The Meadows Blog

Sunday, 07 October 2012 20:00

The Role of Shame in Addiction

John Bradshaw John Bradshaw

Addiction has been defined as a pathological relationship to any mood altering substance, experience, relationship or thing that has life damaging consequences. Addiction is pathological because it is rooted in denial. There is no other disease that the worse it gets the more the patient denies they have it. It is also clear that a person rarely has just one addiction. A vast number of addicts move to another addiction when they stop the addiction they were in. Some of this can be attributed to genetic predisposition, but the more critical factor is internalized shame. Shame is an innate feeling that monitors our propensity towards avidity, especially our curiosity, interest and pleasure. Shame also guards our privacy (acting as covering for our physical and emotional decency). As a covering for our emotional decency, shame safeguards our dignity and honor. No feeling is more important to our sense of self than shame. When our privacy and sense of self is unduly violated because of abandonment and abuse of any kind, the feeling of shame is ruptured. We are completely vulnerable (without any covering) and cannot defend ourselves. We stop feeling shame, we become chronically ashamed. The more this happens the more we experience our identity as flawed and defective. As Shame becomes internalized we develop a shame-based identity. The majority of addicts are shame based. To stop drinking alcohol puts an end to an alcoholic's addiction, but it does not stop the person's addictiveness which is rooted in their shamed based identity.

Initially the rupturing of shame happens within a context involving a significant other. Abandonment, neglect, physical, sexual and emotional abuse are forms of rejection and leave their victim feeling unwanted, undesirable and personally flawed. The abuser transfers their own shame to the abused who carries their shame. Ruptured shamed is "carried or toxic shame." All abuse transfers shame, but when a child is shamed for having a feeling (any feeling) that feeling is bound in shame. The same is true for one's needs and wants, so that when a growing child wants or desires or needs something, they are shamed for it. Once a child goes to school and ventures into the world, there are myriads of dangerous people who are potential sources of shame. The shaming that went on in my catholic elementary school was horrible. Kids learn early on that they are compared to the kids that are handsome and good looking; they learn how obsessively important sports are and many learn that they just don't measure up. One of the processes of shaming is measurement. Slow learners (often because of slower development) are shamed both at school and at home for not measuring up. Children quickly learn about money and experience shame if their family is low income. We live in a culture of vicious shame.

Young girls easily develop shame because of their gender, and God help the gay, lesbian and transgendered. They are not only socially shamed but they are told that God judges them. Over fifty-five years of teaching and counseling I've seen many addicts whose shame was sealed by the forces I've just described.

A shame-based addict feels flawed and defective in their very being. To feel that way is to feel hopeless. This awful sense of humiliation pushes the addiction into hiding and forces them to find a false self to cover up. This hiding is so crucial, since the wound of toxic shame happens because the shamed person was uncovered and defenseless with each wound of being shamed. The hiding and cover up constitute the essence of the addicts core pathology - the denial.

The hopelessness of the shame-based addict is why they find it so hard to seek help, and most only do when the paid of their denial is so great. This usually occurs when they've reached several life damaging consequences (they get fired from their job, their spouse files for divorce, they lose all their money, or they are involved in a scandal . . .) Letting an addict get to their pain is an important strategy. When they are in pain and their life is in chaos, the addict is willing to bear their shame and come out of hiding. To heal their toxic shame they have to embrace their shame. They have to come out of hiding and let another person know how bad they feel and the things they've done. For example, the first step of the A.A. program asks the suffering addict to admit that they feel powerless and that their life is unmanageable. Going to an A.A. meeting and identifying oneself as an alcoholic is the first step in owning one's "being shame", that deep inner sense of being flawed and defective. Addicts often feel ashamed of something they did while drinking, drugging, sexing etc. But I call that their meta shame. Their addiction is an attempt to mood alter (block out) their "being shame", their shame based identity. With the first step, the admission of flaws and defectiveness in a public meeting such as AA allows the addict to own their deep shame. In my book, Healing the Shame that Binds You, part II, chapter 5, I've gone through an analysis of how the steps restore the addict to a healthy sense of self. The steps take the addict to a moral inventory (Step 4) where they can connect with their guilt. Guilt is based on the same precisely written biological program as shame, but it is at a higher level of maturity (frequently referred to as morality shame). Guilt lacks hopelessness. Guilt is the guardian of conscience and motivates one to make amends, to repair the damage their addiction has created. Step 4 through Step 9 restores the addict to a healthy sense of guilt as morality shame. A clear sign of progress in recovery is that a person has developed a healthy "sense of shame". The philosopher Nietzsche said, everyone needs a "sense of shame but nobody needs to be ashamed". Every Indo- European language has two words for shame. One is defined as a "sense of shame";: Pudor (Latin), Eidos (Greek), Pudeur (French), Scham (German), and the other as humiliation or disgrace: Foedus (Latin, Aischyne (Greek), Honte (French), Schande (German).

We need a sense of shame. After working on guilt and making amends, the addict embraces Step 10 which is a maintenance step, ever reminding the recovering addict of the cunning power of toxic shame. The tenth step says, "we continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it". This is the sense of shame at work. No shame based person wants to admit any defect or vulnerability. The final two steps in the 12 steps have to do the humble admission of a power greater that ourselves. God as we understand God. It asks the recovering person to take action and reach out to other addicts who need help. For some working the 12 Step program and disciplining themselves to go to meetings (knowing that part of the addictiveness disease is a tendency to isolation and hiding) is enough. For many it is not. Addictiveness is rooted in the toxic carried shame caused by abandonment, neglect and all forms of abuse. The inner toxic "carried" shame has resulted from the trauma of their abandonment, neglect and abuse. For most these damaging behaviors are defined as post-traumatic stress disorder. The scenes that carry early traumatic abuse have to be grieved. The developmental dependency needs that should have been developed were passed over. The deep hurts and traumas of the past show themselves in serious intimacy dysfunction. I've watched and listened to folks, working good 12 step programs, who had serious intimacy problems.

Many people have to do more if they want to heal their addictiveness. I call the trauma healing, grief work "original pain" or family of origin work. It involves going back to the shame scenes where their serious abuse took place, legitimizing their pain and beginning a grief process. I'm in my forty-seven year of sobriety and almost every person I've coached, sponsored, or did therapy with, fell off the wagon or developed a new addiction who failed to do this "original pain", family of origin feeling work.

What is being called the New Paradigm is directly saying the same thing. The obsession with behaviorism or cognitive "talk therapy" has shown their limitations in dealing with addicts. Whatever else their value may be, it has failed in offering addicts, true (second order) change. First order change is a new way behaving within a given way of behaving. I know people who are addicted to AA. This is surely better than their life of alcoholism, but they are not differentiated. They do not hear their own voice when they make decisions. Some are still horribly co-dependent. The "carried" toxic shame that lies in the guts of their identity is still a black hole that they must compulsively fill. To be free we need to grieve those old wounds, develop the ego strengths we missed because of our abuse and take charge of our own personal power. Second order change transcends the old ways and stops our compulsivity. It's an unbelievable joy to be free of the burden of compulsivity. And there's nothing more important than achieving the possession of your one and only life so that "when death finds you, it finds you alive."

Mr. Bradshaw has enjoyed a long association with The Meadows as a Senior Fellow, giving insights to staff and patients, speaking at alumni retreats, lecturing to mental health professionals at workshops and seminars, and helping to shape its cutting-edge treatment programs. His New York Times best-selling books include Homecoming: Reclaiming and Championing Your Inner Child, Creating Love, and Healing the Shame That Binds You.

The Meadows is an industry leader in treating trauma and addiction through its inpatient and workshop programs. To learn more about The Meadows' work with trauma and addiction contact an intake coordinator at (866) 856-1279 or visit www.themeadows.com.

For over 35 years, The Meadows has been a leading trauma and addiction treatment center. In that time, they have helped more than 20,000 patients in one of their three inpatient centers and 25,000 attendees in national workshops. The Meadows world-class team of Senior Fellows, Psychiatrists, Therapists and Counselors treat the symptoms of addiction and the underlying issues that cause lifelong patterns of self-destructive behavior. The Meadows, with 24 hour nursing and on-site physicians and psychiatrists, is a Level 1 psychiatric hospital that is accredited by the Joint Commission.

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