What Is the Role of Shame in Recovery?

     Charlie, I forgot to comment on this post when you first posted it. The funny thing is, I was coming to your blog that day to see if you had any posts on shame – and this was the newest post! Serendipity.

     Anyway, I agree with you that shame is a huge driving force in humanity, and that we all suffer from it. Personally, I am deeply ashamed of the idiotic mistakes I’ve made over the years, as well as the financial disaster that has been the result.

     What I am trying to figure out, and what you didn’t go into in this post, what the role of shame is in an addict’s recovery. Clearly, someone who is hurting others needs to feel some shame in order to want to change…but what if the addict seems to be so drowning in shame that they can’t handle it at all, and any hint from anyone that they are doing something wrong sends them into a deep depression where they pretty much give up on everything? I know my addict is ashamed of himself – but it seems sometimes like he is so ashamed that he believes he can never do anything good and might as well kill himself as quickly as possible. Which is actually selfish of course, but it’s how he thinks. Is this just a self-indulgent excuse to keep using, or can shame truly paralyze a person from recovering? I am not sure how to handle it when he talks like this. I don’t know if I should give him encouragement that he can do better, that his family loves and needs him, or tell him to stop whining.


     First we must distinguish between shame as a natural and healthy reaction to committing a wrong, whether before or after the consequences materialize. That is quite healthy and necessary to curb the behavior in question. Unhealthy shame, on the other hand, is essentially self-pity, which is a character defect in and of itself. Self-pity is a form of selfishness, and is often applied by damaged individuals to manipulate others and to rationalize avoidant behavior. If you hear,

     ‘Well I’m so ashamed, I cannot face this or face that…  I can’t move on… What’s the point of anything after what I’ve done… I might as well just drink or use… I might as well just kill myself…’

     …those are the words of a someone who is probably just manipulating you. They want attention and are trolling/fishing for some reaction, similar to the way a child would behave. When we embrace cowardice by remaining in the comfort zone of isolation, we are not engaging in healthy or productive recovery. Please note that I am no shining example of anything, but nonetheless, that is how I see it. 

     Unhealthy Shame isn’t a good thing, especially excessive shame (like you see in victims), as we render ourselves useless to those in our lives. While ashamed, we can accomplish nothing and are crippled from giving. Conversely, when free from shame, we can engage, produce, succeed, influence and create love, happiness and magic for others. So while Shame is the human condition, it is also the human epidemic. It makes us sick, and ridding ourselves of Shame through acceptance, hard work and living in the present is where we find peace, fearlessness, and limitless potential.

      So I would tell him to stop whining (although I don’t exactly have a history of the alternative). Shame in this case sounds like an excuse not to move forward, especially when we vocalize it so much. We are essentially whining as a means to rationalize our failure or procrastination in moving forward and progressing. This is quite different than humility and honest self-assessment, both of which are productive. Shame as guilt simply chains us to the past, whereas engaging in rigorous honesty is a means to stand back up and face the world. 

     The Big Book says that we are not doormats. We are to respect ourselves and command respect from others. What sort of example are we setting if we remain paralyzed by shame, hobbled over and crying into our pity pot? Recovery is actually about conquering Shame and becoming an example of strength for others. Hope that makes any sense.

One thought on “What Is the Role of Shame in Recovery?

  1. Thanks so much for answering my question, Charlie. The distinction between healthy vs. unhealthy shame helps to make it clear for me.

    I think at times, that I myself engage in unhealthy shame – I have never used drugs or alcohol but I have made a boatload of mistakes in my life, and sometimes I do feel paralyzed about that – I'm afraid there is something wrong with me, that I just fundamentally suck and that everything I do will fail.

    But you've reminded me that this is a childish way of viewing things and is not helpful to anyone. I need to forget about all that and live in the present.

    This is all helpful of course, in dealing with my addict, too, as he talks this way often. Thanks again. 🙂

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