“A painful emotion caused by consciousness of guilt, shortcoming, or impropriety”
2“A condition of humiliating disgrace or disrepute.”
Shame is that biting, gnawing feeling in your gut after a lie or petty theft, or sexual indiscretion, drunken blackout, or drugged psychoses. It is the “what the hell did I just do?” feeling we face when we walk or crawl our way into recovery. It is often the impetus for doing the same thing over and over again once we get here. Recovery doesn’t magically make it go away. Oh, in case you were hoping for exemption, shame is impervious to age, economic status, race, gender. If anything, it is addiction and mental health’s close cousin.
According to John Bradshaw there are two types of shame: “innate shame” and “toxic/life-destroying shame.” Innate shame is what will allow you to have discretion BEFORE you do something. The toxic/life-destroying shame usually happens later, after the act, when you can’t take it back. This emotion is the greasy residue of your reckless behaviors. Toxic/life-destroying shame is what separates you from others and from yourself. I believe this is where addiction sinks its teeth and feeds into this vicious, emotive cycle.
When we are new in recovery, the shame is overwhelming. There is regret and then more regret. There is anger about the regret and then shame for feeling the anger. Feeling dizzy yet? Being new is a dizzying experience. When we are using, we respond to our shame by using more, drinking more, starving more, eating more, cutting more. Shame begets shame. In recovery, we have the propensity to do the same thing. This time, instead of drugs and alcohol, we turn to other vices. Perhaps it’s gambling, or sexual indiscretions, or the internet. The list goes on. The shame of our actions can therefore make it more difficult to get or stay sober. Again, we have to face the shame head on. But we can’t do it alone.
If you are in treatment, you are in a remarkable place to address this. Treatment provides a safe container for the focused, internal work necessary to learning about processing shame. It allows one to begin to break the patterns of behavior that feed toxic/life-destroying shame. You learn to create boundaries for yourself–sometimes that might mean limiting contact with individuals whose knee-jerk response is to automatically shame you. When you’re in treatment, you can face shame without falling into the chasm of addiction or a weakened state of mental health. As I mentioned, we cannot overcome this debilitating faction of toxic shame alone: we need a community of others to support us. Being in treatment provides that initial, healing community of support.
To really dissect shame and look at its underbelly layer-by-layer would take thousands of words. It’s complicated, this shame business, because it is a natural emotion living in all of us. What we must begin to do is eradicate the harmful type of shame that drives us into the vicious cycle of addiction and negative behaviors. We will come to see the shaming behavior of others and be able to protect ourselves using healthy boundaries and a firm sense of self-love. John Bradshaw addresses this issue eloquently in Healing the Shame that Binds You. He deconstructs shame and its many faces beautifully. Once we can stare it in the face, we can stop living in the hell of addiction and begin to love ourselves for who we really are.
“Hell, in my opinion, is never finding your true self and never living your own life or knowing who you are.”
John Bradshaw, Healing the Shame That Binds You