The Role of Toxic Shame in Addiction and Alcoholism


Sunshine Behavioral Health strives to help people who are facing substance abuse, addiction, mental health disorders, or a combination of these conditions. It does this by providing compassionate care and evidence-based content that addresses health, treatment, and recovery. Not only does shame encourage addictive behavior, but people who feel shame typically don’t ask for help with their mental illness or addiction. Drug or alcohol abuse is an unhealthy way to cope with stress, feelings of shame, and the mental issues that arise from these feelings.

One of the best ways to deal with the guilt of addiction is to work a 12-step program. The 12 steps ask us to consider and accept the ways that we have failed to live up to our own potential, which can be a cathartic process in itself. Making amends to the people we have wronged, which is traditionally done during Step 9, can be particularly helpful for resolving guilt. “I had a tremendous amount of guilt when I began treatment,” John says. “I was able to put closure on that by making amends, and I was set free.” Guilt forces us to consider the kind of person we want to be and change our behavior to match.

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It infiltrates your thoughts and makes you think you’re a bad person, or that you’re defective. Because around 10 to 25% of people don’t stop that is to say 10 to 25%. So it’s a little bit unfair to say, well, you picked up a glass of beer and it’s all your fault. Sometimes they’ll talk about constriction in the throat, I can’t talk I just, it really is the body’s response to shame.

  • What is the fight, one is to scramble, run, flee that flight, fight or flight, but there’s a third emotion or third response, and that’s a freeze response.
  • When you realize that you are a human and everyone makes mistakes, you take the pressure off of yourself.
  • Toxic shame is an emotion that can fester over time and make addictive behavior worse.
  • It’s important to forgive others too, as when you do so, you let go and accept.
  • Guilt or shame in addiction will work to perpetuate negative self-talk and hinder your ability to find meaning and purpose within your daily lifestyle.
  • Feelings of guilt are a natural occurrence and are often temporary.

And he’s been looking at their cranial nerves that extend down from the head down into the body, the 10th cranial nerve called the vagus nerve, it extends all the way down into into the gut area. There was a study done recently at Johns Hopkins University, they have the best school of public health in the world is at Johns Hopkins. But I knew that for me, in recovery, that mindfulness would be one of the resources I really wanted to explore. So I did my due diligence and found a group that focused on mindfulness approaches to addiction, and it was called refuge recovery.

It Hinders Relationships

Being able to recognize and identify what you are feeling is a significant part of recovery. When you begin feeling down, ask yourself if you may be feeling either guilt or shame. This way, you can identify the feeling and know that it doesn’t serve your recovery. This is the time to start damage control to pick yourself back up. The list of things people do while under the influence of substances that could cause pain or embarrassment is endless.

In short, guilt is an emotion that should be leveraged to change our lives for the better, while shame is one that should be put behind us. Shame can be caused by a wide range of factors — such as trauma or challenging social environments — and often causes feelings of deep inadequacy, lack of worth and the need to hide. It can trigger a dependency on alcohol or drugs as a method of escape. The shame-addiction pairing can find an addict in a precarious cycle, as their addiction may lead to increased shame and a growing need to hide their reality from others and even from themselves. Shame and addiction — what a tragically intertwined pair. Here we’ll explore the concepts of shame and addiction — and how you or a loved one can find healing from shame throughout recovery.

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Although the emotion is something most people try to actively avoid feeling, the reality is it forms part of any fulfilled life, despite the discomfort felt while experiencing it. However, for people with substance use disorders, shame is often a more constant, lingering emotion related to their actions, their words, or even just their personalities. Shame is quite different from guilt in that the former creates feelings of inadequacy. With shame, you may feel that simple mistakes devalue your worth as a person.

How Do Feelings of Guilt and Shame Feed Addiction

1For our purposes here the shame condition and the self-stigmatization condition are the same, and we will use these terms interchangeably. We focus in this paper exclusively on the latter case where shame (self-stigmatization) derives from public stigmatization. Shame about the past can be a push towards alcohol or drugs, and shame about addiction can feed lies about who you are as a person, which can lead to deeper addiction. Breaking this shame cycle is crucial to the process of recovery, and it often starts with forgiveness. First, forgiving yourself for the mistakes that you’ve made and realizing that they absolutely do not define who you are.

Mar How Shame Fuels the Cycle of Addiction

However, there is an important difference between the feeling of guilt and the experience of shame. One unfortunate aspect of parenthood is that there is frequent judgment that comes from society regarding decisions we make for our children. Women, in particular, are especially vulnerable to this criticism. For mothers struggling with addiction, the fear and shame of what could happen if people find out may make them fearful of reaching out for help. Women may fear being called selfish or terrible mothers. They may worry that their children will be taken away from them by Child Protective Services.

Feelings of guilt are often connected to and confused with shame. Both are strong emotions that, if left unchecked, could cause mental health issues. Determining the difference between guilt and shame could be a game changer for everyday life. Understanding that making a mistake isn’t the same as guilt and shame in recovery being a failure is integral to overcoming shame. If you feel guilty over something you did, it does not mean you are experiencing shame. One of the first things to understand before delving into the topic of shame and addiction is that there is a significant difference between shame and guilt.

Shame and Addiction: Why Letting Go Is an Important Part of Healing

So now, the tormented mind must battle their mental disorder plus addiction. Violence, aggression as well as eating disorders are common causes of shame. Depending on how bad the levels of shame are, one may suffer mental problems, such as depression or substance abuse.

How Do Feelings of Guilt and Shame Feed Addiction

Breaking the cycle of guilt and shame that is often present in addiction recovery is no small task. Here are a few things you can do to bring yourself out of these feelings. While many victims of trauma may suffer immense shame, which in turn, may drive them to consume drugs or alcohol, many addicts can begin to feel shame over their consumption of drugs or alcohol. In other words, substance abuse creates much more shame, especially in someone struggling with shame issues.

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In turn, feelings of shame are a risk factor for addiction, creating a cycle that can be difficult to escape. The relationship between shame, guilt, and addiction can work as a toxic cycle, each making the other worse. Witnessing someone you love deal with addiction shame can emotionally taxing.

Can guilt consume you?

Hanging on to our guilt is not healthy and can lead to other mental and emotional issues such as depression, anxiety, and low self-esteem.

They are both common feelings which can come from addiction or drug abuse. Giving back to the community offers multiple benefits for people in recovery. Volunteering is a wonderful way to fill some of the time you used to spend drinking or doing drugs, and it expands your social circle. It can also help boost your self-esteem and alleviate some of the guilt and shame you may be feeling in regards to your past actions. Journaling is a wonderful recovery tool because the act of writing down your thoughts encourages you to look at a situation more objectively. Journaling provides a safe and private way for you to work through complicated emotions about the recovery process—including any feelings of guilt or shame that you’re struggling with.

If you or a loved one are in need of help with addiction, contact us today. Our professional and friendly addiction specialists are able to answer your questions and get things moving in the right direction. Sherry Gaba, LCSW, is a licensed psychotherapist/author specializing in addictions, codependency, and underlying issues such as depression, trauma, and anxiety. Receive weekly insights to help you and your loved ones on your road to recovery.

Does guilt ever leave you?

If you don't think about it, you might reason, it will eventually dwindle and disappear. Right? This is actually not the case. Like other emotions, unaddressed guilt can stick around, making you feel worse over time.