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How Do You Cope with Shame?

How Do You Cope with Shame?

Most people with a substance use disorder know about shame. It may be the central feature of their emotional lives. If you struggle with substance use, you likely feel shame on several levels. There may be shame resulting from physical, emotional, or sexual abuse, whether as a child or as an adult. Research continually shows that abuse, trauma, and PTSD are incredibly common among people with substance use disorders. Many people carry shame from those situations, even though they weren’t to blame. 


Substance use disorders can also lead to shame in themselves. Addiction can override your moral judgment to the point where you’re willing to manipulate or deceive your loved ones to get what you want. You may act impulsively and recklessly while drunk or high, causing harm to yourself and others.

You may feel shame because of the stigma of substance use and you may feel shame about having to ask for help. Shame is common and it’s also one of the most corrosive emotions. Like any wound kept hidden, it only gets worse with time. The following are some suggestions for coping with and healing shame.


Acknowledge Shame


The first step in dealing with shame is to acknowledge what you’re feeling. It’s not always obvious that what you’re feeling is shame. Sometimes you experience it as anger, irritability, defensiveness, procrastination, or depression. It may take some introspection to realize shame is behind some persistent challenging emotions. You can dig down into these emotions by asking why. Why do you get angry when a loved one suggests you talk to a therapist? Why do you get defensive when certain topics are raised? 


Shame likes to hide. There’s a good reason people often say after telling an embarrassing story, “I wanted to crawl in a hole.” You want to protect yourself from those who would deride you. Unfortunately, when you feel shame, you are the one deriding yourself and so shame takes on different forms. 


Observe Shame Nonjudgmentally


When you are able to identify shame, try observing it without judgment. This can be incredibly hard because no one likes how it feels. Your natural reflex is to push it away or think of something else. However, that only makes the feeling stronger because you continue to fear it. Instead, allow yourself to feel it. Where do you feel it in your body? Does it feel like fear? Disgust? What thoughts are associated with it? Make sure you’re not feeding the shame with self-criticism; just experience it as it is. 


Is It Shame or Guilt?


It’s also important to distinguish shame from guilt. Guilt is a useful emotion. It’s our conscience letting us know we’ve let ourselves down in some way. Feeling guilt prods us into fixing our mistakes and improving our behavior. The important distinction is that guilt applies to our actions and shame applies to our inherent value.

When you make a mistake, perhaps you’ve made a rude comment to a friend, guilt says, “That was badly done; I’ll have to apologize and be more careful in the future,” but shame says, “I’m a horrible person and I’m always going around hurting people.” 


The irony is that shame actually makes you less able to improve your behavior. It implies that you’re permanently, inherently bad, rather than affirming that you’re capable of growth. If there is something you feel ashamed of, something you perhaps did as a result of addiction, try transferring it to the guilt category.

For example, instead of thinking “I’m an awful person for stealing from my parents,” change it to “It was wrong to steal from my parents and I’m determined never to do that kind of thing again.” 


Is It Something Else?


Shame has other functions as well. For example, an overt display of shame can signal remorse to the people around you. If you’re beating yourself up, they feel more inclined to let you off the hook. In this case, shame performs a social function, preserving your connection to the community after you’ve done something bad. Of course, after a certain point, this no longer helps. 


Shame may also be a way of keeping yourself stuck. You may feel like you don’t deserve to be happy because you’re so rotten. Conveniently, this also spares you the effort of trying to make positive changes in your life. After all, you can’t fail if you don’t try. The thought of failure or really any kind of change may be so frightening that even living with shame seems preferable.


Develop Compassion for Yourself


To move past shame, start by developing some compassion for yourself. We are often much harder on ourselves than we are on anyone else. In fact, if we treated others the way we treat ourselves, we’d probably be ostracized or locked up.

When you have identified some source of shame, take a step back and try to regard yourself the way you would a friend. Imagine a friend telling you they were ashamed of whatever it was that you did, or whatever happened to you. Imagine reacting with compassion, knowing that although your friend isn’t perfect, they deserve to be happy. Try extending that same feeling to yourself.


Try Opening Up


Finally, try opening up about shame. This is what really allows you to heal. As noted above, shame wants to hide but that only makes it worse. If you don’t yet feel like you can open up to someone you trust and care about, consider opening up in therapy.

Your therapist has probably heard it all and anything you say is confidential by law. Often, just saying it out loud to someone helps, but your therapist can also help you work through your feelings. Group therapy is also a great place to open up because you will probably discover that some other members of the group have had similar experiences and you will no longer feel alone.

If you’re not quite ready to talk about your feelings of shame with anyone, try writing about them. Just acknowledging them and exploring them in some detail will probably make you feel better, and perhaps prepare you to discuss it with a therapist.


Shame is a destructive emotion because it convinces us that we’re bad, that we’re weak, that we’re unlovable, and that we don’t deserve anything good in life. The good news is that shame can’t live in the daylight. The more you are able to acknowledge and share feelings of shame in appropriate circumstances, the less it will control your life. 


At The Foundry, we know that trauma and shame are often at the core of a substance use disorder. That’s why our program focuses on treating trauma with proven methods, including dialectical behavioral therapy, or DBT, EMDR, mindfulness meditation, trauma-informed yoga, and other methods. To learn more, call us today at (844) 955-1066.

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