The Pain of Shame

October 11, 2016


Shame is ubiquitous among humans…we all can feel it to varying degrees and some of us are way more prone to it than others. Evolutionary psychologists think it is wired into us because we are social animals and shame is designed to correct behavior that steps out of the social norm. When you step out of line with a certain behavior (like drug use, having sex with the wrong person, wearing the wrong clothes, etc.) you get the message from your community that you are bad for engaging in that behavior and deserve to be punished, rejected, abandoned or humiliated. The problem with shame is that it is a motivator loaded with problems because it is fear based. And instead of differentiating the behavior from the person, it makes the whole person bad, it sends the message that “you are bad” and all that comes along with that…”you aren’t worth helping”, “you can’t be helped”, “you are a lost cause”, and “we need to be rid of you.”

Given our wiring as social animals, there can be a strong desire to correct and punish behavior that is upsetting or damaging to the community, in the hope that it changes. To this end, instead of feeling totally helpless and scared (which is a feeling many are having in response to the opioid epidemic), sometimes being aggressive, confronting, or humiliating, can be reactions to substance abusers which might help someone feel like they’re “doing something.”

The problem? Research has shown us time and again is that shame and addiction (and a lot of other things!) are a potentially lethal combination. When it comes behavior change, we know that shaming someone tends to do the exact opposite of encouraging change. It shuts it them down.

What’s the Difference between Shame and Regret?

While we all feel shame at times, some of us might be more prone to feeling guilt or regret when we engage in negative behaviors. And there tends to be a pretty dramatic difference between shame versus guilt or regret. For example, when we feel guilt or regret, we can move toward problem solving and repairing the harm we have done to others: ”I did something bad and I don’t want to do that again…what can I do differently moving forward” or “I’m sorry I hurt you, how can I make it up to you.”

In contrast, when we do something bad and feel shame or are shamed by our environment we think “I am bad.” Unfortunately that thought is often followed by thoughts like “I’m bad so why try to change”, or “I’m bad and therefore I can’t change” or “I’m bad and need to hide.” Shame causes people to withdraw, go inward, and feel hopeless. A person full of shame is expecting to be punished, rejected or humiliated for their behavior and that is a hard place to come from when it comes to asking for help.

While we can all feel shame, it seems that some people are more prone to it than others, due to temperament (anxious, submissive types are more prone), the culture you grow up in, and life experiences (interactions with authority figures like parents and teachers).

People struggling with serious drug and alcohol problems often are more prone to shame due to the overlap that exists of co-occurring mental health issues (i.e., anxiety disorders and depression) and trauma (for many the ultimate shameful life events). When you have a lot of shame AND you are struggling with a substance problem which is stigmatized by our society, it can feel impossible to ask for help. And many people simply can’t change their behavior without a significant amount of help and support (the last thing someone full of shame thinks they deserve). Most likely someone in their life has already tried the shame strategy…has yelled at them, called them an addict, told them what they need to do. And it hasn’t done anything but made them feel more “bad” and made them less hopeful that they can change. It’s also likely that they have low self-esteem and already feel bad as a person, which contributes to them feeling like they can’t change.

We need to create an environment where people can come forward. Where they can acknowledge that their drug use causes them to feel out of control and sometimes do things that are embarrassing and excruciatingly painful to themselves and those they love. An environment where they feel hopeful that they can learn new ways of being and change their behavior. As social animals, we can all play a positive role in how unhealthy behaviors are responded to – in ourselves and in others. Carving space between behaviors and a person’s identity is one place to start, so that feeling bad about something can stay in the space of regret – where it can motivate change and propel acceptance of help – rather than fester into the isolating, de-motivating space of shame.

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