Shame and guilt are central to addiction, and the power it has over those who struggle against it. In fact, it’s common knowledge that a lot of American drug treatment is shame-based, and we live in a society where drug use and addiction is heavily stigmatized, seen as a crime and a moral perversion rather than a medical and psychological issue.
Those struggling with addiction are persecuted and incarcerated repeatedly, and not enough attention is paid towards quality treatment designed to keep people off the drugs, and help them achieve a much better life.
It’s not wise for those struggling with addiction today to wait on society to change for them. Instead, they must change despite the consensus – and that involves understanding addiction, shame, guilt, and the dangers of certain types of negativity in recovery. Recovery isn’t about shaming yourself into a position of humility, or somehow realizing that you’re powerless in the face of addiction, and must give yourself up to those around you and their merciful help – recovery is about empowerment.
It’s about empowering yourself, empowering others, and about constantly striving to figure out a better you, a more conscious you, a person who remains mindful of the present, doesn’t dwell on the past, and looks onward towards new challenges instead of getting stuck on old wounds and failures.
The Hunger of Shame
Shame is hungry – it’s part of a cannibalizing cycle that thrives on dwelling on something. Think of shame as a creeping rot, unseen yet pervasive. To get rid of it, you must do a wholesale sweep of your flooring, tear out the rot and inspect each plank for signs of growth and potential growth. It begins with an action, then the regret and the shame creeps in, and then you begin to feel worthless and powerless, unable to improve with no better you in sight – you swoop lower and fall deeper, and the same propels you down a spiral until you hit that rock bottom, the place no one ever wants to be.
Shame can be a motivator for some – being ashamed can be just what you need to set yourself straight, realize that you’re in the wrong, and do better. We feel shame for the same reasons we feel almost any other form of physical pain or severe emotional pain – as a mechanism in our mind and body to help us avoid the behavior that got us in this mess in the first place. When we’re having a lot of fun with our friends and we decide to do something reckless for the hell of it, only to have it backfire with someone getting hurt, then that creeping shame and guilt is meant to ensure that we never do it again.
Some people, however, compulsively deny such emotions. They deny their shame, and turn to blame instead. Others can’t use shame to improve, and instead channel it into self-loathing and an increased hatred towards their own life and choices.
But in addiction, a psychological and neurological disease that creates compulsive behavior and acts like a chronic illness, you may end up thinking things or doing things without wanting to, landing yourself in an ever increasingly vicious circle.
That’s the hunger of shame, and guilt, and they both increase your emotional dependence on an addiction as the only way to feel pleasure and positivity, and forget about all the pain you feel and the pain you’re causing.
How Negativity Feeds Addiction
Addiction is, in many cases, a coping mechanism. Yet unlike many coping mechanisms that work positively to deal with your problems and blow off some steam from accumulated life stress, addiction is a maladaptive coping mechanism. Maladaptive coping mechanisms are basically short-term effective, long-term destructive. Think of stress eating as an example. Stress eating, and more serious eating disorders be a sign of depression or just a severe stress issue, where the pleasures of food become a valve of pleasure through which to hide from problems in life.
Adaptive, or good coping mechanisms on the other hand, develop skills and help you improve your mental state or physical health to such a degree that it helps you solve the problem that’s causing you all the stress to begin with. Think of something like picking up and learning a new instrument, reading books, or going to the gym more often. The reward in these activities is the pleasure of discovering and learning new things, which stimulates the brain and gives you a sense of accomplishment and progress, the benefits of creative expression found in visual and musical arts, and the benefits of exercise, which go from releasing happiness hormones and neurotransmitters to improving your body image over the course of months.
All these things help you deal with life’s problems and struggles in constructive ways – they make you stronger, more secure in your abilities, and less anxious of the future. On the other hand, running away from struggle through addiction causes it to pile up, creating an overwhelming sense of insurmountable challenge, resulting in significant losses, from broken relationships and friendships to losing your job and your home.
Every blow dealt to someone struggling deep in addiction pushes them further down the hole, and makes recovery harder – yet it also makes recovery more necessary, as slowly building up the confidence and mental strength to tackle all your responsibilities and deny addiction is the only way to really overcome it. That’s where it becomes important to reject shame, and embrace:
Acceptance, Gratitude, and Recovery
Positivity is the way forward. That doesn’t entail faking your happiness and pretending that everything is great when it isn’t, or glossing over problems to maintain a façade of joy – it means being constructive, finding solutions instead of excuses, choosing adaptive coping mechanisms over maladaptive coping mechanisms.
It’s not an overnight change. Learning to accept yourself, and stop feeling angry or ashamed, and instead feel grateful for everyone and everything that’s helping you get back on track, is a big challenge. Many people struggle with recovery not just because they have the urge to use again, but because they can’t learn to live with themselves just yet. That’s why sober living communities are a wonderful way to fortify a journey of recovery with a community of other struggling strangers, united in their insecurities and made stronger through joint empowerment.