shame and addiction

Shame about the past related to not recovering in the present?

We cite and use the findings of a study (1) which demonstrates how shame about the consequences of one’s alcoholism can prevent recovery and prompt relapse.

Our shameful secrets do keep us ill. We are ill people getting better and dealing with the shame and guilt of the past is essential to long term recovery. “…Several researchers have argued that shame rather than promoting positive change can also motivate hiding, escape, and general avoidance of the problem

….Supporting this account, those who are prone to shame tend to show a range of dysfunctional dispositions and biological outcomes, including depression, anxiety, eating disorders, chronic anger, heightened cortisol reactivity….Shame typically occurs when individuals blame themselves for negative events, and, in particular, aspects of themselves that are stable, uncontrollable, and not amenable to change…Thus, though seemingly counterintuitive, the impact of shame on one’s global self-image (i.e., the feeling, “I’m a bad person”) may lead individuals to believe they have no choice but to be that person, even if it is someone who hurts others…engages in substance abuse…

As a result, shame may lead to an increase, rather than decrease, of problematic behaviors, making shame a risk factor rather than a deterrent…researchers have suspected that shame promotes self-injurious behaviors, and that dispositional shame is a cause of alcoholism and a barrier to recovery…

We tested whether shame about addictive behaviors (i.e., one’s most recent alcoholic drink, among self-identified recovering alcoholics) interferes with addicts’ recovery by increasing their propensity to engage in the shame-inducing behaviors…



Alcoholics, like all addicts, are known to be dispositionally prone to shame…Additionally, alcohol consumption may provide a unique means of coping with painful shame feelings, because alcohol induces a form of disrupted cognition in which self-awareness—an essential pre-requisite for the experience of shame… is decreased or prevented. Thus, some alcoholics may have initially turned to binge drinking as a way to regulate the onslaught of chronic shame. If shame is a risk factor for alcoholism, it may be part of a vicious cycle in which it promotes addictive drinking and is experienced in response to addictive drinking, leading to a cycle of abuse.

If this is the case, then shame may perpetuate addiction and have a negative impact on health. When recovering alcoholics publically discuss their past drinking, the degree to which they demonstrate behavioral displays of shame significantly and substantially predicts changes in their … mental health, their likelihood of relapsing over time, and the severity of that relapse.

Specifically, the more shame behaviors individuals displayed, the more likely they were to relapse and decline in health within the next 4 months. These findings indicate that responding to past problematic drinking with pronounced behavioral displays of shame is a strong predictor of future drinking, and that shame about one’s addiction may be a cause of relapse, chronic drinking, and health declines in recovering alcoholics.

In conclusion, this research suggests that shame about past addictive behaviors not only fails to help alcoholics avoid these behaviors, but also indicates that they are likely to continue engaging in them.”


1. Randles, D., & Tracy, J. L. (2013). Nonverbal displays of shame predict relapse and declining health in recovering alcoholics.Clinical Psychological Science,1(2), 149-155.

Categories: shame and addiction

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