Pushing through shame, or using
it in journey to resiliency
My life has been touched by addiction since my beginnings. Probably because of this, I see many people in my therapy practice who are using drugs or alcohol to their own detriment. Of course, not everyone who uses chemicals suffers negative consequences. In reflecting on National Recovery Month, I’ll focus on those who seek change in that area of their life.
When clients come to me for issues related to addiction, the conversation starts where they experience themselves to be. Often the person who comes to the couch has mixed feelings. Substance use has had a negative effect on their lives (or someone in their life) but substance use also has at least one functional benefit to those who use. This can seem paradoxical to those on the outside, but there is a benefit to using as there is to many behaviors people think of as “bad” (self-harm, over- or under-eating, recklessness). Asking about both what is not working and what is working, without judgment, is paramount for the evidence-based treatment I – and many other therapists – use in our practices.
The role of shame
In addition to physiological addiction to a substance, the addict experiences considerable shame that intoxication dulls. Shame can help keep some users sober. Whether the shame was present before their foray into use or not, shame is a common experience of those who use and want to stop. No matter the origin of the shame, substance use can temporarily mask it or at least make the user less focused on their shame and thoughts that surround it. This explains in part why attempts to quit can falter. People trying to get clean and/or sober often experience a wave of emotions that have been tamped down by the regular use of substances. As these feelings abruptly or gradually plague the person in early recovery, it compounds the other painful aspects of quitting.
Shame begets shame. Individuals who use substances to their detriment do not need to be told that they are messing up their lives. Unfortunately, the start/stop quitting cycle can add more negative emotion to what is already present.
Even without other people sending guilt their way, people who are using and wanting to stop continue with painful scripts in their heads about themselves. Because of this, I find people who used and quit to be people with whom I am proud to be acquainted. I appreciate a person’s ability to move beyond their darkness, or at least to incorporate their shadow into their ownership of themselves.
Earlier eras of treatment demonized not just addiction, but the addicted individual. They were considered damaged and considered “the addict” or “other.” Early treatment centers resembled asylums and took away decision-making power to the extent that many did not receive treatment at all. The result was sanctuary harm, where the place that was supposed to provide respite and calm led to more damage.
We are now living in a time of reform with the potential for improvements. We can change the lens through which the treatment community and community members see addiction and those who experience it. An increasing number of people hold the idea that the addiction can be successfully treated, and the person can get better. Thank you to those who are in solidarity with the person who still suffers and welcome to those who are recent joiners of the recovery movement.
People can change, and witnessing their resilience can be a powerful reminder of that. Let us all continue to develop our understanding and use it to hold space and respect for those in recovery.
Knowing yourself is the beginning of all wisdom.
Kim Warden, LCSW, CCDP-D, is trained and experienced as a licensed clinical social worker and a substance use disorder counselor. You can contact her at email@example.com or