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Shame is a powerful feeling of inadequacy – it is a sense that you are a bad person or that you are somehow wrong. Shame is both a cause and an effect of addiction, leading to a destructive cycle that can drive addictive behavior.

What Is the Difference Between Shame and Guilt?

While people often use the terms “shame” and “guilt” interchangeably, they refer to two distinct concepts. Guilt is a feeling of remorse attached to one specific event. If you cheat in an exam, for example, you may feel guilty for that act.

On the other hand, shame is attached to your whole person and not linked to one event. It is a feeling that you are bad or inadequate and relates to your general behavior, or how others perceive it.

It is normal to feel guilty when you have harmed yourself or others. Guilt often represents the acceptance of responsibility of an act and can help you make amends for your mistakes, apologize, learn, and move on. Shame focuses on you as the cause of the problem and offers no clear way to overcome it.

How Does Shame Lead to Substance Abuse?

Shame is a powerful emotion that can crush your self-esteem and seriously affect your overall well-being. In some cases, feelings of shame become overwhelming, and people turn to drugs or alcohol as an escape. A systematic review of available scientific literature found that shame-proneness can lead to early-onset substance use, and young people may use substances to cope with negative feelings.

How Can Addiction Cause Feelings of Shame?

While substance use can offer a temporary escape from feelings of shame, it does nothing to help you overcome it in the long term. In fact, substance abuse and addiction often cause or exacerbate these feelings.

Addiction is a destructive force that impacts many aspects of your life, and sooner or later, it affects your relationships with others. You may lie to your loved ones to hide your drug habits, steal money to fund your addiction, or act abusively while under the influence.

While it is normal to feel guilty about these actions, people can often feel ashamed of who they have become. They feel like they are a bad or unworthy person – a perception that may be exacerbated by the stigma that surrounds addiction. These feelings often become a driving factor behind drug use, leading to a destructive cycle of substance abuse and shame.

How Do You Overcome Feelings of Shame?

Research suggests that people in recovery are significantly more prone to shame than people living without addiction. Because shame can be a trigger for drug use, learning to cope with it is crucial to recovering from addiction and avoiding relapse.

Understanding the nature of shame and the processes that trigger it can help you overcome it. Shame resilience theory suggests that such awareness can improve depressive symptoms, decrease internalized shame, and increase shame resilience. Addiction treatment programs often include psychoeducational lectures where experts or psychologists share their knowledge of the subject.

You can also lessen feelings of shame by focusing on the specific actions you have taken rather than judging your character as a whole. Instead of thinking ‘I am inadequate’, note the instances where you harmed others, accept responsibility for what happened, and make amends for what you have done. This process offers closure on the mistakes you made and promotes self-forgiveness.

This is where the relationship between guilt and shame is important. When you concentrate on particular actions and accept responsibility for them, you replace feelings of shame with feelings of adaptive guilt – guilt about things that you had control over. Research has found that people in recovery are less prone to adaptive guilt than those who have no experience of addiction, and learning how to process mistakes through adaptive guilt is part of the course of healing.

The 12-step method of addiction recovery can be a powerful tool to guide you through this process. It focuses on recognizing your responsibility for your actions, making amends to others, and using your experience to help others recover from addiction. Working through the 12-steps in support groups like Alcoholics Anonymous helps you feel accepted by others around you and realize that your actions are forgivable – and you should not feel ashamed.

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