Shame is one hell of an emotion — the sinking feeling in your stomach, nausea, the shortness of breath. If you’ve ever felt shame, you’ve also probably felt like running to the nearest closet and locking yourself in there forever and ever. Bottom line, shame sucks.
How people deal with shame varies, but some common ways include shaming others, lying about your feelings, isolating yourself, or self-medicating with drugs, alcohol or even junk food. The more sugar, fat, alcohol, weed, or coke we consume, the less shame we have to feel – too bad this “quick fix” only lasts as long as it takes us to finish that bag of chips.
Shame not only contributes to developing and maintaining addictive behaviors, but it also gets in the way of recovery, self-acceptance and accessing help.
“Shame is one of those basic emotions that we will do anything to avoid”- Adi Jaffe
Why do you feel shame?
Shame is the feeling that there’s something wrong with you. It’s not about having done something wrong (that’s guilt), no, shame arises from the core belief that you are simply not good enough. Sadly, it’s a core belief that is common among those who struggle with mental health and addiction issues.
It evolves throughout our lives – an accumulation of thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. And shame becomes part of our identity. With these experiences, we are labeled, stereotyped and stigmatized. We become something other than what we were.
If you’ve been told you’re different and weird enough times by people you look up to, you might feel shame. If you get made fun of for your weight by someone you like, you might feel shame. Shame might attach itself to you if your parents tell you you’re stupid over and over… Or if a teacher makes fun of you publicly and brings the rest of the class in on it. When these things happen enough, they become more than instances. They become the lens through which you see the world.
Why shame is a roadblock to recovery
Shame becomes part of the reason you don’t get help. Because you’ll just fail anyway. You’ll disappoint and frustrate your loved ones, and yourself. You’re not smart enough, good looking enough, well-liked enough or talented enough to make it work.
I know what it’s like, I’ve been there. I’ve been made fun of publicly, I’ve been shamed in the privacy of my own home growing up, I started thinking of myself as a “no-good loser” having heard it enough. But it doesn’t have to be that way. When you stop seeing yourself as your label, as your problem, as your addiction, the shame begins to fall away.
In 2010, while getting my post-doctoral work at UCLA, I conducted a study to find out why only 10% of the 24 million U.S. residents who have substance use disorders seek treatment annually.
I discovered that shame was one of four main barriers to entering treatment, with 75% of participants identifying shame and stigma as a primary roadblock to treatment.
Think about that for a second – that means ¾ of the people who chose not to enter treatment felt like they were somehow not worthy enough of the help. Help that might save their lives. That’s simply not ok with me.
That’s why I’ve made it my mission to change the way we think about and deal with addiction by reducing the stigma often associated with mental illness and addictive behaviors.
What happens when you release shame?
Let’s be honest. Shame is in opposition to self-esteem and happiness. But what happens when we release shame?
We learn to accept.
When shame isn’t the driving emotion, it means you’re no longer on a path of self-destruction. You’re no longer thinking, feeling and behaving in ways that fit with those ‘labels.’ Instead, you come to a place where realistic goals can be set. And the reality is often much better than you can even imagine.
How to overcome shame and build self-confidence
1. Identify the key past events
Acknowledging your past is essential. Don’t hide away from it. Those events may have influenced who you are today, but they don’t have to shape the future you.
Identify the points in your life when your struggles began. What was going on in your life at that time? Who were your influences? What messages, labels or feedback were you getting from the people around you? What negative beliefs became ingrained at that point?
2. Strengths vs. weaknesses
Be honest with yourself about who you are. Your personality traits, your idiosyncrasies, and qualities. We all have strengths and weaknesses, it’s just a matter of being aware of (not shaming) your shortcomings and shining light on the strengths.
I touch on this in my TEDx talk on shame and mental health labels. I’ve talked about how my ADHD can be a burden. I can’t plan ahead to save my life! I’m easily frustrated and bored, and I hate sitting still.
I could succumb to the label and throw my hands in the air. I could let it rule my life, feel ashamed that I’ve disappointed friends or forgotten an important event. But, that’s not the sum of me. When this energy is rechanneled, ADHD becomes a real asset. I think outside the box; I thrive under pressure, I’m driven and ambitious and motivated. I have to get help with organizing, but that’s ok… EVERYONE needs some help!
Someone with persistent anxiety may find significant life transitions stressful, but they may also super organized, and be the only ones to arrive at your birthday on time (and remember weeks in advance)- unlike me! Once you start reframing your problems by looking at some of the positive aspects they add to your life, your perspective changes immensely.
Whether you have a mental health label or not, you will always find some aspects of life challenging. You don’t need to throw away all the labels, but you need to get comfortable with who you are and the different ways that you function.
3. Identify contributing factors
How are things going in all other areas of your life? How are your physical health, social network, intimate relationships, work roles, and finances? When was the last time you had real fun? By focusing solely on the addictive behavior, you can neglect the other areas of your life that make your addictive behavior worse or could be the reason why it’s happening in the first place.
When learning to ride a motorcycle, the teacher told me this – “If you look down at the road when you make a turn, that’s where you’ll end up!” Stop only looking at your addictive behavior or you’ll end up spending your entire day thinking about your addiction. Look around – what’s going well and what can you change to make better?
4. Use failure to create opportunities
In my IGNTD Recovery program, I see many people who experience shame because of their past failures. They have a setback or a relapse, and they feel like they are doomed to failure forever. But the real problem they have is labeling a relapse as a “failure.”
Failures are final. But people often learn from mistakes.
A mistake labeled a “failure” is actually the ideal opportunity to learn how to do better in the future. The people who overcome addictive behaviors are the ones who take on the challenge of setbacks and learn everything they can to face their realities.
5. Seek help
In the U.S. only 10% of people struggling with some form of addiction actually get help. Don’t let shame get in the way of your recovery. It may seem like you’ll always feel this way, but research shows that shame diminishes during the treatment process. So, what does that mean? It means you will feel a hell of a lot better once you take that first step in accessing help.
Therapists, school counselors, resident assistants, professors, psychologists, online support groups, and more – there are many options for choosing help, so don’t feel like you have to say yes to the first one that comes along. Find someone who doesn’t exacerbate the shame you’re coming in with!
Drive right on through that shame roadblock. Steer in the direction of the place where that enduring shame is released, and you reach self-acceptance. You are not your label, and you are not your addiction.
Acknowledging beliefs and events connected to shame put you on the roadmap to recovery, and the journey can take you to a place you’ve never imagined.