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Shame in the Addiction Process

Renowned facilitator, therapist and trainer, Maria Dolenc highlights her experience and understanding of shame in the addiction process.

Frequent connection is made between the role of shame in addictioneating disorders and codependency. When the cycle of addiction and self-loathing are acted out without awareness the cycle can not 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, supporting a spiral back into addiction and other maladaptive behaviours.

This article comes from my perceptions over the many years of working with people who live with addictions or destructive behaviours, such as drug and alcohol, eating disorders, work, sexual addictions, etc.

At times I refer to the “addict”; meaning 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 of ‘not using’ or behaving compulsively.

With over thirty years of experience working in treatment centres, my work as therapist has involved working with people who are experiencing addiction, depression and other complex emotional issues. Over this time, and working with diverse populations, I have become 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 ‘act out’, the more shame they feel, leading then to further the need to medicate even more painful and shameful feelings.

Over the years I have 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, 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 often influences 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. Drugs, food, sex, alcohol, wokr 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. They learn they are not their disease and that there is more to them than their addiction; an important distinction.

However, people often only address the symptoms without looking deeper 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 burden the already complex area of relating. Focusing on interpersonal relationships in therapy and including the family supports people to deal with unresolved, unfinished business.

Addiction is a coping strategy, a creative adjustment that enables addicts to tolerate stressful interpersonal experiences such as attending job interviews, social contact or facing painful and unpleasant feelings, thoughts or memories. Usually it is only when the addicted person stops using that it is possible to experience that which is being ‘pushed away’ by the acting out.

The addicted person has an exclusive primary relationship with what they are using, 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, it is important 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 such as role play, dialogues, family, and constellations, are powerful means to facilitate seeing ‘what is’, as though for the first time. Often healing follows; for example, a person may be able to look at the cravings and be able to see the consequences of these actions. In that space of allowing, 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 a response to painful and abusive life experiences, and the behaviours that then 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 worth outside the self to medicate, to numb 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.

Byron Private offers an effective pathway to recovery for those struggling with mental health, addictions, PTSD and eating disorders. If you or someone you love is struggling, please reach out to our clinical team for a confidential discussion on 02 6684 4145 or via our online contact form.

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