Q. What is Shame?

RENOWNED US clinical psychologist Gershen Kaufman once wrote: "Whenever feelings of shame are encountered, they can be reduced by becoming addicted to something."

After more than 40 years of dealing with people who have been suffering from addictions, I say: "Shame is the engine that drives all addictions."

However, when talking of solutions for drug users, an important element that needs to be added to the multi-pronged approach is understanding the psychology of shame.

Shame is a particularly intense, and often incapacitating, negative emotion involving feelings of inferiority, powerlessness and self-consciousness - along with the desire to conceal deficiencies.

Traditional psychoanalytic theory focuses directly or indirectly on the object of addiction - be it alcohol, drugs, gambling, sex, work or relationships.

But healing comes when it is realised that it is not so much the object of addiction that is paramount but the process that permits the attachment to develop.

Shame-based syndromes are usually at the root of this process. They begin in childhood when "normal" development is interrupted and becomes twisted or pathological.

The trigger can be sexual or physical abuse or another broadscale trauma. But often it is more discreet. When a parent is detached, not providing assurance to the child that he or she is loved, respected, cared for and appreciated, the child may sense that they are not worthy or significant in the family - and therefore insignificant in the scheme of life. They may grow with the self-perception that they are damaged.

Some become co-dependent, or seek endlessly to please someone else in an effort to appear "significant". This people-pleasing may especially take grip in the workplace. They are desperate to be seen as "a good worker".

But in reality, they are unwittingly being driven by two key aspects of what is known as "disgrace shame". These are self-blame and self-criticism. Their hidden critic whispers: "I should have always mastered everything."

As their pain deepens, they are still in a state of "dis-ease". They stumble into friendships and relationships and test activities and boundaries at random.

Some of these pursuits will be satisfied in a season, only to be replaced by others that are more problematic, such as the desire to oppose authority (oppositional personality disorder) or take up smoking, drugs, alcohol, gambling, antisocial and unsafe sexual behaviours or violence.
Addiction reduces pain by temporarily making bearable deep-seated, negative feelings. But it reproduces shame and constantly reactivates the shame cycle. Anything can become addictive.

And yet shame and guilt are different. Guilt involves self-judgments about specific acts. Shame involves a generalised concept of a negative self. Shame, along with distress, is the source of depression.

So what to do?

The first thing to understand is that not all shame is negative. "Discretion shame" is a stabiliser of conscience. It enables us to recognise fitting and appropriate responses, in order to live as whole human beings.

But in the midst of disgrace or "toxic" shame, attention turns inward, generating the torment of self-consciousness. Thoughts of sudden, unexpected exposure coupled with blinding inner-scrutiny characterise it.

Whether all eyes are upon us or only our own, we feel deficient as individuals, diseased, defective, shy, embarrassed, alienated, isolated and deeply disturbed.

Disgrace shame requires healing. It is overcome only when the original unity within the self is restored. This is governed by our willingness to make confession of our shame and accept our need of a holistic experience of forgiveness that is rarely, if ever, gained in isolation from others. Some form of help or appropriate therapy is essential.

Once shame is confronted, both the abandonment of addiction and the road from chaos to serenity can be remarkably expedient.

Rev John Tully, OAM, was a Uniting Church minister and addictions counsellor with Newlife Care on the Gold Coast, Australia

John Passed Away on April 13th, 2015

Please send or email stories and memories to john_tully@bigpond.com

PO Box 997 Broadbeach Qld 4218
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Shame is the engine that drives addictions - Rev John Tully, OAM, 1933 - 2015
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