Addiction and Shame – Overcoming Negative Self-Image in Alcohol Recovery

Do alcohol addicts drink to self-medicate shame? How is a negative self-image a barrier to alcohol recovery? New research, published in February 2019, looks closely at the relationship between alcohol addiction and shame.

Eight participants in alcohol recovery took part in the study: five men and three women, aged 27–74, ranging from 21 months to 35 years in sobriety. They were asked to tell their personal story of recovery from alcohol addiction. Their narratives were analysed in terms of the tone and emotional language, imagery and themes, as well as the commonalities and differences across all stories. Researchers found that recovering alcohol addicts often spoke of a deep-rooted negative self-image, which pre-existed their addiction. They concluded that managing shame is an important part of alcohol recovery – including in preventing relapse and increasing quality of life.

Addiction and Shame – How Are They Connected?

The research highlights a number of key findings of addiction and shame, drawn from other studies. People become addicted because they find temporary relief from shame by using mind-altering substances. It’s a vicious cycle, however, because addiction also reinforces the shame people feel over time. People with drug addictions have consistently higher levels of shame than other populations. People suffering from depression and anxiety are more likely to use alcohol to cope with negative feelings about themselves.

Shame is also connected to internalised rage, where people direct anger towards themselves. This can reinforce addiction as a faulty coping mechanism. Shame is also connected to addiction relapse. When negative self-image becomes overwhelming, people can return to alcohol, drugs (or addictive processes) to escape painful feelings.

In terms of recovery, researchers found that where there is a specific focus on managing shame, including developing strategies within a recovery support network, shame reduces over time.

The Difference between Shame and Guilt

The research describes a key difference between shame and guilt. A person who feels guilty perceives their behaviour as bad. A person who feels shame perceives they are inherently bad.

Feeling guilty is more likely to result in taking action to change, including seeking support in recovery and taking steps to address mistakes. Feeling shame often inhibits such positive actions, however, perpetuating the problem. For people in alcohol recovery, this difference is important because where negative self-image persists, unmanageable feelings and behaviours often increase. Relapse is more likely if a person is constantly feeling unworthy, bad or unacceptable.

Sources of Shame in Recovering Addicts’ Lives

1. Growing up with an addicted parent

Before their own alcoholic drinking started, half of the research participants described having an addicted parent and how that created feelings of shame in their childhood. Gary said: “I know that he [my father] instilled shame in me… unless your behaviour was exemplary then you should be ashamed of yourself.”

Adaptive behaviours in childhood, including trying to avoid peers coming into contact with their addicted parent, had the potential to reinforce their shame. Feeling pressure to keep the family secret, losing opportunities to connect with friends and experiencing isolation in childhood could all make shame even worse. Paula said: “I was ashamed of our home. I couldn’t take people home.”

2. Shame and inferiority

All participants talked about feeling inadequate in some way. Feeling less than or different from other people was a common source of shame. A sense of inferiority perpetuates shame, due to a lack of connection with other people because people feel unworthy of belonging. Michelle said: “I just had a sense of shame of who I was. I just didn’t think I was normal or up to scratch.”

People also spoke of turning to alcohol to cope with these painful and inhibiting feelings. Dean said: “Alcohol just took the edge off of life.” Paula said: “It was like bristles in my brain they hurt me so much. I had to drink to take the pain away.”

Overcoming Shame in Addiction Recovery

1. Giving back can reduce shame

Belonging to a recovery support group such as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) was highlighted as helpful in alcohol recovery. This included being able to support other people in their recovery from alcohol addiction. James said: “Part of my recovery and staying recovered involves passing on and helping others.”

Giving back was mentioned as a shame reducing activity. Helping other people increased people’s feelings of worthiness, whilst building positive relationships with other recovering addicts.

2. Healing shame through hearing

The shared experience of AA, including listening to other people’s stories, was identified as shame reducing. Matthew said: “Hearing other people tell their stories – it’s not just me that’s done that. It doesn’t make it right but it’s suddenly not as shaming.”

Moving towards a more compassionate narrative about oneself in alcohol recovery may also help to alleviate shame.

3. Acknowledging shame

Expressing and talking about shame helped people to manage and overcome it in alcohol recovery. James said: “Being able to talk about shame and articulate it – it releases it, it ceases to have power over you.”

Avoiding Shaming Messages in Alcohol Awareness Campaigns

The study also highlighted that public health campaigns should be wary about using shaming messages as a deterrent for alcohol abuse. This approach could be counterproductive with people who experience shame. It may compound their negative self-image and cause them to drink more.

Addressing Core Shame in Addiction Treatment

The study also highlighted that very time-limited or ‘cost-effective’ treatments for alcohol use disorder may not be adequate to address core shame. The study implies that trusting therapeutic relationships are necessary to explore shame and these take time to develop. More intensive treatments, such as residential rehabilitation with ongoing free aftercare sessions, might be more effective for addicts who need to address core shame.

If you suffer from addiction and shame, speak to Addiction Helper today. We offer confidential assessments and can advise you about addiction treatment programmes, including residential detox and rehab. Our aim is to support you to find the right treatment for you, so you can achieve lasting recovery from addiction.

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