Brené Brown—a research professor who has spent decades studying vulnerability, shame, and empathy—defines “shame” as an “intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging.”
Brown doesn’t think shame is a useful emotion. She says, “I think shame is much more likely to be the source of destructive, hurtful behavior than the solution or cure.”
People with histories of addiction will understand what she means. Shame doesn’t drive you to work on yourself or be better. It keeps you in a destructive cycle. Many people rationalize their addictions by thinking things like, “Well, I’m just going to mess up anyway” and then taking the next drink or hit. Then they feel more shame, which causes more substance use, and on and on.
But those feelings don’t immediately go away just because you’ve removed substances. Many sober people—especially people at the beginning of their sobriety—feel shame about the way they behaved when they were drinking or using.
Shame thrives in silence. If you feel ashamed, don’t keep it a secret. Talk to someone who will be empathetic and supportive. This could be a therapist, a support group, a close friend. If possible, it’s helpful to speak to both a mental health expert and a close person in your life. That way you get professional support and don’t feel like you’re in hiding in your personal life.
It’s a cliché in recovery circles, but being of service really does help your sobriety. Feeling like you have a purpose, putting good into the world, and helping someone other than yourself are all ways to combat low self-worth. We’ve listed ways to be of service during the COVID-19 pandemic here, and ways to be of service in the fight for racial justice here.
To release shame, it helps to get really familiar with self-care. This means becoming aware of what your body and your brain need to thrive and learning to meet those needs. It’s about cultivating self-awareness, which will give you a better ability to assess both your strengths and weaknesses. This doesn’t mean dwelling on flaws; it means understanding that you’re a complex human.
I’ve written on this blog about self-forgiveness; that’s another important aspect of releasing shame. Remember that you are not at fault for your addiction. Keep in mind that forgiving yourself doesn’t mean shirking responsibility for the harm you caused in active addiction. Without releasing shame and forgiving yourself, you remain stuck. When you let go of shame, you can move forward and start to do the work.
If you are struggling with a substance use or mental health disorder, there is hope. Amatus Recovery Centers offers high-quality treatment for addiction and mental health disorders in facilities across the country. Our staff will help you release unhelpful emotions like shame and fear, so that you can cultivate a meaningful life in recovery. Call an admissions specialist at 410-593-0005.