Shame and Addiction Don’t Have to Shape Your Identity

You were perfect.

Don’t you remember? Your body still felt like a miracle, and carried the faint scent of your creator. Your mind was curious and everything your senses took in was wondrous. The possibilities were endless. You became older and more aware, and you thought that you could do or be anything. And then you grew up.

You moved farther away from yourself. You didn’t feel quite as perfect, or special. Your flaws became magnified or your behavior was criticized, and you felt shame.

If you could go back in time, what would those bright eyes see that your myopic vision now misses? What would your young heart feel about the person you have become?

Why has my spirit been suffocated by shame?

The difference between guilt and shame is very clear—in theory. We feel guilty for what we do. We feel shame for what we are.” Lewis B. Smedes, Shame and Grace

We’ve always been bound by shame–every one of us, as long as humanity has existed. In the biblical tale of Genesis, Adam and Eve felt shame when they realized they were naked. When we are children, we revel in our nakedness, whether it is physical or emotional–until we are told otherwise. We are made to feel shame for being so exposed. Charles Darwin studied human emotions in his 1872 book,The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, and found that “a powerful stimulus to the development of the social virtues, is afforded by the praise and the blame of our fellow-men.Darwin determined that both praise and shame could be used in a way to influence our behavior to fit into a certain moral structure. Judgment from others causes us shame, and makes us want to conform to specific societal expectations.

Our parents introduced us to that feeling of shame at a young age, perhaps unwittingly, but once you felt it, you understood it. It almost felt innate. You wet the bed, and your mother or father are frustrated and tired of having to get up and change the sheets–you are supposed to be a big girl or boy now, and you feel ashamed. What you’ve done is wrong, but you aren’t wrong. Yet still, the shame sits inside you, and continues as you age, chipping away at your self-worth one mistake at a time.

We live in a culture of shame. Unfortunately, anyone in our society who is viewed as different is also made to feel shame, whether it is because of race, religion, gender, sexual orientation or mental or physical differences. We should celebrate our unique qualities, and we should teach our children how to celebrate them. Yet we still harbor shame when we consider ourselves weaker, less stable, less ethical or spiritual or even less physically attractive than others. We look upon our addiction with shame, and allow it to punish us mentally, physically, and spiritually.

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When your body becomes submissive to shame.

Once shame touches your being at any point, even the most distant nerve is implicated, whether you know it or not; any fleeting encounter or random thought will rake up the anguish and add to it.” -Stefan Zweig, The Post Office Girl

Shame is a negative emotion. It devalues you as a person because it eats away at your identity. If shame was a symbol, it would be a skull and crossbones. It’s a poison that affects every part of your body and soul. Darwin noticed several physical reactions to momentary shame–you may blush, cast your eyes downward, and slump. We all have those moments. Finnish scientists studying the mind/body connection through body mapping found that shame was experienced in the entire body, but more so in the head and chest–two parts of your body most associated with identity.

Shame dictates how you perceive yourself, and toxic shame doesn’t just go away. It embeds in every fiber of our being and changes our emotional and physical landscape. Embodied shame is often caused by trauma such as sexual abuse, our own substance abuse, mental illness, or tragic life events. It is a form of stress, and it causes the same physical pain and anxiety, sleeplessness and depression. Scientific studies have found that feelings of shame can actually increase cortisol levels (Cortisol is known as the stress hormone). Shame is a factor in addiction and it becomes a part of that cycle where you feel shame, so you drink or take drugs to dull that feeling–and then you feel more shame.

We can unlearn shame.

If you are looking in the mirror, and asking yourself, “Who is this person?” because shame and addiction has caused your vision of your true self to be blurred, you need to learn how to see the beautiful you under that pain.

We can’t “cure” shame, because it is an emotional response. While guilt can be a valuable emotion, allowing us to think about what we did wrong and work towards becoming a better person, shame is destructive. You have to address your shame before you can realize your true path and overcome your addiction, because one feeds off the other.

There is an inner light within all of us. That light can be whatever you want to call it–your spirit, your pure soul, God’s spirit in you, or a universal light we all share. That light shows us that we are all made good and whole in the beginning.

At Alta Mira, we recognize that spiritual light in you and how important it is to recovery. We nurture that center of your being through a personalized spirituality program. Spirituality isn’t about a particular religion or belief system, it’s about finding the you before shame and addiction took you away from yourself. The you who was made perfect may never be flawless, but learning to accept and love the person you truly are, without shame, helps break the cycle of addiction.

Alta Mira offers luxury residential drug rehab for drug and alcohol addiction as well as co-occurring mental health disorders. Contact us to learn more about our renowned Bay Area programs and how we can help you or your loved one start the journey toward recovery.