Shame & Alcoholism: How to Cope With It


Shame is an automatic emotion that responds to a sense of failure. It’s a feeling many struggling with substance use disorders know a bit too well. Over time, shame disconnects individuals from the world around them, and it’s one of the things that fuels the secrecy and isolation commonly associated with alcoholism. In fact, different studies show that people who experience shame tend to experience more drinking-related consequences. After all, the tendency to use alcohol to reduce negative emotions is a very common coping mechanism. 

What Exactly Is Toxic Shame?

Toxic shame is a feeling of hopelessness. It can arise from others’ negative emotions, making you feel useless or not as good as others. Unlike guilt, shame makes you believe you’re not enough – a feeling alcoholics can recognize. While we all experience shame at some point in our lives, shame becomes toxic when the feeling stays with us. Toxic shame can result in two responses:

  • Withdrawal: You might feel inferior or not good enough to do something or be surrounded by others, so you want to withdraw and isolate yourself. 
  • Anger: Because you’re experiencing pain, it’s easy to feel anger against others and sometimes even yourself, particularly if your shame comes from your alcohol use disorder.

To cope with toxic shame, people turn to substance abuse, eating disorders, and self-harm. These unhealthy coping mechanisms provide an escape from emotional pain or the inability to face your true self. Other people develop perfectionist behaviors and have unrealistic expectations to avoid feeling or being shamed again. 

The Connection Between Shame and Addiction

Lots of people who struggle with alcohol use disorder have experienced trauma or dysfunction in their lives. Growing up with toxic shame can cause people to develop skewed images of themselves that can easily motivate them to seek comfort in substances. 

Unfortunately, the connection between shame and addiction creates a vicious cycle that can be tough to break. Studies show that shame could follow when people experience failure to meet role expectations due to their drinking habits. For example, an alcoholic can get into a public argument or miss work after a day of binge drinking. Such events can result in shame and can fuel more drinking as a coping mechanism to detach from the feelings of shame. 

This vicious cycle exacerbates anxiety and depression that makes addiction even worse to manage. Similar studies have proved the connection between shame and addiction. One study found that students who perceived themselves as drinking more than their peers experienced shame after drinking. In turn, it also increased drinking over time. This study shows that shame can be a trigger and a consequence of excessive drinking, at least for some people. 

How to Deal With Toxic Shame

It’s possible to overcome shame and alcoholism. Many alcohol addiction treatment programs focus on addressing feelings of shame and guilt. It’s also a matter of practicing self-compassion, self-awareness, and having patience. Here are some tips to overcome shame:

  • Become aware of how you talk to yourself and try not to react to it; write down your thoughts to help you become more self-aware of your sabotage.
  • Practice mindfulness and medication to help you observe your thoughts and learn how to react to shame from a more positive environment. 
  • Find support groups within the recovering alcoholics’ community to receive support and caring feedback about your recovery journey. 
  • Consider starting a journal to help you express your feelings without letting them affect you directly. 
  • Recognize when you’re feeling shame and consider a positive method of coping such as meditation, affirmations, or reaching out for help. 
  • It might be worth it for toxic shame to talk to a trusted therapist who can help you unwind previous trauma that could contribute to your shame and alcohol use disorder. 

Overcoming Shame In Addiction Recovery

Toxic shame is a prevalent relapse trigger. People in addiction recovery often struggle with feelings of shame, and that can hinder their progress. You must remember we all experience shame, guilt, and self-doubt. If you’re struggling with shame, seek help and speak up. Individual counseling or group therapy with an addiction specialist can help you cope and manage shame in recovery. 

Both therapy modalities will give you a safe space to dive deep into your experiences to help you identify the source of your toxic shame. Through different healing methods, you can work alongside a therapist and peers to find new ways to control these unhealthy thoughts and eventually learn the mechanisms and skills to prevent a relapse episode. 

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