Addiction and the Difference Between Shame and Guilt

Posted on November 28th, 2014

Addiction and the Difference Between Shame and GuiltI first became aware of my addictive tendencies when I was about 18. I definitely wasn’t a DARE kid; I couldn’t say “no” to drugs. I used anything I could find access to—pot, LSD, Ecstasy—and I used them in combination. When I finally wanted to stop using illegal drugs, I switched to legal ones, such as ephedra, a weight-loss supplement that I used as a stimulant. No one got more done at the office than I did—or talked more, or moved faster or generally seemed as crazy. When I started to experience heart palpitations, I got off the stimulants and switched to shopping trips, perfectionism and, eventually, to compulsive sex; but all the time, I felt a crippling sensation: something was wrong with me. Why did I need to use drugs or spend money or have sex in order to feel OK? I was certain I was defective and I worked overtime to hide my behaviors from everyone around me.

I was good at it, too. No one knew my problem with addiction until I outed myself a decade-and-a-half later. I had been the queen of using in the closet or the bathroom, of hiding my purchases and receipts, of spending nights and entire relationships in other towns—even across the country—so that no one had to know about them. I carried around the hypocritical mantra that I didn’t care what anyone thought, but all the while, I was horrified with myself. It wasn’t until well into recovery that I began to cut myself some slack. All that shame I’d experienced wasn’t too terribly different than what other addicts go through; in fact, shame is the emotional engine of addiction. If I wanted to heal, I needed to convert that shame into something else.

The process of recovery, and deep and steady personal work, did that for me. Over time, I began to experience this incredible thing called compassion for myself—and because I could feel compassion for me, I could feel it for anyone—everyone—else. Compassion is a liberating emotion, which is the opposite of what certain cranky people will tell you. It gives you the opportunity to stop judging yourself and others so harshly, to let up on the negative self-talk. All that negativity requires a lot of energy and exacts a fair amount of pain. It’s from that pain that we’re running when we cycle headlong into addiction. If there’s any antidote to addiction, it begins with converting the shame through compassion.

The Power of Vulnerability

In her wildly popular TED Talk on “The Power of Vulnerability,” shame researcher and storyteller Dr. Brené Brown breaks down two powerful emotions and their relationship to our sense of belonging. Guilt, she explains, is the emotion we experience when we feel we have done something bad; shame is the emotion we experience when we believe we are bad. Shame attaches itself to identity and is directly correlated with “addiction, depression, eating disorders, violence, bullying and aggression,” while guilt, according to Brown, is inversely correlated with each of these. This news is likely unsurprising for addicts and addiction clinicians.

Talk About Shame Experiences With a Compassionate Listener

Because shame not only correlates to addiction and depression, but can also lead to low self-esteem, people-pleasing behaviors and poor boundaries, Brown recommends confronting it compassionately. When we’re experiencing a “shame storm,” she says, we need to talk about it with someone who can help us hold our experiences compassionately, someone who isn’t afraid of our mistakes or our moment of vulnerability. A friend who can say, “I get how upsetting that must feel. I’ve been there, too!” is ideal.

Brown says that sharing shame experience is important because shame wants nothing more than to hide in the dark corners, to go unseen and therefore, unresolved. When we don’t gracefully examine shame, it has the power to appear again and again and to grow larger and more vicious. But bringing shame out into the light with compassion and a sense of humor instantly minimizes its hold over us, and the lengths we will go to run from it.

 

 

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