The Role of Toxic Shame in Addiction and Alcoholism

The Role of Toxic Shame in Addiction and Alcoholism

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

The Role of Toxic Shame in Addiction and AlcoholismGuilt is a common emotion or feeling that nearly every human 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.

Examples of how Toxic Shame Feels

Toxic shame represents itself in a number of ways. Most often, individuals experiencing this type of shame want to distance themselves from others, as they feel alienated and alone regarding their addiction experiences. This is obviously harmful to recovery efforts, as unifying support is what provides individuals with the motivation to continue with treatment and staying sober. Additionally, toxic shame can be characterized by beliefs like:

  • Feeling that one is a failure or unworthy of help
  • The notion that one is unimportant
  • Believing that one does not deserve happiness
  • Feeling that one is not lovable to others
  • Believing that one is a bad person
  • The feeling that something is wrong with oneself
  • Believing that one’s feelings are fraudulent

If you recognize any of these beliefs in yourself, you may be struggling with shame that’s toxic to your treatment. If you’re serious about getting help and overcoming the effects of drug addiction for good, it’s best to identify toxic shame in your life so that it may be addressed throughout treatment. This way, you can combat the negative effects of this type of shame. And, work toward developing healthy thought patterns that can successfully motivate your recovery efforts. Furthermore, so you can steer clear from the ways that toxic shame may negatively contribute to your treatment.

How Toxic Shame Contributes to Addiction

Many people who struggle with substance abuse problems and addiction have experienced 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 an 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.

How Toxic Shame can Lead to Toxic Codependency

Along with the negative effects of toxic shame listed above, it can also lead to further codependence behaviors in those struggling with addiction. This is because feelings of toxic shame for those who experience it during active addiction doesn’t go away. And, because these feelings don’t go away, can lead to the development of other harmful behaviors. Obviously, experiencing constant shame can lead to other issues like anxiety, depression, and even suicidal thoughts. Dealing with these mood disorders can cause a person to also develop codependent behaviors, which can identify themselves as:

  • People pleasing and the inability to set healthy boundaries with others.
  • Perfectionist thoughts and actions.
  • Exacerbating intimate relationships with the need for reassurance and displaying avoidance behaviors.
  • Assertiveness which leads to people not being able to speak their mind, which can result in manipulation from others.
  • Not being able to maintain healthy relationships for fear that they are unloveable.

Confronting Toxic Shame

The Role of Toxic Shame in Addiction and AlcoholismDealing 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 that can Help People Confront Their Toxic Shame

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.
Some types of treatment that can help to address toxic shame can include:

Individual Therapy: These one-on-one therapy sessions with an addiction specialist can help individuals in recovery dealing with toxic shame in a number of ways. First and foremost, it requires individuals to dive deep into their own personal experiences to identify the reason for their toxic shame. Then, helps to re-evaluate these feelings to that individuals can develop a new self-belief.

Group Therapy: These types of therapy sessions allow individuals to understand other people’s experiences with toxic shame and what they did to confront it in their own lives. This provides motivation and the belief that viewing yourself differently is not only possible but provides realistic hope. Furthermore, this peer setting provides accountability so that individuals are always pushed to discover new healing methods to establish lasting healing from these toxic thoughts.

Holistic Therapy: Finally, holistic therapy sessions are a great way to combat feelings of shame in treatment as they allow for inner guidance and healing. Holistic therapy allows for mindfulness, which is experiencing the here and now. This helps individuals to realize that their shame is in the past and that it’s best to move on from these feelings to experience new feelings brought about by present efforts to gain healing and recovery.

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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.


**Originally published on March 15, 2017. Updated on June 24, 2019