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The Role of Shame in Addiction

October 8, 2012

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By Meadows Senior Fellow John Bradshaw, MA

Addiction has been defined as a pathological relationship to any mood-altering substance, experience, relationship, or thing with life-damaging consequences. Addiction is pathological because it is rooted in denial. There is no other disease where the worse it gets, the more the patient denies having 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 are 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 a 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 are 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, shame ruptures 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 shame to the abused, who carry it. Ruptured shame 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 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, myriads of dangerous people 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 who 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 at school and 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 helps the gay, lesbian and transgendered. They are not only socially shamed, but they are told that God judges them. Over 55 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 crucial since the wound of toxic shame happens because the shamed person is uncovered and defenseless with each wound being shamed. The hiding and cover-up constitute the essence of the addict’s core pathology, denial.

The hopelessness of the shame-based addict is why they find it so hard to seek help, and most only do when the pain 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 must come out of hiding and let another person know how bad they feel and what they’ve done. For example, the first step of the AA program asks the suffering addict to admit that they feel powerless and that their life is unmanageable. Going to an AA 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. The first step, admitting flaws and defectiveness in a public meeting such as AA, allows the addict to own their shame.

In my book, Healing the Shame that Binds You, part II, chapter 5, I’ve analyzed 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 involve the humble admission of a power greater than 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 hide) 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 a 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 trauma healing, grief work “original pain,” or family of origin work. It involves returning to the shame scenes where their serious abuse took place, legitimizing their pain, and beginning a grief process. I’m in my 47th 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,” the 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 its limitations in dealing with addicts. Whatever their value may be, it has failed to offer addicts true (second-order) change. First-order change is a new way of 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.”

John Bradshaw, MA, 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 bestselling 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 us.