At the heart of nearly every addiction is shame in one form or another: childhood shame, sexual shame, body shame – all of which are worsened when partnered with the shame of addiction. Keep in mind addictions aren’t limited to drugs and alcohol. There are behavioral addictions such as eating disorders, gambling, sex, love, and approval addiction. The list is practically endless.
One factor which turns behavior into addiction is compulsion. Perhaps the Apostle Paul explained this best when he said,
“I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do, I do not do…but what I hate, I do.”
Knowing something is bad for you for whatever reason but being unable to stop yourself from doing it is the hallmark of an addictive behavior. So, how is addiction related to shame? Well, shame is the seedling from which addiction grows. To overcome it, you need to discern it from its close relatives: guilt and embarrassment.
Embarrassment is temporary, and usually morphs into amusement at some point. These are the “we’ll laugh about this someday” events — those which, in time — we willingly and openly share with others. The best explanation of the difference between guilt and shame may be the following from John Bradshaw:
Guilt says, “I’ve made a mistake.”
Shame says, “I AM a mistake.”
Like embarrassment, guilt is temporary. It usually spurs us to action such as modifying behavior or apologizing to someone. Shame, however, immobilizes us. The seeds of shame are planted during childhood, and the natural and even healthy reactions of embarrassment and guilt become distorted into self-loathing and condemnation.
Depression is a fine compost to shame seeds, convincing us we are bad, we deserve bad, and anyone who gets close to us will somehow also incur bad. There are plenty of people with depression and/or anxiety disorders who are not addicts, but it is extremely rare to find an addict who does not also suffer from depression. Sadly, it is very frequently the case that the person has learned to self-blame for the abuse or neglect encountered during childhood.
There IS a path to wellness, but I am going to say what some of you may not want to hear: You might need help with this one. Shame becomes so deeply ingrained in our psyche, any attempt at freeing ourselves can feel strange and frightening. Overcoming shame not only requires forgiveness, but also means sorting through a lot of emotional baggage in order to finally separate fact from fiction. For instance, childhood abuse may be fact, but recognizing and accepting it was something done TO you and not BECAUSE of you can be a big hurdle. It might help to speak with a counselor or somebody you trust.
What if you currently trust no one? Well, that can make the journey more difficult, but not impossible. Start by forgiving those who wronged you. This doesn’t mean you have to let them into your life, or that you even have to tell them you’ve forgiven them. This is about YOU removing those emotional chains which keep you in bondage.
Most importantly, start forgiving yourself. You might want to get a journal or notebook for this. Be mindful of when you are saying or doing hurtful things to yourself, and list them on one page. On the opposite page, write good things about yourself. Having trouble thinking of something good? Then simply try writing, “I forgive myself for thinking I deserve to be unhappy.” It may seem silly at first, but those three words I forgive myself have power…the power to heal.
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