Understanding and Overcoming the Shame of Addiction

Shame and addiction almost always go hand in hand. If you’re struggling with an addiction of any kind, whether it’s to alcohol, prescription medications, sex, food, gambling, or street drugs, you likely have been feeling the shame of addiction for quite some time. Perhaps you’ve been trying to overcome it for years. One of the most unfortunate aspects of this powerful shame is that it is one of the primary contributors to your addiction. Shame is a deeply personal – and very painful – emotion. Most people who are feeling shame – regardless of the source of their shame – do everything they can to make it go away – even if only temporarily. It goes like this: the shame of addiction makes you feel awful, so you self-medicate it with a substance or activity (i.e. your “drug of choice” so to speak); you feel better so that reinforces the addictive behavior, but you also feel bad that you gave in and the shame quickly returns, driving you to self-medicate once again. With each instance of that vicious cycle your self-esteem takes a blow. You may feel out of control, powerless, hopeless, disgusted, angry, or disappointed with yourself. You mentally beat yourself up for not being strong enough to not give in to the urge to use. You feel guilty and worthless. Also, as your addiction negatively impacts other areas of your life such as your relationships, your finances, or your work, the shame takes a firmer hold on your psyche. Each time your make a promise to quit and don’t, or each time you tried to stay clean and sober only to relapse, the shame was reinforced. You may have also experience the judgmental, condemning remarks or glances of other people. Those also fuel the powerful shame of addiction. So, how do you cope with it? How do you get past it? Following are some important key steps.

Acknowledge the Shame

First, you need to acknowledge the shame of addiction – and all the pain that accompanies it. And it’s important that you do this without judging yourself. This can be a difficult step but it’s a powerful one. Harsh self-condemnation is difficult to avoid because you’re probably so used to judging yourself – and having others judge you as well. But consider this – if you were helping someone you care about – perhaps a family member or a close friend – with this, you would most likely be compassionate and understanding. You’d want to provide support and encouragement to this person. So, don’t you deserve the same?

Accept That Your Addiction Doesn’t Define You

Second, in order to overcome the shame of addiction you need to accept and acknowledge that your addiction doesn’t define you (do this in the spirit of not condemning or judging yourself) You are not your addiction. You arenot a loser, or a horrible person, or a substandard human being just because you have an addiction. Everyone you know, whether they’ll admit it or not, has both strengths and weaknesses. Perhaps their areas of weakness don’t include an addiction – but they have others. Does that make them superior to you in some way? No. Just like everyone else you have many strengths as well – don’t discount them. This one weakness – big as it may seem – is not the sum total of who you are. Start focusing on your strengths. It may be difficult at first because this one weakness seems to overshadow everything else. But, as you begin to recognize and accept that you have many areas of strength, your addiction won’t seem so huge. Also, weaknesses can be overcome – they don’t have to last indefinitely.

Accept Your Imperfect Humanness

Third, overcoming the shame of addiction includes accepting that, because you are human, you are also imperfect. Most people are their own worst critics – and as an addict, it’s especially hard to not be extremely critical of yourself. You’ve made mistakes in your life – and so has everyone else. For whatever reason, you were vulnerable to becoming an addict. That vulnerability is part of your imperfect humanness.

Understand that You’re Not Alone

Fourth, in order to let go of the shame of addiction, you need to realize that you’re not alone in the world. It may feel like it, as addictions can lead to a very lonely life. But there are people who genuinely care and will help you – if you’ll let them. Often, these individuals have walked the same (or a very similar) road as you. They know from firsthand experience what it feels like to battle and addiction. They know that it feels as if you are completely alone in the world – with no one who can even begin to understand what you’re going through.

Reach Out for Help

There are so many people who are willing to help you through this – willing to guide you and encourage you and help motivate you on the road to recovery – and help keep you clean and sober once you do recover. They know the painful shame of addiction. They know that it can easily get in the way of reaching out for help. But they also know that, although they could try to convince you that you need to do this, you must be the one to take the first step and ask for help. You need to be ready – and when you do reach out, they’re ready to help you. The last and final step in overcoming the shame of addiction is to forgive yourself. Choose to forgive yourself for every wrong step you took that led you into your addiction and kept you in it. Most likely, you were doing the very best you could with the knowledge and tools you had at the time. Now, you have new knowledge and tools. Overcoming the painful shame is possible – once you take that first step.

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