Shame & Addiction

“Shame is a soul eating emotion.”
C.G. Jung

Most of us have at one time or another felt embarrassed, guilty or shamed about our actions. When I was a therapist at an addiction treatment center, we focused on the difference between guilt, shame and embarrassment.

Embarrassment was regarded as a low level emotional response that could resonate from positive or negative situations.

Guilt is a higher level of negativity to actions. It’s associated with how others may make us feel about ourselves with the focus on the negative.

Shame is when we incorporate our value as a person to such a depth that we deem ourselves unworthy and lose self-esteem and self confidence.

Brene Brown, a noted researcher on guilt and shame, describes the difference between the terms. Brene’s research suggests that guilt can be adaptive and helpful – “it’s holding something we’ve done or failed to do up against our values and feeling psychological discomfort.”

She describes shame as: “the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging – something we’ve experienced, done, or failed to do makes us unworthy of connection.”

To Brene, shame is much more likely to be the source of destructive, hurtful behavior than the solution or cure. The depth of shame can lead us to want to avoid pain and search for numbing. That can lead to dependency on substances such as alcohol to avoid wanting to confront how we feel about ourselves.

Sources and Types of Shame

John Bradshaw in his book Healing the Shame That Binds You states that sources of shame could come from numerous places:

  1. Parental criticism and anger;
  2. Sibling jealousy and rivalry;
  3. Pressures of school – grades, behavior and appearance;
  4. Peer pressure and ridicule. Human beings, he stated, need to have a sense of shame.

Healthy shame lets you know you have limits and boundaries:

  1. That you can make mistakes;
  2. That you are vulnerable
  3. That you sometimes need help
  4. That you are not God. What is dangerous for us is the idea of toxic shame.

Toxic Shame

Toxic shame can start early in life when parents are shame-based, they tend to act shameless, passing their shame to their children. Parents may believe they don’t have the right to depend on anyone else or ask for help so:

They Act More Human By:

  • Controlling everything
  • Being perfectionists
  • Blaming, criticizing and passing judgment

They May Act Less Human By:

  •  Raging
  •  Battering – verbally, physically or sexually
  • Neglecting

What results in toxic shame is children being raised feeling defective (must be my fault, deserve battering, worthless) and with no healthy role models. One’s sense of abandonment sets up relationship problems the rest of their lives (who would want to love me, who can I trust and depend on?)

Ramifications of Toxic Shame: Shamelessness

As they get older, toxic shame-based children frequently learn to depend on things outside themselves such as chemicals, sex, food, work or gambling.

The shame of their dependency then results in what John Bradshaw calls “the cycle of acting shameless” and results in incorporating shame of themselves and letting it become their identity… Shame becomes a cycle:

  • Shame-based identity – What am I ashamed of?
  • Distorted Thinking – How has it distorted my thinking?
  • Acting Out Cycle – How do I react instead of act or “act out?”
  • Life Damaging Consequences – What have been the consequences?

Steps to Recovery

Recovery from toxic shame and its aftereffects can begin to heal by externalizing through:

  •  Surrender – giving up control.
  •  Socialization – coming out of isolation and hiding.
  •  Self-disclosure – talking about the bad feelings and the shame.
  •  Sensitivity – to the system of origin and consciously reversing roles.
  •  Self-talk – stop the negative self-talk and use positive affirmations.
  • Surfacing buried memories – it is often the inability to express trauma that makes person sick, not the trauma itself.
  • Self-love – this can be learned; it is a choice, not a feeling.
  • Spirituality – nourishing the inner life.

Bill Dinker a nationally recognized substance abuse recovery expert in an article called ” 10 Incredible Recovery Quotes “ stated the following:

“Guilt and shame accompany active addiction like salt and pepper on scrambled eggs. An old sponsor of mine repeatedly told me to quit beating myself up over things I’d already done. His point was this – guilt and shame caused me to react exponentially worse. And it served no purpose.

The earth-shattering irony is that some of our greatest mistakes become our most valuable assets after sobriety takes hold. When I share my experience with another man regarding arrests, jails and institutions, it’s indescribable to watch his reaction go from fear to relief – relief that someone finally understands.”

Woman feeling shame photo available from Shutterstock

Shame & Addiction

Steve Greenman, MA, LPC, NCC

Steve Greenman, MA, LPC, NCC is a licensed professional counselor (LPC) in northern Michigan who has a passion for reading, writing, music and helping others. He specializes in counseling complex family situations, substance abuse, and parenting. Steve’s counseling philosophy is holistic, approaching each issue on its own merit and evaluating influences to help overcome life’s dilemmas.


APA Reference
Greenman, S. (2016). Shame & Addiction. Psych Central. Retrieved on December 4, 2020, from


Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 1 Feb 2016
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 1 Feb 2016
Published on All rights reserved.