April 29, 2015

Shame & Addiction: Giving Voice to Recovery.

Shame_butterfly copy

Let’s talk about shame.

Let’s talk about feeling inadequate, insecure, outcast, alienated, and mocked.  Let’s talk about the emotion that thrives on silence.  Let’s talk about shame because talking is the only way to move past it.

Shame lives in the dark places inside us.  It is rooted in abuse, emotional or physical, that once planted an echo in us repeating over and over that we are somehow inadequate.  It multiplies with every negative assumption we make.  It multiplies each time we put a critical thought about ourselves in someone else’s head: He’s staring at my pimple. She thinks I’m dancing like an idiot. Everyone hates me. They are laughing at me.

Once it roots itself in us, this habit of feeling shame, of defining ourselves as constantly assaulted by the judgments of others is like a virus that spreads and devours us.  Shame is how we transform an abuse enacted upon us into an abuse we perpetually enact upon ourselves.

In feeling shame, we feel like curling up inside ourselves.  We feel like running away from others and escaping.  We feel like building walls around our selves is the only way to be safe.  So we detach, we stop trusting, we relive the abuse once visited on us again and again and again.

So there is only one-way to escape this self-destructive cycle: by fighting shame with its opposite.  Instead of closing off, open up.  Instead of running from others, embrace them.  Instead of shrinking away in silence, stand up and speak.  This is the rallying cry of the #TalkShame campaign, a campaign launched by those combatting addiction and taking the first crucial step toward lasting recovery.

As one recovering addict put it, “Shame lived in my heart and gut.  My hopelessness allowed me to continue using.” This story of trauma transforming into self-inflicted pain is the same for countless addicts.  Because we were hurt, we are ashamed.  Because we hurt ourselves by feeling shame, we seek to numb or escape ourselves.  Drugs lower us to a dark place we convince ourselves we deserve.

For many, addiction is not the root of a problem; it’s a symptom of shame, just as shame is a symptom of trauma.  Toxic shame is a condition of feeling perpetually inadequate, of feeling that we ourselves—rather than our behaviors—are unacceptable.  Toxic shame means losing sight of the fact that everyone is imperfect and flawed and screwed up, dwelling instead in a constant feeling of not being good enough.  Having been told enough times that we aren’t good enough, we come to deeply believe it.  It becomes a veil through which we view everything we do, everyone we meet, and every relationship in our lives. Yet because this feeling of inadequacy is an illusion, in order to maintain the delusion of our own shame, we must remove ourselves from reality to incubate it.  Hence silence and isolation and withdrawing from those around us.

So expression and connection are the weapons we must use to defeat shame.  Only by reaching out and speaking to those we assumed were judging us can we find the truth: that they are more likely to have been noticing our beauty than our darkness.  By simply speaking out and expressing our feelings, we can escape the cycle of self-abuse.  For this reason, art is a powerful tool for overcoming trauma and shame.  Art allows us to diffuse emotions by giving them shape.  Creating asserts our ability to change and build something new; it provides an avenue for escaping destructive thought.

But self-expression isn’t the only potential benefit of art as a tool for recovery.  As Brené Brown, a professor and author who studies shame, writes, “Empathy is the antidote to shame.”  So artists who represent shame provide a point of connection for those in its grips.

Because the emotions associated with trauma and shame are difficult to put into words and elude definition, images like these commissioned by Alta Mira Recovery Program can be powerful windows out of the isolation many addicts and shame sufferers feel.

Fortunately, we live today in a world that is more connected than ever, so isolation and shame can be torn down by communities that condense online.  Whereas we were once limited to communities that were physically close to us, today we can connect with people around the world—thousands of whom are facing the same obstacles as we are.  So if your life has been impacted by shame, if you are struggling to overcome shame or have a story to tell of your success doing so, speak out.  Let’s build a community to defeat shame and overcome trauma.  When we #TalkShame together, we help to heal ourselves while also giving a lifeline to those who need a community and a voice to overcome their own shame.  So join us today, and let’s talk about shame.


Author: Alan J. Massey

Editor: Alli Sarazen

Photo: Shane Gorski/Flickr

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Alan J. Massey