote to shame? In short, to take the courageous step of being genuine and vulnerable. To let others see us for who we really are. Opening up to a trusted person, and then watching as they stay and continue to show love and compassion, is the only way to begin rewiring our ideas about ourselves and our own value. Our society says that this kind of vulnerability is weakness, but anyone who has chosen vulnerability knows that it is incredibly difficult. Doing difficult things takes courage. Vulnerability is strength, and only through vulnerability can we prove that shame is a liar.

At Makana Path and throughout the BRC Family of Programs, we don’t just teach about shame. We work to create an environment where people feel safe enough to be truly seen, so that when they walk out into a life of recovery, they do so with the knowledge that they are worthy of love and connection. With this knowledge, they are more than a match for shame.

Written By: Leila Anderson, LMFT-S, LCDCi