Guilt is the emotional signal that says, oops I messed up, I did something wrong, I made a mistake, I need to clean that up or walk it back.
Shame, on the other hand is the core belief that says, you are not good. It’s that subconscious feeling that there is something fundamentally wrong with you. It’s says “you are bad”, “you are a mistake”, “you are less than” or “you don’t belong”.
Shame is the fuel of addictive behaviors. It’s the thinking that says “you need to outdo everyone else or don’t even bother trying”. Shame is low self-worth hiding behind an over inflated ego, it’s “better than — less than” thinking. Shame robs us of the ability to like or love anything about ourselves because we are conditioned to believe we are fundamentally flawed and therefor unlovable.
Intimacy is impossible because if we get too close, you might see those flaws. Shame keeps us from being able to be happy for others or even recognize our own achievements. Shame is that subconscious voice that says things like “It’s never enough”, “life isn’t enough”, “It’s not good enough”, “I’m not good enough”, “I’m not enough” or “I’m too much”. It keeps us wrong, isolated and different.
Addiction is that hunger for something outside to fix the feelings inside. Shame is that critical voice that can’t allow us to actually own our human failings or even acknowledge a simple mistake. The weight of a simple error is too heavy for a shame based person.
Shame comes from a family system that likely created roles that included a Scapegoat. The Scapegoat is to blame for all that was wrong. I, like most of the people I have met on my recovery journey have played this role and adopted this role as an identity. We tended to act out who we believe ourselves to be adding more “shameful” behaviors and consequences to the pile.
An important part of my recovery was when I started learning that first and foremost, I am a human being not a human doing. I’m not my mistakes nor am I my accomplishments. I am much more than that and so are you! I have made many mistakes but I am not a mistake, in fact I am a miracle. We all are.
I learned that in order to change any part of myself and my life, I must first “own it” – you can’t change what you don’t own. Imperfections, mistakes and shortcomings are part of the human condition. This is why we apologize, we pay fines and restitution when necessary, we excuse ourselves, we make amends, we self-correct and then we try our best to do better and not repeat our mistakes. This is humility, this is healthy, this is human.
When we all accept that no one is perfect nor is it required of us to be loved we can let it go and move on but when we are operating from a shame core, we mistake shame for guilt and we tend to deny any wrong doing. If we can’t deny it, we hide it and when we can’t hide it we get defiant and blame anyone and everyone for our behavior, choices and consequences. Often times the “blame story” becomes our delusional reality and drives us to drink, use or act out even more. We start drinking or using at people, as if we are hurting them. This is when other people look at us with sad concerned eyes or just tell us we’re crazy. This is when our “crazy” world becomes very real to us and we become very hard to reach.
Shame is a powerful poison that seeps down into the foundation of our thinking. Recovery from addiction is the process of uncovering, discovering and discarding all the false beliefs about ourselves and others as well as evolving into the fullness of our perfectly imperfect beautiful humanness.
Learning to acknowledge guilt for what it is, a signal that tells us we have broken our own rules or we didn’t live up to our own standards is a healthy and vital step. The 12 step programs revolve around this process and concept – “When we were wrong we promptly admit it.” Accountability, honesty and acceptance are key principle components to all paths to recovery.
One of the biggest gifts of recovery is true self-esteem and self-worth. Self-compassion along with self-correction is a beautiful experience and becomes a way of life. Recovery from a shame-based belief system is like repairing the foundation of a structure that has already been built, it’s not easy but it is worth it!