Shame is socially useful in that it’s a potent emotion that no one wants to feel. If honor is the carrot of noble behavior, shame is the stick. We instinctively dislike people with no sense of shame.
Shame can also be destructive. Shame, in a sense, is pathological guilt. Whereas guilt typically applies to a specific action–maybe you feel guilty for not paying for your share of the pizza–shame is sticky and we tend to internalize it. There is a sense in which shame is only extreme guilt–if you feel ashamed for treating a friend badly, for example–but shame is most dangerous when it becomes part of you. That is, you don’t feel ashamed of something you did, but you feel ashamed for who you are.
What makes this kind of shame much worse than guilt is that while guilt is often a result of how you judge your own actions, you can feel shame even if you’ve done nothing wrong. This is often the case with people who have been victims of abuse or have been ridiculed for being different in some way. The shame is foisted on them, often at an age when they didn’t know any better than to accept it.
People who carry shame inside them are in a tough position. They can’t apologize or make amends because they did nothing wrong. It’s precisely the kind of no-win stress that pushes people to take comfort in addictive behavior.
Shame also makes people feel like they are inherently bad and deserve to be punished. This makes recovery from addiction especially difficult. Addicts often deny their addiction is harming them. If an addict believes he deserves to be harmed, he is less likely to seek help even if sees his addiction is destructive. What’s more, the addiction itself can add to the feeling of shame.
Stigma is the external validation of shame. It’s what we imagine people see when they look at us. It can be a further barrier to seeking treatment because it’s like admitting to the world the private shame. Although stigmas do exist, they never matter as much as we imagine they do. People may whisper in private but it rarely has any real consequence and it certainly isn’t as bad as continuing the addiction.
Dealing with shame is an important part of recovery and is best done with the help of a therapist. Separating shame and guilt, letting go of the former and addressing the latter, are central to overcoming addiction and living a happier life.
At Serenity Oaks Wellness, we seek to adorn each client with the tools they need to live a beautiful life in recovery. Call us today for information on our treatment programs for addiction and alcoholism: 844-720-6847