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Overcoming Shame in Addiction Recovery

Feeling ashamed of something that happened to you or something you did is completely natural. Although the emotion is something most people try to actively avoid feeling, the reality is it forms part of any fulfilled life, despite the discomfort felt while experiencing it. However, for people with substance use disorders, shame is often a more constant, lingering emotion related to their actions, their words, or even just their personalities.

The Relationship Between Shame and Addiction

One of the first things to understand before delving into the topic of shame and addiction is that there is a significant difference between shame and guilt. Guilt is typically related to something we did and is a natural emotion that lets us know when we’ve done something wrong according to ourselves. Shame is a feeling related to us as individuals. It makes us feel inadequate, useless, and without reason.

Feelings of shame often accompany thoughts like:1

  • “I don’t deserve love.”
  • “Nobody cares what happens to me.”
  • “I can never be happy.”
  • “I’m a loser.”
  • “I will never be enough.”

Causes of Shame

Events or factors that may increase your chance of experiencing shame include:2

  • Experiencing trauma or abuse
  • Having an insecure attachment style
  • Experiencing hostile or harsh parenting
  • Having a parent who abused drugs or alcohol
  • Being regularly exposed to negative opinions on mental illness or substance abuse

The Cycle of Shame and Addiction

Constant shame may eventually lead to mental illness, including disorders like depression and anxiety, which is why many rehabs offer dual diagnosis treatment for their patients. Even if it does not cause a diagnosable mental health disorder, it could worsen your mental health to the point where you want to use alcohol or drugs to forget about the feelings of inadequacy or ridicule.

Drug or alcohol abuse is an unhealthy way to cope with stress, feelings of shame, and the mental issues that arise from these feelings. Unfortunately, misusing these substances can seem like the only way out for many people, creating a debilitating cycle where each stage only contributes to worsening your shame or your addiction.

How Shame Can Prevent Healing

Not only does shame encourage addictive behavior, but people who feel shame typically don’t ask for help with their mental illness or addiction. This, combined with the widespread stigma surrounding both conditions, can often result in addicts not asking for and not getting the help they need as they remain stuck in the loop between substance abuse and increasing shame.

The Process of Letting Go of Shame

One of the first steps toward letting go is to understand the difference between guilt and shame. Feelings of guilt are a natural occurrence and are often temporary. Shame is a reaction toward yourself as a person and could become detrimental to your health.

Understanding that making a mistake isn’t the same as being a failure is integral to overcoming shame. If you feel guilty over something you did, it does not mean you are experiencing shame. The two emotions cannot be handled in the same way.

Below are a few steps you can take toward breaking the cycle and overcoming shame once and for all.

1. Identify the Source

Although shame can occur naturally, and there may not be a specific reason your feelings are exacerbated, there are outside factors that can contribute to your negative emotions. One of the most prominent comes in the form of family members or friends who make light of the trauma or stress you experienced and align with the social stigmas that cause you shame. Once you identify why you are experiencing shame and what is making these feelings worse, you can address these factors and find ways to reduce the power they hold over you.

2. Acceptance

Healing from shame requires accepting that you are not perfect, and neither is anyone else. Everyone makes mistakes, and these flaws do not define you or make you unworthy of being loved or respected. Accepting that you aren’t and don’t need to be perfect can help you find the peace of mind to deal with thoughts or feelings of shame when they arise.

3. Challenge Your Thought Patterns

Stop shaming yourself for living. It may sound vague, but for people who are experiencing the vicious cycle of shame, mental illness, self-harm, or substance abuse, reminding themselves that they are allowed to be happy, allowed to enjoy life, and to ignore their minds telling them to be ashamed of themselves is a vital step in overcoming shame for good.

4. Forgive Yourself

Long-term healing from shame and addiction requires finding the strength to forgive yourself if you’ve made a mistake or acted in a way that doesn’t reflect who you want to be. Whether you used drugs or alcohol to cope or turned to other damaging outlets, forgiving yourself for how you reacted is another essential element required to break the cycle.

5. Discover Your Self-Worth

This is possibly the most important step in your journey to overcoming shame. Stop thinking of yourself as a loser or worthless, and start finding value in your thoughts, contributions, and presence. Experiment with activities and hobbies that make you feel confident, and surround yourself with people who elevate your sense of self-worth, not those who break you down. By finding confidence in yourself and understanding your value, you can take the final step to block any thoughts of shame as they enter your head.

6. Obtain Professional Help

For people in addiction recovery or substance abuse treatment, shame can be a challenging obstacle to overcome. Getting help in the form of therapy or counseling will not only help you deal with the negative emotions you experience besides shame but could help you get through each step listed above more easily as you are guided by a professional you trust and have a rapport with.

We Can Help

As part of our addiction treatment, Adelante Recovery Center offers comprehensive therapy and assistance for people suffering from constant shame and the mental health issues that it may cause. If a loved one or you are struggling with addiction or persistent feelings of shame, contact us at (949) 427-9099 to get the help you need and learn more about the dual-diagnosis treatment we offer.


  1. https://vertavahealth.com/blog/how-shame-feeds-addiction/
  2. https://www.goodrx.com/blog/how-shame-and-guilt-fuel-addiction/

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