Dealing with Shame in Recovery

Dealing with Shame in Recovery

For many people a life of addiction causes a huge amount of shame and it doesn’t automatically “go away” once we enter recovery. Perhaps it’s major shame based upon embarrassment at some of our behaviors while drinking or using. A family gathering that ended up in disaster. Wrecked cars, stolen money and judgment from those who were once closest to us. Entering into recovery we begin to deal with the shame of our addiction. Starting treatment or support groups we have fellow recovering people that also have disappointed themselves or their loved ones countless times in the past. We feel better and we begin to open up. In our groups we share some of the things we did and find support. In other cases, we end up with a bit of gallows humor. Some might be surprised that we laugh when talking about the time we ruined the wedding or the party or…just another Saturday. We’re not necessarily laughing out of spite or who we hurt. Its the laughter found when we realize that our situations weren’t that unique. We laugh at the ridiculousness of our addiction.

Finding a support group can help to diminish the shame, but that is often only the case in a support group bubble. Inside the bubble is one thing, but the world outside isn’t always a safe protective space. Whereas those of our recovering fellows might forgive our past, for those directly affected in our lives, that forgiveness isn’t often as quick. The boss who had to deal with us constantly calling off, or the spouse who had been let down time again, or the parent who’s money disappeared when they forget to hide the purse or the wallet…these aren’t so quick to believe us just because we now have a few weeks or months without a disaster. For some they just don’t believe that it won’t happen again. Whatever successes we might have, deep inside they just seem to feel that it’s only temporary. They’ve been let down too many times. And so, they bring it up, again and again, reminding us that no matter who we might be now, we’re still “that” person who did those terrible things. “Sure you’re sober now, but how long is this going to last. I’ve been let down too many times before.”

It is important to understand that for many of us, shame is often the driving force of our addictions, and often started long before we ever started abusing drugs or alcohol. Shame is a powerful thing. It doesn’t say “I am sorry for doing that bad thing.” Shame shouts loudly “I am sorry for who I am.” For many of us growing up shame took an early root. It could start in many different ways. Unhealthy or abusive upbringing, being poorer than others, social awkwardness, not fitting in, bullying in school, not doing well in school…there are a thousand ways the voice of shame has whispered to us “there is something wrong with you. You aren’t good enough compared to them.”

When shame takes root, recovering/addicted people have a natural tendency to deal with it in one or more of three distinct unhealthy ways:

  1. Avoiding anything that triggers the shame. In an attempt to avoid re-experiencing the painful emotions that come up with shame, it is not uncommon to simply avoid situations where the shame can be re triggered. For example, if one has experienced shame due to social awkwardness, just avoid social situations. Sitting quietly at the support group meeting, we pass instead of sharing because we don’t want to sound stupid. Avoidance takes so many different forms. Ironically, drugs and alcohol abuse can be examples of avoidance of shame. A common cycle that happens with people new in recovery is that they find when sobering up that not everyone is now free from judgment of their past life. And what happens is that they tend to seek out and go back to the one place free of shame: the local drug house, using friends, or bar scene. Not only do the drugs erase the shame, but the drug and alcohol culture is often the one place that won’t throw darts at their addiction past or present.
  2. Overcompensating to not trigger the shame. When we have experienced shame in the past, another unhealthy way of dealing with it is to overcompensate so that the particular shame doesn’t become re triggered. For example, if one grew up poor and was often bullied as result of it, then often times that same person will focus all their energies in buying expensive clothes, making more money, or having the nicest of homes. Rising “above” the shame trigger, isn’t actually dealing with it, it actually is just another symptom of it. A common thing that early recovering people can do, is to become “hyper-perfect sober” people. Overly committed to doing everything right, they can be the one who outwardly is doing “well” in treatment. Following all suggestions, and “making up for lost time” and becoming super responsible, super sober, high functioning individuals. Focusing all their energies on getting a job that makes a lot of money, a relationship and new clothes so that they can feel right on the outside. But that hyper-perfection often comes at a price. When the job, new relationship or anything doesn’t go perfectly…the feeling of failure is amplified, often derailing someone and driving them into relapse. When we are working so hard to convince ourselves and the world that we are “better” it becomes almost impossible to tell anyone that we’re not ok.
  3. Self punishing to validate the shame. The final unhealthy way of dealing with shame is when the person secretly believes that they “aren’t worthy” then they will often seeks out relationships, situations and behaviors that validate the low self-worth. If you feel deep inside that you really are a failure, then getting the promotion at work doesn’t feel authentic. So we self-sabotage. Seeking out sordid places or abusive relationships is common. Falling back into drugs because ironically, for many newly sober people, doing well…doesn’t feel like its deserved. We destroy the wonderful things we’ve built up in in recovery because it doesn’t feel authentic to us. When the outside doesn’t match the inside, we’ll change the outside to fit the inside.

All in all, shame is one of the hidden drivers for addictions and many different unhealthy or abusive behaviors. Sooner or later, the shame in our lives, whether from our addiction or before, has to be faced. Ideally this can happen organically with a support group or through slow and steady work. But if you are like many who struggles with maintaining sobriety for any length of time, then it’s probably shame driving the bus. Professional help in facing and looking at the deep work around shame can bring and end to so many cycles.

Until you can find that mentor, support group friend, sponsor or therapist to be able to open up and share our vulnerable shame then what usually happens is that we end up gravitating towards the one place where there there is no shame….our old addiction and lifestyle.

The magic of recovery is once you face and work through your shame it no longer owns you. It becomes an integrated part of who you were, but not necessarily who you are. And then, one day, you can find yourself sitting across from someone struggling in their addiction and say to them “I know exactly how you feel. Let me share a part of my story.” And the person who was once filled with shame can now begin to lower their guard, become vulnerable and share a piece of theirs. And their recovery goes to a whole new level.

About the Author