How Shame Impacts Us

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David Fawcett PhD, LCSW

There are many possible sources of shame, including secrets in one’s family of origin, abuse of various forms, body shame, mental health problems, work, financial issues, aging, sexuality, being stereotyped, and almost any number of other concerns. If any of these are kept secret, they contribute to the maintenance of a false exterior self that is hiding inner feelings of fear, hurt, and anger.

It is this gap between inner and outer lives that creates space for emotional pain, which must be dampened or numbed. In other words, addictive behaviors become a way to cope with the struggle between a person’s authentic and false selves. In a sense, addiction can be seen as a form of dissociative disorder, in which one “disconnects” from traumatic or painful feelings. Drugs, behaviors, or even people are compulsively used to soothe the emotional pain caused by that breach between false and authentic selves. This behavior is, essentially, a very destructive form of self-medication.

Ironically, by trying to escape these uncomfortable feelings, addictive behaviors actually perpetuate them by reinforcing the shame. Shame thus becomes an essential building block in the creation of a failed relationship with oneself.

Amphetamines (such as cocaine, Adderall, and methamphetamine) can make the user feel confident, expressive, and powerful, creating an illusion of control, which holds a particular appeal as an antidote to shame. This is because the experience of shame creates a form of emotional shock, a dissociative episode in which one disconnects from feelings. Although such dissociation is, at its most basic, one of the body’s mechanisms for self-preservation, it is destructive when one disconnects from feelings because the emotions then become frozen and unexpressed.

As we have seen, shame at an early age provides a cornerstone for the development of an unhealthy relationship with oneself. Through a variety of early life experiences and insights, both overt and covert, children begin to form core beliefs about themselves, which, unless changed, persist and inform behavior over the course of a lifetime.

As adults, such beliefs frequently guide decision making, responses to stressful situations (both positive and negative), and self-concept. Typically, these include beliefs about oneself, such as “I am unprotected,” “I am unlovable,” “I am flawed,” “I can’t handle this feeling,” and “I am powerless.”

People react in certain ways as a result of these beliefs. For example, if they believe they are unprotected, they may decide never to take the risk of expressing their true feelings or being spontaneous. If they believe they are unlovable, they may decide that they need to work extra hard to earn someone’s love. They may become a rescuer or a caretaker, and, at some point, they will probably become unaware of and therefore unable to meet their own needs. If they feel flawed, they may strive to create a false self that tries to be perfect, perhaps physically by spending hours at the gym (and taking steroids or diet pills) or by obsessing over food to the point of creating a disorder. If they believe they can’t handle feelings, they will eventually not even try, finding that mood-altering substances and self-destructive behaviors create at least a temporary reprieve from the discomfort of painful emotions. Finally, those who feel powerless may try to affiliate with someone who can protect (or even control) them, or may strive to accumulate wealth or prestige to combat feeling ineffectual.

All of these long-standing beliefs and decisions about ourselves, made as a result of pivotal moments in our young lives, operate silently in the background unless they are made conscious and then changed. Despite being rooted in the past, they very much affect our present-day decisions and relationships. I liken them to software that is unseen but guides virtually every aspect of a system’s operations. Unless the negative beliefs and decisions are identified and corrected, they persist and continue to create undesired outcomes. It is these false beliefs that explain why people work very hard at changing external circumstances only to find themselves repeating the same behaviors and situations, seemingly endlessly. These invisible forces go a long way toward explaining repetitious and destructive behavior, which is discouraging for the individual and everyone around them.

Addictive behaviors, whether with substances or “process addictions,” such as compulsive sex or pornography, typically work in two ways. They either provide a distraction from painful feelings, or they numb the emotional pain caused by these old wounds and their present-day manifestations. The temporary fix provided by continuously acting out in one’s addictive patterns ultimately only serves to multiply the feelings of shame because of increasingly out of control behavior and negative life consequences. This can lead one to spiral into withdrawal, isolation, and deeper feelings of disconnection and unworthiness.

Until we understand the sources of our shame and correct the accompanying false beliefs and behavioral decisions, we are susceptible to the pull of addictive behavior. In order to turn the tide on this cycle, one needs to first seek help to address the addiction itself, and in the process address the false negative beliefs that led to shame in the first place. It is also imperative to connect with supportive friends and an understanding community that allows us to open up and thus transform our feelings of shame into that which helps and heals.