The Role of Toxic Shame in Addiction and Alcoholism

The Role of Toxic Shame in Addiction and Alcoholism

Wellness Retreat on March 15, 2017

The life of active addiction or alcoholism is full of secrets, lies, and manipulation in order to get the substances we need or to hide our behavior from loved ones. Addiction happens as the result of many factors, but it can be fueled by trauma, mental illness, environment and upbringing, low self-esteem, and secrets. All of these things function to disconnect us from ourselves and the world around us and cause some people to turn to substances like drugs and alcohol for comfort. Toxic shame is an emotion that can fester over time and make addictive behavior worse. Over time it further disconnects individuals from the world around them and helps to create a pattern of secrecy, pain, and addiction.

Toxic Shame vs. Guilt

Guilt is a common emotion or feeling that nearly every human being experiences at many points in life. It may sound like another word for toxic shame, but there is a difference between the two. Guilt occurs when we know we have done something wrong or dishonest and feel bad about it. For example, if I lie to a friend I may feel guilty about it afterward because I know I have been dishonest and that my friend deserves to know the truth. Guilt can usually be alleviated by admitting where we have been wrong and taking steps to correct it. If I feel guilty about lying to a friend, it may be difficult, but I can correct it by admitting my dishonesty, apologizing, and making an effort to be honest in the future.

Toxic shame is different because it has to do with our identity. Guilt is knowing you’ve done something bad or wrong, and toxic shame is believing that you, as a person, are bad or wrong. It’s about believing that we have a fundamental flaw in our nature. Toxic shame can arise from trauma or patterns of behavior over time. For example, if I experience a series of unhealthy relationships, for example by being abused, I may start to believe that I am unworthy of love and incapable of having a healthy relationship. This can lead to the belief that I am somehow “broken” or different from others, that I am less-than the people around me. This is an example of toxic shame because it’s more of a deeply ingrained belief about myself rather than an emotion that can be dealt with by changing my actions, like guilt.

How Toxic Shame Contributes to Addiction

Many people who struggle with substance abuse problems and addiction have experience trauma or long-term patterns of dysfunction in their lives. Trauma and difficulties in the environment while growing up can cause some people to use drugs and alcohol to cope with their emotions. These two things can also cause toxic shame, which feeds addiction. Toxic shame contributes to addiction because it causes people to develop skewed images of themselves that further motivate them to seek comfort in substances. Toxic shame can:

  • Cause individuals to develop low self-esteem
  • Make people feel the need to hide their emotions or aspects of their personality because they are ashamed of them, which disconnects people from their family and friends
  • Cause people to attempt to drown out negative self-talk with substances
  • Exacerbate depression and anxiety

All of these things can cause someone to turn to drugs and alcohol or make an already-existing addiction worse.

Confronting Toxic Shame

Dealing with toxic shame is necessary for anyone to heal from addiction or any other destructive patterns of behavior. Unpacking negative beliefs about ourselves and forming a new, positive self-image can help to promote a healthy recovery. Some ways to deal with toxic shame in the early stages of recovery include:

  • Seeking a trusted therapist to help work through trauma or past events that could have contributed to toxic shame
  • Working on self-esteem through developing healthy relationships and practicing self-care
  • Finding a recovery support group that can relate to your experiences
  • Being honest about emotions with trusted, safe people
  • Journaling, making art, or finding something you enjoy doing that boosts confidence and promotes relaxation and introspection

Therapy is an essential part of replacing toxic shame with a positive self-image, and it’s also a vital part of recovering from alcoholism or addiction. For many people, the environment found in a small, high-quality treatment facility is ideal for working through emotions honestly. At Wellness Retreat Recovery, we limit caseloads so that each client has ample time with highly qualified and experienced therapists who can help them heal from addiction. If you need help in a supportive environment, call us today at 888-821-0238.