By Jim Seckman, MAC, CACII, CCS
Shame and addiction are Siamese twins. One rarely exists without the other. Both exist behind walls of denial, growing like cancer, sucking out life. –Stephanie E.
One of the major blocks to our spiritual growth in recovery is shame. While shame and addiction certainly do coexist, shame and spirituality cannot exist at the same time. One cancels the other out. Spirituality is about the connection with self, others, and a Higher Power. Shame separates us and isolates us in ways that are more powerful than most anything else; it robs us of our self-image, destroys relationships, and drives us to hide from ourselves, others, and our Higher Power.
What Is Shame?
Shame is different than guilt. Guilt is a feeling of remorse when we have done something wrong, made a mistake, or not done something that we should have. It is about behavior. Shame is the feeling that we are a mistake. That we are inadequate and insufficient as a person. It is about our being; it is about who we are. But, here is a simple fact:
We were not born with shame.
When you think about infants and small children, it is easy to understand that they are not inadequate or insufficient as a person. So, the question then becomes, “How do we acquire shame (how does it grow in us)?”
Shame is the lie someone told you about yourself. -Anais Nin
Shame is not something that we are born with; it is something that is given to us or inflicted on us. In a shame-based family or system, anxiety, anger, and other members’ own shame, are projected (“dumped”) onto the weaker members (typically children). This can occur through emotional abuse, physical abuse, punishment that focuses on character, or verbal abuse of negative and shaming messages. In shame-bound families and systems there are certain rules:
- Don’t talk, don’t trust, don’t feel
- You should know how to act (even though no one ever tells you)
- Always be in control
Addiction and Shame
Many people have identified that shame was a major contributor for them to begin using alcohol or drugs. In an effort to avoid the emotional distress of shame and fear of exposure, they began to numb themselves and seek safety within the disease. However, addiction is a “shame generator.” Not only does it not alleviate our pain, it creates more. We feel shame and so we use, but since we cannot control the process and do things that are inconsistent with what we believe and our self-image, we experience shame, which causes more emotional distress, which leads to more use. The shame just keeps “pumping” into us.
Shame is a soul eating emotion. –Carl Jung
But, here’s some really good news:
Shame is not the core of who we are.
Since we were not born with shame, what has been inflicted on us surrounds the core of our being (like rust or dirt that has collected on the surface of who we are). Then, we develop defenses to surround our shame that we believe will protect us from the awareness, or exposure.
- The defenses around our shame can include:
- Addiction, control, perfectionism, arrogance, anger, suppressing of feelings, denial, depression, indifference, excessive criticism and blaming of others.
How Do We Heal From Shame?
- First of all, we have to expose it in order to break its power. Shame does not want to be exposed! It wants to be held secret, but holding secrets is one thing that will definitely keep us sick.
- Trust others to hear our shame and accept us. This can be extremely difficult because we may believe that if we share our shame with others that they will reject us and just shame us further.
If we can share our story with someone who responds with empathy and understanding, shame can’t survive. –Brené Brown
- Be gentle with yourself
- Your “child” has been deeply hurt and is scared to take risks. So, you need to be very gentle and nurturing to yourself.
- Affirmations – Combat the shame messages with affirmations. You may be thinking that affirmations are “just words,” but most of the time, it was words that were so damaging to us in the first place. So, if words can hurt us, words can heal us.
- Work the Steps
The Steps and Shame
While all of the Steps attack shame in one way or another, 1-7 are particularly critical for addressing shame.
Step 1: Admitting we are powerless takes the power away from shame. Since a defense against exposure of our shame is controlling behavior, admitting we are powerless negates that defense. This is very different from helplessness. When I am helpless, I have no power, and no hope. When I admit powerlessness, I gain the freedom of choice. I regain my power in an act of surrender.
Step 2: Believing that a Power greater than ourselves can restore us to sanity helps to reduce shame by helping us to look outward for help. Shame is very isolating. We believe that we are beyond hope. We are focused only on ourselves. Turning our attention outwards helps us to rely on a power that is greater than us to help us heal.
Step 3: Turning our will and our life over helps us to not have to do this alone. If we could heal our shame alone, we wouldn’t be in this predicament in the first place. It has isolated us and now we need to learn to trust in others and that Power greater than us.
Again, shame and spirituality cannot exist at the same time. One cancels the other out.
Step 4: Making a searching and fearless moral inventory can be tricky. We may be tempted to sink back into shame as we recount all the things we’ve done that seem to reinforce the shame messages of our past. It is important to expose each item, no matter how dark and deep, so that we can bring it out and deal with it. Shame thrives on secrecy. This Step is not about beating ourselves up, it is about getting everything out in the open so we can heal. Think of it as emotional surgery; we have to open everything up before we can operate on it.
Step 5: Admitting to God, ourselves, and another person takes the shame that is inside of us and puts it on the outside to expose it to the light where it cannot survive. We can actually be free of the shame when we do this.
Steps 6 and 7: These are important to “tie up” the experience and allow your Higher Power to take the shame and you can get a fresh start. Only then will you be ready to go to others to make amends without shaming yourself. Acknowledging our shortcomings actually makes us more approachable, lovable, and real. Our brokenness ends up being the very thing that connects us to and helps others.
It is only within our very imperfection that we can find the peace and serenity that is available to us. -Ernest Kurtz, The Spirituality of Imperfection