Study Finds Shaming an Alcoholic Is the Worst Thing You Can Do

Feeling shame about past alcoholism may increase the likelihood of relapse, according to a new study in Clinical Psychological Science, a journal of the Assn. for Psychological Science. Conducted by researchers at the University of British Columbia, the study finds that behavioral displays of shame strongly predicted whether recovering alcoholics would relapse. Thus, shame may actually be a risk factor for certain behaviors rather than a deterrent. But this doesn’t seem to be the case for guilt. “One reason that certain sobriety programs may be effective,” the researchers say, “is because they encourage people to see their behaviors as something they should feel guilty, but not necessarily shameful, about.” Feeling guilt about previous behavior, as opposed to shame about being a “bad” person, may be an important component of recovery. Guilt may actually help a person recognize his or her wrongdoing and help in making a new plan for recovery, whereas shame can damage a person so badly that he or she falls back into relapse. To investigate the influence of shame and guilt on recovery from addiction, the researchers looked at drinking and health outcomes in a group of recovering alcoholics.

Observing Shame

The study participants had all recently celebrated their sobriety. Researchers were able to evaluate the shame of a person through body language and questionnaires. Researchers would notice the emotions of shame through videotaped interviews when the participants were asked about a time when drinking made them feel badly about themselves. Slumped shoulders and a narrow back signaled that the participants were feeling shame. Four months later, the participants were again questioned about their drinking activity and if they were still sober. Researchers found a distinction between those who had relapsed and those who had not. People who displayed more shame-related behavior were more likely to relapse.

Successful Sobriety Programs are Shame-Less

Study researchers Jessica Tracy, Ph.D., and doctoral student Daniel Randles, say that feeling shame about past alcohol problems does not help recovering alcoholics avoid alcohol, but instead may send them back into relapse “Treatment providers have long suspected that shame is a barrier to recovery, but this is the first time we’ve seen this link evidenced so robustly,” note Tracy and Randles. The results have clear implications for anyone who struggles with addiction or who has loved ones struggling with addiction, and it also has implications for researchers and clinicians who study emotion and addiction. “Our research suggests that shaming people for difficult-to-curb behaviors may be exactly the wrong approach to take,” Tracy and Randles argue. “Rather than prevent future occurrences of such behaviors, shaming may lead to an increase in these behaviors.”

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