Shame & Addiction: How to Overcome Shame & Free Yourself

Addicts often feel a tremendous amount of shame during recovery, feeding the addiction-shame cycle. Learn ways to free yourself from shame and addiction.

As you’re probably well aware, addiction has many undesirable bedfellows — shame being one of them. Shame about using drugs or alcohol, shame for not maintaining control of yourself, shame of disappointing others, shame for having to go through recovery.

Shame can really feel like it’s constantly nipping at your heels (or maybe taking a bigger bite). But, there’s a lot you can do to understand your shame, put it in its place, and move forward in your life without it.

Keep reading to find out more.

What Is Shame?

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines shame as:

  1. “a painful emotion caused by consciousness of guilt, shortcoming, or impropriety”
  2. “a condition of humiliating disgrace or disrepute”
  3. “something that brings censure or reproach”

That’s a good place to start. But it’s a fairly cold, impersonal way to describe shame.

As people, not reference books, shame is more than words on paper. It’s a deep-seated feeling that can rock us to the core.

What Can Shame Feel Like?

When people are burdened by shame, they may internalize it in truly false and unfortunate ways, like:

  • They aren’t good enough.
  • They’re unloveable or unlikeable.
  • They’re stupid/bad/broken/selfish/weak/a loser.
  • They don’t deserve a good life or even happiness.
  • They aren’t worthwhile or consequential.

Those are really powerful negative messages! Shame can be a bruising emotion.

But it’s also a completely human sensation. Everyone experiences shame at some point in their life, for some reason. You are not alone!

Source: Freepik

What Can Shame Look Like?

People can be hard on themselves. It’s not uncommon for people who are weighed down by shame to act in ways that correspond to those messages they’re feeding themselves. For instance, someone bogged down by shame may:

  • Withdrawn from daily activities
  • Be overly quiet, shy, or hesitant to engage with others
  • Be self-denigrating
  • Have skewed body image or low self-esteem
  • Feel guilty about other things
  • Lie or deny the truth
  • Have outbursts of anger, fear, violence
  • Feel hopeless or stressed

On the other hand, they may be like a pendulum that’s swung to the total opposite side. Perhaps their sense of shame pushes them to overcompensate. Examples of this might include:

  • Behaving in obsessive or compulsive ways
  • Trying to be perfect or the best (or extra whatever their “X-factor” is)
  • Over-achieving or over-committing
  • Excessively working to make others happy

Shame & Addiction

For those dealing with addiction, shame can be like a jacket in the early Fall. It’s either on you, enveloping you, or it’s close by, hanging on a hook by the front door. Sometimes it’s no bother at all, while other times it’s just too much to bear.

This is common. Shame and addiction often go hand in hand. (Unsurprisingly, it’s a well-documented and much-written-about phenomenon.) When addiction is part of the equation, it can feel both like shame is being projected onto the person going through recovery (external) and like it’s bubbling up from within (internal). It can feel like it’s pressing inside and out.

The stigma around addiction isn’t just unhelpful, it can be dangerous. Shame can deter or delay a person from seeking treatment for their substance use disorder — which is a serious and complex medical condition. And, avoiding treatment for addiction can lead to additional physical and mental health concerns as well.

Freeing Yourself from Shame

The good thing is that there’s a lot that people experiencing shame — and their loved ones! — can do to lighten the emotional load.

This isn’t an exhaustive list. It’s just meant to give you some initial ideas. Once you try on different shame-banishing strategies, you’ll begin to see what works most effectively. Feel free to get creative and make these methods your own.

Name the Beast

Things that are unknown or unidentified can be scary or overwhelming. Plus, if you haven’t examined that thing that’s forming the dark cloud overhead, how can you determine its root cause?

By labeling your shame as shame, you might be able to sap some of its hold on you. With a name, you’re able to start describing it, figuring it out, and strategizing ways to slay it.

Love & Kindness

Show yourself some TLC. Cut yourself some slack. Be kind and gentle to yourself.

If you’re the family or friend of someone in recovery — do the same. Your empathy and compassion could make a world of difference!

Remember that Addiction is a Medical Condition

According to the American Psychiatric Association, addiction is an actual brain disease. Consuming substances further changes the brain as well. Moreover, any number of factors out of one's control — such as genetics or one’s environment — can cause, trigger, or exacerbate addiction. Treating addiction like the legitimate health condition it is may shake that shame.

Source: Freepik

Say You’re Sorry

Many 12-step programs advocate for making amends to people you’ve harmed. If your shame manifests itself as guilt, perhaps finding ways to atone will be beneficial. Once you’ve attempted to make things right with those you’ve hurt — you just might notice some healing happening inside you, too!

Personal Growth

Deepening existing skills, or developing new ones, can be an enriching and super-satisfying means of bolstering one’s whole health. Learning and practicing accomplish many beneficial outcomes — like acquired capabilities, a creative or physical outlet for stress, establishing productive relationships with others, plain old fun. Pick up a hobby or take a class — chances are it’ll give your self-esteem a huge boost, leaving no room for shame to stick around.

Complementary & Alternative Practices

Integrative medicine is an approach that’s growing in popularity. In this framework of healthcare, different kinds of treatment options are employed in addition to Western standard therapies. All sorts of things fall into the complementary and alternative bucket: yoga and meditation, breathwork, prayer, listening to music, art therapy, support groups, massage, social skills coaching, etc. These types of modalities could help loosen the underpinnings of your shame — and be enlightening and enjoyable! 

Seek Professional Help

Therapists, counselors, and doctors go through years of training precisely to be able to assist people struggling with mental and emotional difficulties. They also know of tons of resources that can further support your efforts to ditch shame.

Source: Freepik

OTR’s Here to Help

Speaking of dedicated experts who are eager to make the path to sobriety better, Oregon Trail Recovery is on your side. As a team, we can assess your needs and develop a plan to treat your addiction. This includes attending to your mental and emotional well-being as you work through recovery.

Call us today to learn how we can help.

Join our newsletter

Get weekly advice on addiction recovery for you or a loved one