Historically, addiction was viewed as a personal failing, a moral flaw. Even now when most health professionals understand addiction as a disease, there is still a stigma surrounding addiction.
People do not understand the behavior of someone struggling with addiction, so they assume – and may even say out loud – that something is wrong with the person. If I am told something is wrong with me enough times, and by enough people, I will start to believe it. However, is this really where the shame begins?
Many people who study addiction would argue that shame precedes, and often leads to, addiction. When I don’t feel whole, and believe something is wrong with me, I might act out. I might do what I think others want me to do, or I might do whatever makes me feel good. I might try to fill the void I feel inside myself. Shame leads to addictive and/or compulsive behaviors, and then people who don’t understand my behavior further support the theory that something is wrong with me. As a result, I may use substances or act compulsively again, continuing this perpetual shame cycle. As some experts on addiction treatment assert, healing shame is the first step in healing addiction.
There is an important distinction to be made here, and that is the difference between guilt and shame. Guilt is feeling bad about a behavior, something one has done wrong. Shame is feeling bad about oneself; that something about a person is wrong. Guilt motivates us to have better behavior going forward. Shame can be healthy or unhealthy. Healthy shame helps us understand that we have limits (we all make mistakes, and are imperfect). Unhealthy shame makes us feel unworthy of belonging, so we isolate, and feel alone with our negative self-talk. If something is wrong with me, there is no hope for things getting better; I will forever be this way. Here is where forgiveness and grace are imperative. If I can be forgiven and shown grace, then there is hope.
In Christianity, Jesus died on the cross to break through this shame that we imperfect humans experience. Twelve Step Programs that were developed to combat addiction begin with these first two guiding principles: First, we admit we are powerless over (insert compulsive behavior or addictive substance here), that our lives have become unmanageable. Second, we came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves can restore ourselves to sanity. Even in the secular Twelve Steps, the second step reads: We came to accept and understand that we needed strengths beyond our awareness and resources to restore us to sanity. Additional steps include surrendering to the will of a Higher Power (or to the will of the support group), taking a moral inventory of our wrongs, making amends, and moving past our flaws. Even the secular principles refer to a “spiritual awakening,” which is realizing how to live, accepting our own imperfections, and offering forgiveness when we and others do wrong.
Another commonality between most Western religions and Twelve Step Programs – both spiritual and secular – is the importance of community. We cannot recover alone. It is through sharing our experiences that we can break through the shame and experience healing. It is in being part of a group that we can truly experience the feeling of belonging. If I belong, then could it be that I am okay? Maybe nothing is really wrong with who I am.
When someone is ashamed, it is easier to forgive others, and an impossible thought that we could ever earn or deserve forgiveness ourselves. In order to learn self-forgiveness, one must step outside oneself, and view one’s circumstances, experiences, and behaviors as those of someone else. Empathize, really empathize, with that person. Then one can internalize the experience and practice self-empathy. It is the classic, “how would you advise a friend in your shoes?” approach. Healing comes from admitting powerlessness and from resigning to the will of another – or something – greater. Healing comes from connecting with others, communicating experiences, and establishing a feeling of belonging. Healing comes from forgiveness, grace, and self-empathy. Spirituality – whether religious or secular – is key to healing.
Laura Sharp is a licensed specialist clinical social worker, licensed clinical addiction counselor, and Outpatient Substance Use Disorder Services Coordinator at Prairie View’s Newton office.
Alcoholics Anonymous. “Secular Twelve Steps.” Retrieved 4/1/2018 from AAagnostica.org.
Alcoholics Anonymous. “The Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous.” Retrieved 4/1/2018 from AA.org.
Bradshaw, John. “Healing the Shame that Binds You.” Recovery Classics: 2005.
Brown, Brené. “I Thought it was Just Me (But it Isn’t): Making the Journey from ‘What Will People Think’ to ‘I Am Enough.’” Brené Brown: 2007.