How Shame Feeds Addiction

young sad mad sitting by the window in regret

All human beings, whether suffering from addictions or not, experience shame. This powerful, primordial, and often extremely painful emotion has its roots in the early stages of our evolution (both in the human as well as the individual sense). 

In nearly all cases, shame and addiction are inextricably intertwined, whereby the latter becomes a means to temporarily escape the pain of the former. 

However, addictions only relieve our sense of shame for a short while. After the numbing effects of the substance or behavior have subsided, shame resurfaces with increased intensity. Thus, a cycle is perpetuated, one that can be incredibly difficult to break out of. 

Fortunately, as thousands prove every year, with proper loving support, this cycle can be broken. By asking “Why the pain?” rather than “Why the addiction?” and addressing the origins of our shame, there is great potential for healing.

The evolution of shame

Emotions can be difficult to pin down. After all, how can a single word hope to accurately convey an infinite variety of human experiences, or the psychological and neurobiological complexity encompassed by each? 

However, while shame certainly affects us all differently, it remains a universal feeling; its core meaning is immediately understood and instantly relatable. 

So why did humans evolve to develop the capacity for shame?  

A team of researchers at the University of Montreal and the Center for Evolutionary Psychology (CEP) may have the answer. Their findings suggest that shame is an integral part of human nature and evolved for practical reasons, helping our foraging forbears increase their chances of survival.

Because our ancestors lived in small, highly interdependent bands, each member depended heavily on the others to help them weather the storms of life and death. That’s why it was so dangerous when people disregarded them, thinking they weren’t valuable enough to warrant assistance. Thus, it was important to weigh the personal payoff (e.g., how much will I benefit by stealing this food?) against the social costs (e.g., how much will others devalue me if I steal the food, and how likely are they to find out?) when deciding what actions to take.

The researchers speculated that the degree to which an individual felt shame before taking an action was a self-generated prediction of how severely others would judge them. Ultimately, the study concluded that shame is universal; a biological capacity innate to the human species (such as the ability to speak a language), rather than a culturally determined trait (like the ability to read or write).

Bearing this in mind, it’s clear that this fundamental emotion is not something that can be taken lightly. Those caught in the shame-addiction cycle require non-judging support and a setting where they feel comfortable enough to begin working through it.  

Breaking the silence of shame

Dr. Brené Brown is a professor, lecturer, and author who’s studied shame extensively. In fact, against the advice of many of her peers, she wrote her Ph.D. thesis on shame. She points out that nobody wants to talk about it and that we have an almost visceral reaction to this often insidious emotion. Brown describes shame as “The intensely painful feeling that we are unworthy of love and belonging”.

In her view, shame needs three things to grow exponentially in our lives: secrecy, silence, and judgment. 

“You put shame in a petri dish and you douse it with a little secrecy, a little silence, a little judgment […] it will creep into every crevice and corner of your life […] It will shape everything. You put the same amount of shame in a petri dish and douse it with empathy, you’ve created an environment that’s hostile to shame. Shame cannot survive being spoken. It cannot survive empathy.”

Despite how it’s often presented to us, it isn’t the instance itself – the abuse, neglect, or wrongdoing – that keeps shame alive, but our inability to bring it out into the open. 

Indeed, sometimes shame may be so deeply buried that we aren’t even consciously aware of its primary role in our addiction and/or mental illness. When we are met with compassion, love, and empathy, our shame can be identified and understood, meaning we can steadily loosen its hold over our lives.  

Shame precedes addiction

When embroiled in the shame-addiction cycle, people may not even be cognizant of its root cause. Addictions that aren’t treated with understanding and loving support add layer after layer of guilt and shame to the point that such origins become deeply buried. However, it is these origins that need attention most of all. 

In many cases, the potential for addictions is fostered in childhood. 

Dr. Gabor Maté is a world-renowned expert on addiction and trauma. His many years working with countless patients have led him to the view that shame actually precedes addiction:

“Any situation where the parents are stressed or struggling, the energy is picked up by the kids. Not only is it picked up by the kids, the kids think it’s about themselves – somehow it’s their fault. So some people grow up with a kind of guilt and don’t even realize what the source of it is. And the source of the guilt is that they didn’t make their parents happy. They couldn’t have made them happy – it wasn’t their job – but as children, we take this on automatically.” 

This runs counter to the dangerous and erroneous thinking that shame is chiefly the result of addictive behaviors, rather than the cause. The framing of addiction as a moral lapse or fault in character only serves to exacerbate the sense of shame that sufferers feel. This increases their need to relieve the pain of shame through addiction. 

How to begin healing from shame

Group therapy session sitting in a circle. Sunbeam background. Selective focus.

While there are many self-care techniques you can apply to help deal with shame (exercising self-empathy, leading a healthy lifestyle, etc.) such a socially-oriented emotion requires a suitably social treatment. 

Addictions can be terribly isolating, and sufferers often have to contend with being ostracized from their families and social groups. This can make the shame-addiction cycle even harder to break out of. Ensuring you have access to a caring support network is a vital step toward working through shame and healing from addiction. Remember, though it can feel like it, you’re not alone. Many people are able and willing to provide the sense of love and belonging you need.

Tikvah Lake’s personalized program offers a range of therapies that can help you address the shame you may be dealing with – and help you break the shame-addiction cycle. Our group sessions can also help you work through difficult issues in a safe and supportive space. As Dr. Brené Brown says, shame can’t survive being spoken.

If you’re struggling with shame and addiction, don’t hesitate to reach out to us to find out how we can help.

About Adam Nesenoff

Adam Nesenoff has been working in recovery for over ten years.

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