How shame fuels addiction

Continuing our blog series on faulty core beliefs, today we’re looking at shame. Often underneath the belief script that ‘I can’t change’ is shame. And shame is the most toxic of all the faulty core beliefs.

Indeed, shame is perhaps one of the most toxic and painful emotions we will ever feel. It comes from a faulty core belief that tells you that you are inherently and intrinsically defective. You’re faulty. A mistake. Worthless. Unlovable. A bad person.  It’s not simply that what you ‘do’ is bad, or wrong, it’s that ‘you’ as a human being are bad or wrong. One of the reasons that shame is so toxic is that the way we defend against it often makes it even harder to identify and rewrite the negative messages. Because the emotion of shame is so painful, we will do almost anything to protect ourselves from being found out as a bad human being, because if we don’t, we may be excluded and rejected for our perceived failings and weaknesses. 

How we defend against shame

There are 4 common defence strategies that people use to help us manage shame. The first is to withdraw. When we’re aware that we feel shame and easily feel ashamed we retreat into our own private space and hide from people. If people get too close, we almost instinctively pull away. We may tell ourselves we’re just a bit of a loner or an introvert and that’s why we do it. That may of course be true, but when withdrawing is being used as a defence strategy against shame, we can find ourselves emotionally distant from others, even when we don’t want to. 

Another defence is to attack yourself. On the surface that may sound like harmless self-effacing, putting yourself down in a humorous way, but you know it’s not really a joke. It goes much deeper than you’re saying.  The thinking is if I put myself down, others can’t or won’t. This defence mechanism is often accompanied by a general sense of impending doom and pessimism. If something can go wrong, it probably will. Both of these defence strategies come from a place of self-awareness of shame. And the strategies are conscious, or at least, semi-conscious.

People who aren’t aware of their shame may avoid it by bigging themselves up. Being a perfectionist. Maybe even being quite grandiose and arrogant. You may find it really hard to acknowledge any kind of failure or vulnerability and be really defensive if accused. But deep down, you often struggle with imposter syndrome, because there’s always the fear of being found out. The final defence mechanism is overtly attacking others. Being hostile, aggressive and intolerant, judgemental maybe even a bit holier than thou. Rather than acknowledging your own shame, you turn it on others and shame them.  

As you read this, does any of it resonate with you? I’d be very surprised if it doesn’t because shame is a universal, primary emotion. At some levels at least, we need to feel shame in order to know how to be a part of society. To behave in a moral way. This is healthy shame that results in having a conscience and taking self-responsibility. But what we don’t want or need in our lives is toxic shame. Because like the other faulty core beliefs that we’ve been exploring, it will sabotage recovery. It’s been said that shame is to addiction what oxygen is to fire. Addictive behaviours become a way of alleviating the pain of shame, but all it does is create more and more and more. 

Shame, sexuality and sex addiction

Contrary to what some might say, the shame experienced by people with sex addiction is rarely from any ethical or anti-sex perspective. On the contrary, many of the people we work with at the Laurel Centre have little or no moral objection to pornography or casual sex. The shame comes from prioritising sexual activities over and above commitments to partners, children, friends, work, finances, health and career and personal development. It’s not the behaviours per se that induce shame, but the dependency on it. If your behaviour has affected someone you love, then your sense of shame will almost certainly be compounded. You may be told that you ‘should’ feel shame and you may believe that. It’s hard to look the agony of betrayal in the face. To witness a trauma first hand – that you created, and not feel shame. And shame-inducing consequences can linger long after acting out has finished. STI’s, financial problems, unemployment, mental health problems within the family, children. But it’s not just about the behaviours or fulfilling the craving, for most people with sex or porn addiction, the experience of shame is deep rooted and goes back to childhood experiences. Shame is not something new. It’s historic. 

Wherever shame begins, it ends up destroying our self-worth. It results in us pushing away people we love, and the people we want to love us. Because we’re terrified of being exposed. The feeling of shame can be so overwhelming that many seek distraction and refuge in compulsive behaviours and in fact, research has shown that shame is one of the strongest predictors of sex addiction. We’ll talk more in our next blog about how you can overcome negative core beliefs, including shame, but in our experience the most powerful shame-busting strategy is being in a group. Do have a look at our research paper and see what previous group members have said. Or email us today to talk to a therapist Contact Us

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