5 Ways Shame Can Lead to Addictive Behavior

Shame is such a powerful emotion. But it’s not one that springs up from one moment to another—it slowly develops, over time.

Certainly, there are times when everybody feels embarrassed, awkward, etc. Yet, the feelings in those instances are quite different from feeling shame.

Shame is something that disrupts the very fiber of your being. It causes you to question your self-worth as a person. And it is rooted in experiences that go back years, or even decades.

In the end, shame causes you to doubt whether or not you are “enough.”

Such a powerful concept can drive anyone towards substance abuse, and eventually, addiction. Here’s how.

1. Shame Is Ever-Present

Unlike many momentary emotions, shame is ever-present in your life. It’s with you when you wake up and when you go to bed. While you might not be thinking about your shame every waking moment, it exists in the background.

Occasionally, shame rises to the surface because of a reminder or trigger. For example, let’s say that someone gives you a compliment. You have learned, over time, to put on a positive face and thank them for saying something nice. However, deep down you don’t really believe them. In fact, when they do compliment you, your mind automatically disputes it. It tells you that they must be lying, or if they knew the real “truth” they wouldn’t extend the compliment.

This is what makes shame an ever-present force in your life. And why it can erode your self-esteem.

2. Shame Has Roots in the Past

The origins of shame usually come from experiences that you have had in your past. For example, one would be your childhood. Did you have supportive, loving parents that lifted you up? Or were they critical, demeaning, or abusive?

These early life experiences definitely have an impact on how your personality and mindset develop. Also, these are often experiences that you’d rather forget. Hence, that’s why things can get out of control quickly and lead to addictive behavior.

3. Always Trying to Be Perfect

One aspect of shame that isn’t always noticeable is when someone is a perfectionist. Signs of a perfectionistic personality can be subtle or very obvious.

For example:

  • The need to always get straight A’s in school, no matter what
  • Thinking that people might be critical of you is overwhelming
  • A desire to people-please
  • Fear of letting others down

Perfectionism causes you to use up a lot of mental energy. It’s stressful and makes you feel anxious. That stress can become very overwhelming.

To cope with the stress, you might be tempted to use substances to calm down, relax, and forget. For instance, maybe you like having a drink or two to take the edge off in the evening. However, that could present the opening for addiction to take hold.

4. Questioning Your Worth

One of the critical, and perhaps existential, issues at the heart of shame is questioning your self-worth. When this occurs, you doubt whether you deserve anything positive, happy, or good in your life. In fact, when something positive does happen, you may immediately doubt and question it. Plus, you may avoid such things in the first place.

If you believe that you are unworthy, that can be a powerful gateway for addiction. When you don’t think that you deserve anything, then you are more likely to do things to yourself that are negative and harmful.

5. Reaching a State of Numbness

Finally, shame drives you to not want to feel anything at all. Addiction helps you accomplish this.

People who experience a lot of shame often become overwhelmed by their feelings of sadness and despair. So they numb those feelings by using substances. They bear down on those emotions so that they don’t have to experience them. All that is left is the euphoria from the high of the substance use.

If you don’t want to feel shame, it makes sense that you want to replace the feeling, or at least numb it. But, sadly, that’s only a momentary fix.

Shame has the power to take control of your life in ways that you may have not even expected. Using substances is a way many people cope with shame. However, substance use can quickly accelerate into an addiction.

Because the causes of the addiction are so complex, it’s important to work with a therapist to get help. I invite you to call / text us 256-686-9195.

AuthorJoshua Howell, MS, LPC, NCC, AADC, ICAADC, SAP, SAE

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