Shame is an isolating, debilitating emotion that can cause many to suffer from feelings of self-doubt and unworthiness. Routinely experiencing shame can feed the cycle of addiction, especially if substance misuse is prevalent or if alcohol and drugs are easily accessible. Many individuals use substances to cope with drastic feelings of shame and, with time, shame and addiction can easily become intertwined. 

In this article, we’re discussing the mental health implication of experiencing shame and its impacts for those battling with the disease of addiction. It’s important to note that strong feelings of inadequacy can lead to abuse of substances to mask or temporarily relieve symptoms and shame triggers. 

experiencing shame and addiction

What is Shame?

To understand how shame fuels drug and alcohol addiction, it’s critical to assess and distinguish the feelings of guilt vs. shame. Guilt, on the one hand, is a natural feeling that coincides with choices or mistakes. Guilt often stems from moral conscience and can help us distinguish right from wrong. 

On the other hand, shame ties into feelings of inadequacy and self-loathing. Where guilt can push some to correct a mistake or error in behavior, shame actually causes many sufferers to seek isolation in order to minimize embarrassment and judgments. 

According to a study published by leading clinical psychologist and author Paul Gilbert, Ph.D., shame is an emotion of social comparison where an individual fears or anticipates eliciting disgust in others. Increased symptom severity and lack of response to treatment are most commonly associated with other conditions such as eating disorder, PTSD, depression, and occurrences of shame and addiction. 

Signs Associated with Shame

Highly shame-prone individuals sometimes find it challenging to benefit from traditional cognitive behavioral therapies and may benefit from a compassion-focused approach. Shame, at its core, can convince many that they are bad or wrong. Some may feel shame even after correcting a misdeed or even for no reason at all. If shame is left untreated, it can fester and progress into more serious mental health conditions such as anxiety and depression. 

Getting help for shame often begins with identifying or recognizing shameful emotions. Those experiencing constant shame may feel terrified of receiving support as it means facing and disclosing shameful feelings and behaviors to others. They may be fearful that those who they seek help from will eventually discover that the shame is deserved. In addition, they may also fear exposure and rejection. 

One approach to overcoming feelings of shame is through therapy and taking steps to define shame as four distinguished components, including:

  • Recognizing signs of shame and understanding a person’s triggers for shame
  • Critical awareness of shame, including cultural and social functions
  • Reach out to others to share an uncomfortable story or feelings
  • Giving voice to feelings of shame

Shame and Addiction

According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, mental health concerns and substance use disorders impact millions of Americans every year, from every walk of life and all age groups. The coexistence of both mental health issues like feeling ashamed, and substance dependency is commonly referred to as a co-occurring disorder. 

Shame and addiction are co-occurring disorders that often appear together. The feelings of being ashamed are natural emotions that nearly every person experiences at some time. Some may take drastic measures to avoid feeling ashamed. Further, in addictive addiction, shame becomes almost unavoidable. 

Individuals that are greatly impacted by shame are often isolated or separated from others. At times, they may even feel disconnected from everything, and with prolonged isolation, substance abuse is more likely to occur. 

Feelings of shame often manifest in negative dialogue and can include thoughts such as:

  • I’m a failure
  • I don’t deserve happiness
  • I’m not a good person
  • Everything I do is always wrong
  • I will never measure up
  • I deserve to be alone

The chronic feeling of unworthiness and inferiority can make a person feel undeserving of happiness, health, life, and even love. Becoming ashamed of who you are as a person can also manifest in other ways like depression, thoughts of suicide, and risky behavior to relieve oneself of being ashamed. 

shame and addiction

Impacts of Shame and Addiction

Shame is prone to spiraling into self-medicating and addiction or keeping you within the cycle of addiction. Stresses caused by work, finances, and relationships can quickly become overwhelming and lead to individuals seeking relief through drugs and alcohol use. The same is also true for mental health issues like experiencing extremely negative emotions and thoughts of shame. 

Drugs and alcohol are known to lower self-esteem. According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine, self-esteem is one of the most important variables and concepts that might have a meaningful influence on addiction. The study determined that individuals experiencing higher rates of shame and low self-esteem were more prone to drug and alcohol use. Comments within the study conclude:

“Our perceptions toward ourselves are developed through the process of acting, and then thinking about our actions as well as how others perceive those actions. External factors such as social prestige, wealth, education level, and even job title do not have a meaningful effect on self-esteem and feelings of shame.”

Treating Shame and Addiction

Shame often stems from a traumatic experience. People may fear that they deserved the trauma, experience guilt and shame about having survived, or feel ashamed of abuse. When shame and addiction co-occur, treatment options usually include a dual diagnosis approach. On one side, treatment programs should offer individual therapy and even group therapy that addresses the root causes of shame and underlying mental health conditions that may trigger substance abuse. Some treatment options include:

  • Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT): CBT helps people understand the connection between their thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. Licensed therapists often focus on automatic thoughts that typically go unnoticed, such as those listed previously. 
  • Complex Trauma: therapy designed to address complex trauma and identify other symptoms of mental health issues that frequently appear with trauma, such as depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, and more

Substance Abuse Treatment

Experiencing shame long-term leads many to a life of alcohol and drugs. More alarmingly, due to the nature of shame and the stigmas surrounding substance abuse, it can cause many to fear treatment and even refuse treatment altogether. As the drug epidemic impacts more and more Americans, access to substance abuse programs is more critical than ever, particularly those that address dual diagnosis care and support. 

treating shame and addiction

AspenRidge REACH: Online Substance Abuse Treatment

Online or virtual addiction treatment makes it easier for those experiencing shame and trauma to receive support and therapy based on individual needs. By integrating telehealth strategies with existing evidence-based treatment modalities of in-person outpatient programs, the outcomes appear favorable. In addition, online therapy, like AspenRidge REACH, can provide group therapy that helps individuals through sober communities.

AspenRidge REACH offers two comprehensive online substance abuse treatment programs focused on addressing mental health concerns like shame and treatment of substance use disorders to help individuals and families live healthier lives. 

Our programs include:

What to expect from online addiction treatment

Online programs are designed to educate and empower people to make healthier decisions. We combine evidence-based programming like recovery coaching, skillset training, relapse prevention assistance, addressing underlying mental health concerns, individual therapy, family sessions, cognitive behavioral therapy, psychiatry and recovery support services, and much more. 

If you or a loved one is experiencing addiction, deeply seeded shame may be exacerbating the issue. Finding proper therapy and access to treatment is crucial. At AspenRidge REACH, we understand that every situation is unique. Your therapist will work with you to create an individualized treatment plan specific to your needs. Don’t wait, and contact our 24/7 support center directly at 720-650-8055