Shame is an emotion that is well-known to all addicts. It is often the emotion that fuels addiction in the first place- the feeling of shame being so overwhelming that relief is sought within a bottle or a fix, to avoid the pain. Then, when the addiction has taken hold, there is an additional level of shame that comes with being an addict. Shame upon shame. The “Double Whammy”. Often, the only known way to escape the pain is to descend once again into the addiction, and so the vicious cycle is set in place.
Shame is one of the most corrosive of all human emotions. It is basically fueled by a belief that in some way, who we are is just not good enough, that we are “bad” “wrong” or “defective”. Often, shame grows from a background of childhood neglect or abuse. Our young brains are not able to process the fact that if we are subjected to abuse, that it is not our fault, and we erroneously conclude that there must be something “wrong” about us, to have “created” this experience.
Brené Brown is a well-known shame researcher who has spent many years researching this topic. For her, there is no avoiding shame as it is a fundamental component of being human. Shame engineers our behavior so that we “fit into” a group so that we
“belong”. Our earliest ancestors were completely dependent upon the power of the group to protect and defend them. Without the group, death was almost certainly imminent. So, shame can also be seen as the fear of not belonging, of being cast out, and of dying. It is no wonder that the threat of shame is processed in the body in exactly the same way as any real external threat, through the reptilian part of our brain- the limbic system, which then gives us the message to “fight it” “flee from it by running away” or “freeze- become paralyzed”. When we experience shame, our higher cortical functions such as reasoning and thought effectively go “off-line”, and we are unable to do more than “fight, flight or freeze”
How do you break this cycle?
According to Brené Brown, shame requires three components to exist. Secrecy, silence and judgement. The very nature of shame means that we hold it close to us- too ashamed to speak of it, and so it grows. In order to break out of the cycle, it requires that we find the courage within to speak out and find connection, and hopefully, compassion. This touches upon another topic that Brené Brown is well-known for- the arena of vulnerability. For her, these two topics are intimately connected- for to speak of shame requires us to be in a place of vulnerability. A place that many of us find extremely difficult. For many people, being seen as vulnerable means being “weak”, and yet the irony is, that we see other people being vulnerable as something that is courageous and connecting. Why is it that we see vulnerability as courageous for others, but weakness in ourselves? Maybe because we like to present ourselves as “strong” and “in control” yet we are all aware that none of us are strong all the time, nor are we in control.
For addicts, it is important to make the distinction between shame and guilt. Shame can be considered to be the belief that “I am bad” whereas guilt is the belief that “I did something bad”, the distinction between these two is immense. One directs the judgement at the essential nature of the individual which implies that it is a permanent and irremediable feature- basically believing there is little to no hope, whereas guilt is directed towards the behavior, and so change is possible. It is also interesting to note that the holding of shame is highly correlated with addiction- i.e., those people who feel shame are more likely to become addicts, versus those people who respond with guilt are less likely to become addicts.
How do we work with shame?
As much as we would like not to feel shame, this is not possible while living in the real world. We need to be able to find a way to increase our “shame resilience”. The way to foster these qualities is by being in a safe, supportive, non-judgmental environment. This is paramount, as well as choosing appropriate people to whom we can safely disclose our feelings to. Developing our own practice of compassion and kindness will enable us to meet our own pain without judgement.
Recognizing the strong links between shame and addiction and working in an integrative way to foster a community that creates a safe and non-judgmental listening space is very important. Incorporate mindfulness with self-compassion and kindness practices. In one of my workshops on shame, a participant remarked “I was anxious about sharing my own examples, but when I noticed that other people were brave enough to do so, and seemed to be okay with it, it encouraged me to do the same. It was like standing on the edge of a pool of water and fearing that the water was too cold, but then you see that others have jumped in and seem to be okay, and it encourages you to do the same”
Shame is an epidemic within western society. Hopefully, simply by reading this article, you will take one more step away from the secrecy and silence which festers shame within, and towards more openness and acceptance. None of us are perfect, all of us make mistakes- if only we could be kinder with this knowledge towards ourselves and each other.
Samina is a Senior therapist at Hope Rehab Thailand.
(http://www.hope-rehab-center-thailand.com) She is a transpersonal therapist and self-compassion coach currently working towards completing her PhD focusing on addiction, shame and compassion.