If you put shame in a Petri dish, it needs three things to grow exponentially: secrecy, silence, and judgment- Brene Brown
Recovery is full of intense emotions- sadness, excitement, fear, and relief. These emotions ebb and flow and they reveal telling insights about your experiences and needs. But shame is another powerful emotion associated with recovery. And if it’s unchecked, it can become an insidious undercurrent affecting everything you do.
What is Toxic Shame?
Shame is a universal emotion that we all experience. At its core, shame makes you feel bad about yourself. It can come from anywhere, but it’s rooted in believing you are inferior or inadequate.
Many people first feel shame during childhood- any history of trauma or abuse can cause the snowball effect. And because addiction is inherently full of shameful behavior, this feeling often compounds over time.
Shame, of course, isn’t always bad. Sometimes, it can motivate you to change and reinforce positive behavior.
But toxic shame is different. Toxic shame comes wrapped in a profound sense of worthlessness. Where shame might tell you, I’m a bad person, toxic shame will tell you, I’m a bad person, and nobody loves me. There is no point in trying to change.
So, toxic shame, in a sense, feels finite and hopeless. When you’re stuck in its abyss, you often feel like things will never get better.
The Intersection of Shame and Addiction
How do you feel when you reflect on your addiction? If you’re like most people, you probably feel some embarrassment, anger, and disappointment. And you also probably feel ashamed. Ashamed of who you hurt, how you lied, why you used, and whatever other actions you justified at the time.
Subsequently, you might still be picking up the very messy pieces of your past. Making amends, paying back debt, and trying to reemerge into the real world- these can all exacerbate shame and reinforce low self-worth.
It’s no surprise, therefore, that shame may be one of the greatest precursors triggering the addiction cycle. When you feel bad about yourself, you want to run from that feeling. It’s painful and unsettling. So you run the way you know how- by numbing and escaping. This pattern, of course, continues making you feel bad, reinforcing more and more shame.
Unpacking Toxic Shame
Coping with shame is hard. But ignoring it only makes things worse. Here are some ways you can address shame in your recovery.
Talk About It
If secrecy is the glue holding shame together, vulnerability is the remedy for healing. Talking about your feelings can go a long way in helping you feel better.
Make sure you open up to people who will validate and respect you. Ideally, you have this support system already in place. If you don’t, consider speaking to a therapist or another mental health professional.
Remember that shame tells you it isn’t safe to be yourself or trust others. But pushing through this resistance, even if it scares you, opens the door for profound connection.
Commit to More Self-Compassion
Shame will tell you awful things about yourself. And because it also warps your self-esteem, you’ll internalize these messages.
This is why self-compassion is so important. If you can tell yourself that you’re learning and growing, that you’re on a journey of healing and better habits, the shame may naturally start to soften.
Moreover, you need to remind yourself that everyone makes mistakes- it’s part of being human. The goal isn’t to eradicate all your wrongdoings. The goal is to acknowledge your error and do better next time.
Challenge Shame-Based Messages
Shame isn’t rooted in truth. Rather, it’s rooted in perception and cognition. You can change how you think about yourself if you challenge shame-based messages when they arise.
The next time you start feeling bad about yourself, it may be helpful to ask:
- What would I tell my best friend if they were in this situation?
- How is this thought continuing to harm me?
- What’s another way of looking at this situation?
- How am I growing from this experience?
Even if you don’t feel better automatically, you start developing more realistic perspectives. Over time, this can give you a more balanced outlook towards yourself.
Many people don’t even realize the hold toxic shame has over their well-being. But if you continue to feel bad about yourself- and you assume you won’t ever feel otherwise- it’s time to reassess how you take care of yourself.
Shame can sabotage even the best recovery efforts. If you’re struggling, you owe it to yourself to work through your feelings and heal.