Why Shame Is the Real Enemy of Recovery

Jan 10, 2023

You can’t talk about addiction recovery without first addressing the two elephants in the room – guilt and shame. People often lump together guilt and shame as one and the same. The two, however, differ considerably. You feel guilt for something you have done that has wronged, hurt, or inconvenienced someone. You may also be responsible for committing a crime or other serious breaches of conduct.

Guilt is linked to behaviors, not your intrinsic worth or identity. In a supportive setting, guilt can motivate you to change the behavior that is hurting yourself and others. You take responsibility for your actions and their painful consequences, which sets you on a path to make amends.

Shame, on the other hand, is a negative identity you adopt. Pick your adjective – you’re bad, inconsiderate, selfish, etc., because you can’t control your substance use. The poison of shame is convincing yourself that you are bad because you have done something bad.

It focuses on comparing yourself to others and social norms and creates a vicious cycle that doesn’t allow you to heal. The more worthless you feel about your past failings and how far you fall short of what’s ‘normal,’ the more your self-esteem sinks. You think, “Who cares? Everybody else has it together, so something has to be wrong with me.” Intense shame eclipses hope – the hope you need to change behavior, get healthy, and live a rewarding life.

Why Shame Is the Real Enemy of Recovery


Empathy, the Antidote to Toxic Shame

Let’s be clear – empathy is not sympathy. Brené Brown once described the difference between the two with an illustration of a person falling into a dark hole. A sympathetic friend will offer help, kindness, or encouragement from their safe spot above ground. They may also judge or try to paint a silver lining around your issues.

On the other hand, an empathetic friend will bring a ladder, climb down, and try to build a supportive connection with you without judgment or unsolicited advice. They help by seeking to understand and feel what you’re feeling.

As a Christian-based rehabilitation center, we believe Jesus Christ is the perfect example of empathy. The Bible is replete with instances where Jesus showed empathy – He mourned with those who had lost loved ones to death, even though he knew he would soon bring them back to life. He took the time to talk with the woman at the well and understand her unhappiness instead of ignoring or judging her the way others did. Everything Christ did was aimed at comforting, understanding, and lifting others.

Whether or not you find yourself in a faith-based treatment center, the need for practicing empathy in drug and alcohol rehab is universal. You are more likely to relapse time and time again if you don’t learn to extend empathy to yourself and others while in recovery. While shaming and demeaning continue the cycle of secrecy, selfishness, and defensiveness, empathy encourages openness, trust, compassion, and forgiveness.

3 Ways to Practice Self-Empathy

At Renaissance Ranch, our staff members have walked the difficult path of recovery and offer the following suggestions on how to develop self-empathy and compassion:

Show Yourself Respect, Kindness

“You Wouldn’t Talk to Friends Like that” – remember when your mom used to say this after you yelled at her or made some rude remark? Well, it applies to you, too. When you’re in the throes of recovery, your mind will inundate you with self-criticism and condemnation, such as, “I’m such a failure,” “I’m a horrible husband and father,” or our personal favorite, “I’m too far gone to get better.”

Now imagine you’re face-to-face with your best friend. Would you say things like that to him? Or would you have compassion and try to encourage him to keep trying? The golden rule here is to talk to yourself the same way you would speak to a close friend.

Exercise Mindfulness

At a basic level, mindfulness means becoming more aware of your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. Many addiction recovery centers employ Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) to combat the negative thinking that leads to negative emotions and behaviors.

CBT techniques teach you to identify, challenge, and change these thought patterns. For example, you make a mistake at work, and your mind automatically jumps to “I can’t do anything right.” That thought, in turn, leaves you feeling helpless and depressed, which then may turn into a trigger for going home and downing a bottle of Scotch.

Instead, with CBT, you first identify the specific problem: The report you filed was incorrect because you didn’t fully understand the task. You challenge the cognitive distortion that you can’t do anything right by listing everything you do well at work. You acknowledge that this was an isolated incident and didn’t reflect your entire work history.

Now you change that original negative thought to something positive, like, “I didn’t do this task correctly, but I’m smart and a quick learner, and with additional training, I can do it right next time.” The feelings that follow thus turn from despair and self-loathing to hopefulness and optimism. You are empowered to speak candidly with your boss about the mistake and how additional training will help improve your skills in this area.

Learn to Forgive Yourself

Forgiving yourself does not mean justifying bad behavior. Own up to your mistakes – your drug abuse did ruin your relationship with your spouse; stealing that money from your parents to buy liquor was wrong. None of us are perfect; we each make daily mistakes, many small ones and sometimes several big ones.

We seek forgiveness by acknowledging those shortcomings and making amends for them the best we can. However, the person we often struggle the most with forgiving is ourselves. This is not an easy task, as the shame of our past continually reminds us that we ‘can’t’ ever really let go of all the bad we have done.
At Renaissance Ranch, we feel this is a crucial point in the recovery process where the value of faith-based drug rehab is immeasurable. When we believe that we have a loving creator who can heal us from our misdeeds and make us whole again, we can move forward with confidence that the shame of our substance abuse is forever left in the past.

Developing self-empathy takes effort and practice, and it will make all the difference in creating a successful and lasting recovery from addiction. If you want to know more about our Christian-based treatment centers in Utah and Idaho, please call us at 855-736-7262.