Shame's Impact On Addiction & Recovery

By Britni de la Cretaz 07/17/17

Some experts believe that shame can be a resource in overcoming addiction while others think unresolved shame can fuel it. 

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“I think most people are deeply ashamed of their addictions,” Neil Steinberg, author of the memoir Drunkard: A Hard Drinking Life, said on NPR’s All Things Considered this weekend.

Steinberg was talking to host Michel Martin about the death of True Blood star actor Nelsan Ellis, who died from alcohol withdrawal complications, after an attempt to quit alcohol on his own. In a statement about his death, Ellis's family mentioned that the actor was ashamed of his battle with addiction and was "reluctant to talk about it during his life." His father ultimately decided to share his cause of death with the world in the hopes that the stigma of addiction can be lessened for other people who may be ashamed of their battle with addiction. 

Teaching shame resiliency to people struggling with addiction is something that has been gaining momentum in the field of treatment for some time. The theory behind it is that recovery will not last if the role of shame is not addressed during the treatment process. Ignoring that shame does nothing to resolve it—instead it will remain buried, which can fuel an addiction if and when a relapse happens.

But if people are given the tools of shame resiliency, they can overcome the shame they feel over the actions they took while using, to maintain sobriety, if that’s what they desire.

“I mean, this isn't an illness that even if you get the best help, it doesn't necessarily cure it. I mean, you never cure it. It's a battle you're always fighting,” Steinberg explained on All Things Considered. “And I think people tend to take kind of a sneering, joshing look at it like it's just some excuse that you throw up when you get caught. And that's not the case at all. This is a terrible illness that afflicts millions of Americans.”

However, some professionals think that shame can serve as a necessary and useful catalyst to help someone overcome their addictions. In an op-ed in the New York Times last year, the authors of Brainwashed: The Seductive Appeal of Mindless Neuroscience—psychiatrist Sally L. Satel and Scott O. Lilienfeld, a professor of psychology at Emory University—argued that therapists can harness a patient’s feelings of shame to help them move forward and change their patterns of behavior, as long as the patient thinks their mistakes or missteps are fixable. If people feel there is a way to make amends or apologize for the behaviors they’re ashamed of, that shame can fuel the recovery process.

As Steinberg said on All Things Considered, “I think that the more the public is aware of what this is, that it's not just a bad decision that stupid people make because they're stupid, I think the more understanding they'll be and the more…help available.”

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Britni de la Cretaz is a freelance writer, baseball enthusiast, and recovered alcoholic living in Boston. Follow her on Twitter at @britnidlc.