Overcoming the Shame of Addiction

by Nirmala Raniga
Shame is an emotion that can be very damaging to all of us. It is an emotion that makes us feel there are aspects of ourselves that are unworthy or unlovable. When we feel ashamed, we feel compelled to keep secrets and be less than honest with ourselves and others. We ignore things that we don’t want to see or address, and we hide these things from others.
Shame is particularly damaging to those who are abusing substances like drugs and alcohol or engage in addictive behaviours. The underlying cause of any addiction can be trauma. Very often, the trauma alone causes the victim to feel ashamed. Examples of trauma could be verbal and physical abuse from a trusted partner, or sexual assault. Depending on the culture that the victim is immersed in, there can be a great deal of undeserved shame associated with such circumstances.
When a person is traumatized and lacks the coping skills to deal with past pain, he or she can turn to substances to feel better and to mask the pain—even if the relief lasts only for a little while. After a time, addiction can become a source of shame, causing a vicious cycle to ensue. Reliving the shame of the trauma triggers the desire for a substance to make the victim feel better. When someone is using a substance, shame can develop in that person from dealing with life in such a way.
Feelings of shame are deep-rooted. When we are very small, sometimes even innocent remarks can make us feel embarrassed or ashamed. We sometimes witness adults who themselves are embarrassed about their own faults and then inadvertently project their own feelings on us. Media teach us that we must have a certain body type, car, or clothes. And, if we feel we cannot meet such rigorous, narrow standards, we may believe we can’t measure up in other aspects of our lives.
Shame is an emotion that does not serve anyone. We all have flaws and things about ourselves that we might like to change. No one is perfect. So, the first thing we can do to help alleviate this negative emotion from our lives is to make a commitment to accept ourselves just as we are: beautiful beings who deserve all the wonderful things life has to offer.
Although we don’t always realize it, we are in control of our thoughts. Therefore, we can begin to accept ourselves as we are simply by changing our thoughts about ourselves and talking to ourselves in a positive way. For example, we can use positive affirmations to help change our thoughts, and we can also change our internal monologues when we catch ourselves thinking something negative about who we are.
We can also acknowledge that there are things about ourselves and our choices that make us feel ashamed. We can spend time exploring why we feel that way, perhaps with the help of a trusted therapist, family member, or friend.
It is important for individuals who have been victims of trauma to understand that the suffering they have experienced is not their fault. It was something out of their control and is now in the past. The only thing that they can change is their future so that the pain of the past does not define their lives.
For those who struggle with addiction, shame can sometimes be a very large obstacle to overcome. It is a challenge to admit that one has an addiction, but that is the first step. The next step is to reach out for help to end the cycle. Self-forgiveness is yet another part of the recovery process – understanding that we do the best we can, given the tools we have at that time. We can also ask for forgiveness from those we may have hurt along the way, while remaining open to whatever outcome arises.
The human journey is one of highs and lows. We are individuals, yet we are in many ways, the same. While we may have unique existences and experiences, we share many of the same vulnerabilities, desires, and feelings. Unfortunately, shame is one of those emotions. If we can accept ourselves for who we really are – divine beings, and remember to talk to ourselves with the highest reverence, we can begin to release feelings of shame and live more carefree, joyful lives.