I write another blog on the HealthyPlace.com website called Trauma! A PTSD Blog about my experiences with posttraumatic stress disorder (please check it out). My latest post there is about dealing with the shame that comes from being a victim of trauma. That got me to thinking about the shame that accompanies alcoholism, and I thought that it was worth writing about.
I have lived most of my 44 years with a deep sense of shame. Part of it came from the household that I was raised in, I’m sure. Another part of it came from abuse that I suffered later. And still more came from my active drinking days. Now I know that the shame I felt because of things that happened to me was unwarranted – I didn’t ask for any of that. I’ve worked through a lot of that in therapy and with my sponsor. But the alcoholic junk? That’s harder to let go. I caused all of that myself, so shouldn’t I be ashamed?
The answer to that is no. Should I have felt guilt over those things? Yes, definitely. Guilt and shame usually go hand-in-hand, but they are two very different emotions. When I feel guilty about something it’s because I have done something wrong, or even bad. When I feel shame about something it’s because I am getting stuck in the belief that I am wrong or bad – inherently. It’s a feeling of being defective and worthless. While feeling guilty can be useful (unless we stay there too long), causing us to make amends and right wrongs, shame really serves no useful purpose. All it does is break us down and make us feel helpless.
It’s easy to see why shame and alcoholism go together. They feed off of one another and create a vicious cycle of self-destruction. When I was drinking, part of the reason was to shut down the feelings of shame that I had, to escape them. And it worked…briefly. What happened though, was that my alcoholism caused me to create huge amount of wreckage in my life, which gave me more to feel shame over. So then I had to drink more, and then I had more to feel ashamed about, so then I had to drink more…and so it went for a long time.
I know now, intellectually at least, that even with all of the bad choices I made, and the bad behavior I displayed, I am not inherently bad. I am a person who has struggled with many things, has had many regrets, and has had plenty of reasons to feel guilt, but I am not worthless or irredeemable or broken beyond repair. The thing about shame though, is that it still sneaks up on me. The other day I was going over some step work with my sponsor, reading my responses to some questions, and she stopped me. She looked at me and said, “But Jami, you are enough, you know that, right?” I didn’t even realize that the answer I had read was full of shame, until it was pointed out to me.
That’s what I’m talking about when I say that shame is sneaky. I have to be mindful of what I am telling myself about me, and when I slip into that shameful thinking, I have to remember that I am enough…just as I am, right now…and no matter what you have gone through, or are currently going through, you are enough too. Don’t let shame tell you otherwise.