Addiction and Shame

“Shame is a soul-eating emotion.” So said Carl Jung, one of the most influential voices in modern psychology and psychiatry. Those are strong words, but justifiably so.

While shame is a near-universal human emotion – experienced by everyone but sociopaths – it also does tremendous damage. The next time that you’re tempted to minimize shame, thinking, It’s nothing, I should just get over it, no need to bother anyone, remember Jung’s words.

Also know that one of shame’s oldest tricks is minimization; it convinces you that it’s “no big deal” even as it consumes your spirit.

But when you recognize shame for what it is and take appropriate action, it loses much of its fearsome power.

What is Shame?

The world’s best-known shame researcher, Dr. Brene Brown, defines shame as, “the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging.”

In short, shame is the feeling that arises when you believe that there is something wrong with you … something fundamentally broken and damaged.

Shame is what stops you from seeking help; it’s the force that holds you back from seeing your contributions, your potential, and your fundamental value. Shame is also the driving force behind many – if not most – addictions.

As renowned journalist and recovering alcoholic Neil Steinberg noted in a 2017 NPR interview:

“No one wants to have any kind of problem, never mind [a substance addiction] which for so long was portrayed as this sin, as this sort of weakness and failing …. I think most people are deeply ashamed of their addictions.”

The Link Between Shame and Addiction

The toxic mix of shame and addiction wreaks havoc on millions of people every year.

According to a paper published in the peer-reviewed, scholarly journal PeerJ, The association between shame and substance use in young people is significant. While the researchers focused their study on adolescents in the United Kingdom, they also noted that shame and addiction go together for all ages:

“In adults shame has been strongly implicated in behaviours which enable individuals to escape feelings of worthlessness and failure, such as binge-eating, sexual risk-taking and substance use …. Heightened shame significantly increases vulnerability to addictive behaviours, particularly substance use.”

The researchers go on to explain that certain demographic groups have more difficulties with shame and addiction. For example, seeking treatment for substance abuse is particularly challenging for women due to higher levels of social stigma.

Plus, women are more likely to be victims of sexual assault, which is linked to high levels of shame and addictive behavior.

While early-life trauma in general is a strong risk factor for addiction, sexual abuse in particular is linked with what the study’s authors call “shame prone-ness”. The shame arising from sexual abuse trauma can prompt individuals to abuse substances in an attempt to cope.

How to Heal from Shame and Addiction

Guilt and shaming tactics feed addictions and hinder recovery. So, the first and most important step is to find a therapist or program that’s committed to providing you a shame-free space to heal.

As early as the 1940’s, Dr. Donald Winnicott – one of the pioneers behind Object Relations Therapy – emphasized “creating a corrective emotional experience” to treat shame-based emotional wounding. Put another way, healing from shame means getting yourself into a safe, supportive emotional space.

People heal from shame within the context of emotionally healthy relationships, so this is not a problem to address alone! When you’re wrestling with shame, you need to work with someone who will teach you how to offer compassion to yourself.

Along similar lines, we have a No Guilt and No Shame policy in our Non 12 Step residential dual diagnosis treatment Program. This means that instead of kicking people while they are down, we encourage them to rise again.

Instead of telling people that they have an incurable disease, we tell them that they have the power to alter their lives for good. And then we give them the tools, guidance, and support they need to take the helm and steer into a healthier life.

Along the way, we’ve learned that when you heal the shame – that is, the underlying core issue behind the substance abuse – then recovery happens naturally.


In the end, healing from shame is all about putting one of the core Principles of Spiritual Psychology in action. It’s about applying love to the parts of yourself that hurt in order to heal.

It’s about offering yourself true kindness and deep compassion. It’s about becoming your own therapist and your own best friend too. It’s about integrating all aspects of yourself and experiencing yourself as whole rather than broken.

Elizabeth Gilbert put it beautifully when she wrote:

“Please understand that these difficult parts of yourself (the shameful parts, the regretful parts, and those episodes of your biography that are so spiky and troublesome and contradictory and embarrassing that you simply don’t know what to do with them)…please understand that these difficult parts of yourself are your ultimate teachers in compassion.”

Addiction and Shame

Joe Koelzer

Joe Koelzer is a co-founder and CEO of The Clearing. He has years of counseling experience and a master’s degree in Spiritual Psychology from the University of Santa Monica.

After observing how depression and substance abuse impacted his wife Betsy’s life, Joe realized how broken our current system is for addiction and related mental health treatment.

He witnessed firsthand how an evidence-based approach coupled with Spiritual Psychology saved Betsy and enabled her to gain control of her life.

In co-founding The Clearing, Joe realized his dream of creating and sharing this innovative approach with others in a structured clinical setting.

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APA Reference
, . (2018). Addiction and Shame. Psych Central. Retrieved on August 15, 2020, from


Last updated: 26 Apr 2018
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