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Shame in the Addiction Process

Maria Dolenc | Monday, July 13th, 2020

| Addiction |

Frequent connection is made between the role of shame in addiction, eating disorders and co-dependency.

Maria’s article on shame and addiction highlights that when the cycle of addiction and self-loathing are acted out without awareness the cycle can never be changed. With overwhelming feelings of inadequacy, inferiority, or self-loathing individuals experiencing toxic shame are separated not only from others but also from themselves, unable to see through the persistent, debilitating and unconscious beliefs that only supports a spiral back into addiction and other maladaptive behaviours.

Byron Private's Family Therapist and Constellation Facilitator Maria Dolenc highlights her experience and understanding of shame in the addiction process:


I am writing this article to share my perceptions over the years of working with people who live with addictions or destructive behaviours, such as drug and alcohol, eating disorders, work, sexual addictions, etc.

At various times I will refer to the "addict" and what I mean here is that aspect of self that is out of control, wants to harm themselves (consciously or unconsciously) and has an ongoing sense of feeling "flawed". Addiction can be defined as a state in which a person engages in compulsive behaviour, where there is loss of control and where ultimately there is now no choice about 'not using' or behaving compulsively.

With over a decade of experience working in treatment centres for addictions, disorders, anxiety and depression, my work as primary therapist and family therapist has intensely involved working with people, both clients and families who are experiencing addiction, depression and other complex emotional issues. My orientation in therapy is Gestalt therapy, however, I work with other modalities also, depending on personality and the way of the individual involved. I am a faculty member of GPTS where my work also involves facilitating workshops. I am also really passionate about Family/Structural constellations. Over this time, and working with a diverse population of people, I have become very aware of a similar underlying pattern emerging with those who struggle with drug and alcohol and other addictive destructive behaviours: Shame seems to be one feeling often seen in the circle of awareness; the more people 'use', the more shame they feel, leading then to further the need to medicate even more painful and shameful feelings.

For a couple of years now I have also become interested in 'Attachment Theory', which strongly suggests that when a child does not feel 'bonding' or a good enough attachment with the primary caregiver, usually the mother, the child needs to come up with their own solution for the need to be met. That solution may at a later stage in life become a barrier or not serve the person well and can and often does influence that person towards addictive or destructive processes. When infants are not emotionally or otherwise safe (therefore in distress) they are at the mercy of those distressed 'states'. Ultimately they learn to invest a great amount of energy into reorganising their lives in order to feel safe and secure. In other words they learn to 'cope' or ‘control’ their lives as a way of keeping themselves safe.

Usually what we see when working with an 'addict' is only the tip of the iceberg and underneath is huge pain, fear, loss and shame feelings. Drugs of various sorts become medicine for the lost self. Often I encourage people to attend 12 step meetings as they may feel a belonging and attachment with other, similarly struggling souls. In early stages it may and often does help the addicted person to see themselves as 'sick', or with a 'condition' instead of 'bad' or a totally flawed person, which they often feel and believe.  In other words they learn they are not their disease, there is more to them than their addiction, this is important to learn to separate. People often however address only symptoms and not deepen the looking to discover core issues.  Alcohol and drugs may start as medicine, medication for dealing with unpleasant experiences, feelings and a means for relief from the pain. Drugs can be used to replace interpersonal relationships, which those with addictions often do not handle well.  Addictions complicate and add burden to the already complex area of relating. Working at the treatment centre, in groups and in my own one to one therapy work I focus on interpersonal relationships; encouraging people to invite family members to attend family week/meetings and together deal with unresolved, unfinished business.

Addiction is a coping strategy, a creative adjustment that enables addicts to tolerate stressful interpersonal or interactive experiences such as attending job interviews, social contact or facing unpleasant feelings or thoughts/memories, which are painful in some way. Usually it is only when the addicted person stops using that it is possible to experience that which is being 'pushed away' through the addictive actions.

The addicted person has an exclusive primary relationship with drugs, making other relationships secondary. They will need to explore how the avoidance occurs in contact with self, others and the environment. In working with addiction, I use lots of role playing to facilitate awareness into what is not usually seen; the self destructive behaviours and patterns, a connection between the drinking self and the child self, the longing for painless freedom and also the adult self. Processes of role play, dialogues, family constellations, structural constellations are a powerful means of facilitating seeing 'what is'  (Paradoxical Theory of Change) as though for the first time, often healing commences from this seeing. Looking at the cravings for drugs, alcohol, food, whatever it is and being able to see the consequences of these actions. In that space of allowing, alongside whatever is there, the "healthy adult" can then enter the process in support of care, forgiveness and understanding.

The "addict" does not have compassion at all for their own pain, the addict part of the self is indulging, out of control and more often deeply disapproving of the self and not feeling the capacity to be present. Recovery involves  'staying with' the feelings of what was previously medicated out of awareness; then exploring what it is that addiction really offers.

Each human being has their own complex web of patterns within and acts them out in relationships. Being able to see what is really occurring without judgement and comparisons facilitates healing. The shame and 'fear of being', as response to painful and abusive life experiences, and the behaviours that this must lead to in order to maintain control, can never lead to healing. When the cycle of addiction and self-loathing are acted out without awareness the cycle can never be changed.

We live in a world that constantly affirms outward seeking: consumerism, alcohol, television, games, etc. Those addictions may not have the same level of destructive consequences however the underlying process is the same, looking for solutions of worth outside the self to medicate, numb the feelings of discomfort and inability to simply BE who we are. It is important to have socio/cultural framework for the behaviours. Working to bring in love, compassion and the process of Being in Life.

About Maria Dolenc

Maria Dolenc is family therapist and constellation facilitator at Byron Private Treatment Centre, Byron Bay. Qualified as a Gestalt Therapist, Family Constellation Facilitator and Addictions Counsellor Maria has over twenty years experience working with individuals, couples, families and groups. She devotes most of her spare time doing what she loves - family systemic / constellation work

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