18. Shame Drives Addictions




What is Shame?

Renowned U.S. clinical psychologist Gershen Kaufman once wrote, "whenever feelings of shame are encountered, they can be reduced by becoming addicted to something." After more than 40 years of dealing with people who have been suffering from addictions, Rev. John Tully said, "shame is the engine that drives all addictions." Shame is a particularly intense, and often incapacitating, negative emotion involving feelings of inferiority, powerlessness and self-consciousness, along with the deep desire to conceal our deficiencies.


Traditional psychoanalytic theory focuses directly or indirectly on the object of addiction: alcohol, drugs, gambling, sex, work or relationships. Healing comes when it is realised that it is not so much the object of addiction that is paramount, but the process that permits the attachment to develop. Shame-based syndromes are usually at the root of this process. They begin in childhood when "normal" development is interrupted and becomes twisted or pathological.


The trigger can be sexual or physical abuse or another broadscale trauma. Often it is more discreet, such as when a parent is detached and not providing assurance to the child that he or she is loved, respected, cared for and appreciated. The child may sense that they are not worthy or significant in the family and therefore insignificant in the scheme of life. They may grow with the self-perception that they are damaged.


Some become co-dependent or seek endlessly to please someone else in an effort to appear "significant". This people-pleasing may become especially evident in the workplace. These people are desperate to be seen as "good workers". In reality, they are unwittingly being driven by two key aspects of what is known as "disgrace shame": self-blame and self-criticism. Their hidden critic whispers: "I should have always mastered everything". As their pain deepens, they live in a state of "dis-ease". They stumble into friendships and relationships, and test activities and boundaries at random. Some of these pursuits will be satisfied in a season, only to be replaced by others that are more problematic, such as the desire to oppose authority (oppositional personality disorder) or to take up smoking, drugs, alcohol, gambling, antisocial and unsafe sexual behaviours or violence.


Addiction reduces pain, temporarily making deep-seated, negative feelings bearable; but it reproduces shame and constantly reactivates the shame cycle. Anything can become addictive, yet shame and guilt are different. Guilt involves self-judgments about specific acts. Shame involves a generalised concept of a negative self. Shame, along with distress, is the source of depression. So what to do?


The first thing to understand is that not all shame is negative. "Discretion shame" is a stabiliser of conscience. It enables us to recognise fitting and appropriate responses, in order to live as whole human beings. However, in the midst of disgrace or "toxic" shame, attention turns inward and generates the torment of self-consciousness. Disgrace shame is characterised as thoughts of sudden, unexpected exposure, coupled with blinding inner-scrutiny. Whether all eyes are upon us or only our own, we feel deficient as individuals: diseased, defective, shy, embarrassed, alienated, isolated and deeply disturbed. Disgrace shame requires healing. It is overcome only when the original unity within the self is restored. This is governed by our willingness to make confession of our shame and accept our need of a holistic experience of forgiveness that is rarely, if ever, gained in isolation from others. Some form of help or appropriate therapy is essential. Once shame is confronted, both the abandonment of addiction and the road from chaos to serenity can be remarkably expedient.


Rev John Tully, OAM, was a Uniting Church minister and addictions counsellor with Newlife Care on the Gold Coast, Australia. John passed away on April 13th, 2015.


"My addictions of choice were alcohol, inappropriate relationships and workaholism. Surely if I looked successful and made lots of money I could overcome my shame!  -  It didn't work."

Food For Thought


What new knowledge did you gain from this lesson?


Now that you know this, how could it be applied?