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Chris Sharpe is also an associate of Twin Rivers Rehab in South Africa

Twin Rivers in South Africa

Shame And The Recovering Addict

The addict is someone who struggles to contain their emotional balance in difficult or tested situations. And therefore turns to alcohol, drugs or food to numb the stress of work, loneliness, relationships, family issues, finance, etc. etc.

What is shame?

  • Shame is a painful emotion caused by a strong sense of guilt, embarrassment, unworthiness, or disgrace (Dictionary definition)
  • Shame is the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore not worthy of love (Brene Brown)

What is the difference between shame and guilt?

  • Shame is having negative beliefs about your self and your self-worth
  • Guilt is having negative feelings about your behaviour
  • Shame is about who I am
  • Guilt is about what I have done

With the recovering addict; shame is a primary affect; a disruptive belief that there is something very wrong with who they are, which can be severely impacted by lesser negative feelings.

What is the Disruption of Shame?

  • Self-blame and criticism
  • Constantly comparing yourself with others and coming up short
  • Depression and failure
  • Feeling of disdain for yourself as a whole
  • Self-abuse
  • Not worthy of love?

How our shameful defences can inflict shame on others (Or how they may have been inflicted on us!)

  • Verbal, sexual and physical abuse
  • Physical and emotional deprivation
  • Thinking of others as insignificant inferiors to be dominated and blamed or as persons to be controlled by threats of rage and disapproval
  • Withdrawal of love
  • Making other feel that they are needy, fragile, incompetent and don't understand

Shame begets shame and we become victims and persecutors

How we respond to shame

According to American Psychologist, Linda Hartling who has compiled a study on shame and humiliation; our natural response to shame falls into three categories:

  • We move forward
  • We move towards
  • We move against

We move forward means that we hide our shame from ourselves and others and we isolate or disconnect.

We move towards means we become the overly nice people-pleaser or the rescuer or turn into a self-sacrificing martyr.

We move against means we attack others by being critical and sarcastic or we act superior and show contempt for others

Where does shame come from?

Where does shame come from?

Shame comes from childhood!


  • Guilt is repaired by redoing, correcting or apologising for bad behaviour
  • Shame can only be repaired by changing the self
  • Change therefore requires the rebuilding of the true self

Making the change

Shame can only be healed through exposure; by embracing vulnerability, a process that in itself can appear painfully shameful.

To learn that our own pain is not shameful we must identify with another's Shame and pain.

By 'sharing' the Shame we learn to be accepted by ourselves and others for what we are.

The mutuality of AA, NA, OA etc,thus becomes a crucial aspect of therapy.

A quick recap

We suggested that with the recovering addict; shame is a primary affect; a disruptive belief that there is something very wrong with who they are, which can be severely impacted by lesser negative feelings.

These lesser feelings could be caused by:

  • Self-blame and criticism
  • Depression and failure
  • Disdain and self-abuse
  • Verbal, sexual and physical abuse
  • Isolation, people-pleasing, contempt

Next we see that we respond to shame in three ways:

  • We either moved away from it (Isolation)
  • We moved towards it (People pleasing)
  • Or we moved against it (Anger)

All three of these lack one thing, which is acceptance.

Acceptance and shame

Acceptance is the acknowledgement of the reality of shame. It means recognising it as a negative or uncomfortable process or condition without attempting to change it.

Through acceptance, we remind ourselves that shame in our lives is not5 good or bad, fair or unfair. It just is - and maybe we need to do something about it.

Acceptance is the first and most necessary step, helping us to find awareness.

Accepting shame helps us to focus on the underlying pain.

We do not have to accept the pain.

Compassion, the seed to the opposite of shame

Compassion is; A deep awareness of the suffering of others coupled with the with to relieve it (Dictionary definition)

Self-compassion is extending compassion to one's self in instances of perceived inadequacy, failure, or general emotional suffering.

Effective self-compassion requires the addition of mindfulness, which means rather than ignore our pain or exaggerating it, we face it by holding onto - or accepting - the discomfort of our negative emotions in a secure and supportive awareness

However, to have self-compassion you must first be aware that you are suffering.

Just how difficult is compassion?

You can lie and deceive, say little half truths to anyone, including yourself.

But to be free from shame you need to be true to yourself.

Being true to others will follow in time.

If you are emotionally deceived about who you are4, shame is bound to come to the fore and you may struggle forever.

So, become aware of who you are... Faults, Vices, Good Points, Strengths and Weaknesses.

The hard part is not just discovering the negative emotions but having the courage to understand and manage them!

Examples of beliefs that might impact our shame

  • Calling your friend and when they don't call back immediately, wondering if they're angry with you about something (Rejection)
  • Being physically different; too fat, too thin, too tall, too short or the wrong colour (Not fitting in or inadequacy)
  • Wanting to appear favourable to others but believing you are incapable of doing so (Perfectionism)
  • Covering your faults with a lie and being found out (lies and deceit)
  • The erroneous belief that everything is your fault (Guilt)
  • Uncontrollable outbursts of emotion (Range)
  • Being judgemental of peers (Criticism)
  • Testing your in dangerous or risky situations (Fear and self-doubt)
Examples of beliefs that might impact our shame

Now we become mindful of our shame.

Let's see what happens to our emotions when we start challenging them with compassion.

The Peace Prayer of St Francis

Lord, make me a channel of thy peace;
that where there is hatred, I may bring love;
that where there is wrong, I may bring the spirit of forgiveness;
that where there is discord, I may bring harmony;
that where there is error, I may bring truth;
that where there is doubt, I may bring faith;
that where there is despair, I may bring hope;
that where there is shadows, I may bring light;
that where there is sadness, I may bring joy.

Lord, grant that I may seek rather to comfort than to be comforted;
to understand, than to be understood;
to love, than to be loved.

For it is by self forgiveness that one finds.
It is by forgiving that one is forgiven.
It is by dying that one awakens to eternal life.

Compassion and shame

Solution Formula

Be mindful

  • Accept the negative (Sit with it, talk about it, share it with others)
  • Name it (Own it, bring it out into the open, make it your own)

Find self-compassion

  • Identify the opposed, remedial emotion (The antidote, the country)
  • Begin to practice this in all your affairs (Which could take time)