Written By: Lighthouse Editorial Team

Our editorial team includes content experts that contribute to Lighthouse Recovery Institute’s blog. Editors and medical experts review our blogs for accuracy and relevance. We consistently monitor the latest research from SAMHSA and NIDA to provide you with the most comprehensive addiction-related content.

Published on Aug 20, 2015 | Drug & Alcohol Recovery

Written By: Michael Herbert

The Roots of Shame and Addiction

shame and addiction

Original Photo by Anthony Easton

Over the past several months, I’ve been exploring and presenting the topic of shame.

I’m learning shame starts very early for most. Shame can begin before we have the language or intellect to understand it as a concept. As early as seven months, small children can experience moments of disconnection from their parents, the primary caretakers.

During these moments of disconnection, whatever the cause, we get a primal feeling, a gut instinct, that something’s wrong. There’s the unspoken feeling that our very survival is threatened.

Our Parents Are Perfect

Through a child’s eyes their parents are perfect. They take us to school, we hold their hands, and we show them off to friends. We can’t imagine anything could possibly be wrong with our parents. So, when something happens that’s deemed negative, we believe there’s something fundamentally wrong with us, the child. Personally, it’s taken me over half my life to not view my parents, and grandparents, as perfect.

The constant and repeating “I’m doing something wrong,” every time I did something my way, began to feel like a badge of shame over my chest. I became persistently ashamed, as if I was the cause of everything wrong in the world.

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Shame Is at the Heart of Addiction

As I learn more about shame, addiction, and their connection, I’m really beginning to understand the power of shame, and see how shame is at the very heart of addiction.

It’s been said that addiction and shame are like Siamese-twins and separating them isn’t only painful, but risky as well. Shame is seen as a wound in the soul, and for some there’s no forgiveness.

Shame shows up in our thoughts, when we think “I’m flawed, defective, and dirty.” Shame appears in language, when we say things like “I’m just not good or smart enough.”

Shame gives us the notion that we’re different and, in some ways, unique. Often, this uniqueness is seen as a negative trait. Feelings associated with shame include: embarrassment, worthlessness, uselessness, anger, and rage.

Shame also shows up physically. Physical signs of shame include: a sense of weakness, stuttering, nausea, muscle constriction, poor eye contact, and even a change in posture as we position ourselves to appear smaller.

Confusing Guilt with Shame

Guilt is an internalized value system that’s important for moral development. When our behavior goes against our value system, we feel guilty, but with guilt there’s an opportunity for forgiveness.

However, with shame the message is we don’t measure up to some “standard” and we are not okay “as is.” Our thoughts and feelings may count for little and approval seeking becomes a way of life, a mere existence lived without getting what we need from the outside, because we’re unable to get our needs met internally.

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Shame Can be Triggered by the Slightest Encounter

Those experiencing shame find other needy people to interact with, and tolerate disrespectful and abusive relationships as a result. Those living in shame have no one to tell them they’re okay, and even if they do find someone to tell them they’re okay, the internal shame messages are so strong, they can’t hear it, or simply don’t believe what they hear. The external messages become internal which leads to the feeling of shame.

Perhaps it was something said or done that brings about shame. It could even be something that wasn’t said, perhaps an improvement in behavior that goes unmentioned. Shame may stem from being in a specific circumstance.

For example, if people are sharing their opinions about something, and an opinion is presented as negative, and that specific opinion is connected with the shameful individual, and the individual is too young, insecure, or unsure of themselves, they may internalize only the negative aspects of the conversation. This can lead to repeated experiences of shame whenever that opinion or subject is brought up in the future.

Shame is immobilizing and the individual often gets stuck repeating the same behavior, while expecting different results. In this way, shame is stuffed into our lives and accepted without question. Shame is its own catalyst to the feeling that causes shame. Put another way, shame breeds more shame. So much so, that broaching shame brings up the feeling and often stops the conversations before it even begins. So, as the saying goes, “we’re only as sick as our secrets.”

Dealing With Shame and Addiction

What can be done about these feelings of shame, which so often lead to addiction? What can we do when our lives spiral out of control? How can we begin to discuss the effects of shame that really take their toll on those in active addiction? Well, there’s a way out, so let’s talk about that.

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Shame Exists in All Walks of Life

Most addicts come from dysfunctional families who have their own shame. Families that suffer from addiction, mental health issues, sexual abuse, physical abuse, issues with race, religion, ethnicity, skin color, and weight are a breeding ground for shame. Language barriers, poverty, wealth, divorce, separation, and silence can all attribute to self-induced ineptitude.

It doesn’t matter whether someone is raised in a household with rigid or permissive boundaries, shame can, and does, exist in all walks of life. The similarities between many households are their unspoken rules for individuals, often males, and include: don’t talk, don’t trust, don’t show weakness, and don’t feel.

No One Will Laugh at You

Finding a way to share, to vent the pressures of shame, isn’t as hard as many think. No one is going to laugh at us. As a matter of fact, many will wish you spoke up sooner and some might even feel saddened that you didn’t think enough of them to share your problem.

This is about us, right? We have to find our way. I got into helping others by becoming a vessel. I’m a safe passage through which many have crossed as they identify their causes of shame. I’ve been a light in the darkness to help others connect shame with addiction and helped them walk past that, into recovery.

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Shame and Recovery

Shame seems to affect our whole being. One way to start addressing this shame is to look at it piece by piece, rather than as a whole.

We need to begin to examine the issues, actions, and people who trigger our shame. We need to separate incidents and address specific situations.

For some of us, these situations were so traumatic we’ve blocked them from our consciousness. When something happens in our daily routine, an action, a word, even a scent, shame is triggered and reminds us of our secrets.

Get the Feelings Out and Get Relief

We’ve discussed how shame can start at a very early age, before we even know or remember the beginnings of this feeling.

Some of us know exactly who, what, where, and when the shame began, yet we spend countless hours trying to figure out the why. This “why” is often because someone else hasn’t dealt with their own issues. So, the process goes from identification, to communication about how others affect us. We must remove this from our heads and hearts.

For some, this process starts with a pen and paper. For others, it could be your computer, or talking it out. Other options include: joining a psychodrama group, seeking a yoga therapist, or going on a specialized retreat about shame.

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Don’t Let Shame Get in the Way of Shame

If you’re in recovery, don’t let your shame get in the way of addressing your shame. Maybe it’s time to do another fifth step. There are many different ways to work through your shame.

Remember, we don’t get better if we keep shame inside. Eventually, the bottled up emotions become physical and manifest into negative ways to act out our shame. At this point, we become a danger to ourselves and those around us.

So, take a risk. Speak to someone, someone you trust. It can be a friend, a therapist, or a spiritual advisor. I’m reaching out and I’m more than willing to help work through your shame.


Take the first step and contact me. I’m willing to help. Visit my website at https://www.recoveryguide.net/

Michael Herbert CAC, CASAC, ICADC, CIP

Cite This Article
Lighthouse Editorial Team. "Shame and Addiction." Lighthouse Recovery Institute., Published on Aug 20, 2015, https://lighthouserecoveryinstitute.com/shame-and-addiction/.


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