Shedding Light on Shame

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Shedding Light on Shame

Sometimes it’s a small nagging voice, “I shouldn’t be drinking so much” or “I know I’m gaining weight and should go on a diet”. Sometimes it’s a thundering judge, “I have completely screwed up my life” or “I’ve spent all my money on gambling, what kind of person does that?!?!” If you are trying to change a compulsive behavior pattern like substance use, gambling, or binge eating, odds are you have some pretty crittal thoughts about yourself and the choices you have made.
Rethinking paths you have taken is natural and at times a helpful guide for moving forward and regrets for choices made are natural. Unfortunately, shame is also all too common.

Shame is a painful emotion that typically arrives upon the scene when we harshly judge our character based on things not going as we had hoped. In contrast to the dull ache of regret, shame has a sharp, cutting edge that usually makes no distinction between reasonable and unreasonable, constructive and destructive in its application. Teasing apart what you have done well, and what you might do differently, is not part of the shame response; with shame, everything is seen as bad, your fault, and unforgivable.

Consider This – Picture someone you care deeply about telling you about a situation they feel ashamed or embarrassed about. As they look at you with tearful eyes you reply with, “You’re just not good enough.” As they become more upset, you add, “You’re so stupid.” You may be reading this and thinking to yourself “Wait… what? I would never say that, and especially not to someone I care about!”

Sadly, as harsh as it may seem, many of us respond to our own suffering in this cold critical way. While it feels natural to respond to another’s suffering with caring, understanding, forgiveness, and support, we often do the exact opposite for ourselves. In fact, you may have been beating yourself up with negative judgments (e.g., “I’m not good enough”, “I’m stupid”, “I’ve failed as a parent”, “I’m a terrible person”, etc.) for so long that it has become completely automatic. We are often unaware of this way of responding to ourselves when faced with challenges like a destructive behavioral habit.

Why do we judge ourselves so harshly when we’re struggling. The reasons will vary from person to person, but some common pathways and thoughts are: “that’s how I was always treated growing up,” “I am just being honest, I really am a screw up,” or “After what I have done, I don’t deserve anything but criticism.”

The reality is that substance use and many other behavioral struggles like gambling, overeating are highly stigmatized conditions in this country. We are raised to think they are “bad” behaviors that only weak, flawed people engage in and they deserved to be punished. This frame sets people up for failure. If your struggle is a sign you are weak or constitutionally screwed up, why bother trying to change. If you know you are going to be ridiculed, labeled or humiliated, why ask for help?

The question is this: “Has treating myself this way been a successful strategy for positive change”? While shame/self-attack can sometimes feel “deserved”, shame pulls us down, pulls us backwards, pulls us into a pit that makes it HARDER to change. Shame leads to isolating, striving for perfection, externalizing blame onto others, and a host of other not so helpful corners to be backed into.

As you try to make changes, it helps to notice your shaming thoughts. See if you can see the difference between “rethinking” thoughts (those that are about other ways you could have done things), and “shaming” thoughts (or those that contain accusations about your personal defects or failures that “caused” these problems).
“Rethinking/regretful” thoughts include, ““I wish I had asked for help sooner” or “I wish I had never used those pills.” “Shame-based” thoughts, “I should have known better” or “If people knew what I have done they would think I was disgusting.”

The rethinking/regretful thoughts are ones that when paid attention to can lead to further change. They are things that you can do differently moving forward. They can offer opportunities for repair (“I wish I had not yelled at my son, I’m going to go apologize”.

Although you inner critic may be really loud, try to strengthen the voice of your inner soother. Self-compassion involves noticing your suffering (I’m scared, sad, angry at myself.) and try to practice some self-kindness. Remind yourself that making changes is hard and that when it comes to substance use problems, millions of people have struggled and done things that they have regretted. By cultivating compassion for yourself instead of shaming youserlf, you will be better equipped to make the changes your are hoping to make.

About the Author: and

Carrie Wilkens, PhD

Carrie Wilkens, PhD, is the Co-Founder and Clinical Director of the Center for Motivation and Change in NYC and in the Berkshires. She co-authored an award-winning book, Beyond Addiction: How Science and Kindness Help People Change with Drs. Foote and Kosanke. Together they also contributed to a user-friendly workbook for parents: The 20 Minute Guide: A Guide for Parents about How to Help their Child Change their Substance Use. In collaboration with the Partnership for Drug-Free Kids, Dr. Wilkens and the CMC team is developing a national parent training program (the Parent Support Network) to provide parent coaches to families in need of support through a free hotline. Prior to these ventures, Dr. Wilkens was the Project Director on a large federally-funded Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) grant examining the effectiveness of motivational interventions in addressing the problems associated with binge drinking among college students. She is regularly sought out by the media to discuss issues related to substance use disorders and has been on the CBS Morning Show, Katie Couric Show, and Fox News as well as a variety of radio shows including frequent NPR segments such as the People’s Pharmacy and The Diane Rehm Show.