Shame Is No Good for Recovery

Shame is a feeling that addicts know well. Sometimes the shame is connected to one particular event. Maybe you drank too much at a family wedding and made a fool of yourself. The next day, you feel overwhelmed by embarrassment and shame and vow never to do that again. Or maybe your shame runs deeper. Society takes a pretty low view of drug addicts and alcoholics. No matter how much new research tells us about addiction and the biological, neurological, and genetic connections, we shame addicts.

Addicts and alcoholics are trained by society to feel shame, guilt and low self-worth. And many people believe they should feel that way. Many people still believe that addicts are inferior to the rest of us. Addicts have a flaw, not a medical or biological one, but a moral flaw, that causes them to do what they do. Some recovery or treatment centers use shame as a tool to try to get addicts to stop using, but new research is showing the flaw in this approach. As much as you think your shame will stop you from drinking again, the truth is that it may make you drink even more.

Shame and Relapse

Research conducted by the University of British Columbia looked at participants who were recruited from Alcoholics Anonymous and made connections between feelings of shame and the likelihood of relapsing. The 105 participants had been in recovery from alcoholism for six or fewer months. The study began with a questionnaire and an interview segment with each participant. Each person was asked about the most recent time they felt embarrassment and shame about drinking. They were asked to rate how ashamed they felt about the incident. The researchers also looked for and recorded the body language of each participant. They were looking for indications of feeling shame.

The next part of the study took place four months later. The participants returned to talk about the state of their sobriety. The researchers found that there was a strong connection between those who felt the most shame in the first portion of the study, and the relapse experienced over the next four months. Those participants who showed shame through their body language during the first interview were more likely to have relapsed by the second interview.

Shameful Treatment Methods

The research regarding shame and relapse is not new, but only adds to the knowledge that shame does not lead to less drinking. Feelings of shame actually have the opposite effect. To avoid feeling bad, or to drown feelings of shame, an alcoholic simply drinks more. Many problem drinkers start drinking in the first place in order to avoid painful emotions. Adding even more painful emotions, like shame, simply makes the situation worse.

It ends up creating a damaging cycle. People who are more prone to feel shame, embarrassment, or humiliation are at a greater risk of abusing alcohol or drugs. They do so and then end up in a situation that causes more shame. That additional shame leads them to drink more, and the cycle goes on and on.

In spite of a better understanding of this, many treatment methods for alcoholics still include a type of shaming. The long-held belief that shame will make someone stop drinking is hard to shake. Not only do feelings of shame make someone drink more, it also is connected to worse health overall. Studies have shown that when recovering alcoholics feel shame, they are more likely to relapse and to have poor health.

Hate the Behavior, Not the Person

A more healthy approach to coping with shame in any situation, but particularly for alcoholics, is to focus on behaviors. When you feel shame, you feel as if you are a bad person. You hate yourself, and there is no easy way to fix that. Instead of viewing oneself as bad and wrong, addicts need to focus on their bad behaviors. Addicts should take responsibility for their actions and recognize that they did something wrong, but also recognize that it does not make them bad people. Focusing on behaviors can help reduce shame and reducing shame can help to avoid relapse and improve recovery rates.