Understanding Relapse: Addressing Shame

An excerpt from 12 More Stupid Things That Mess Up Recovery
by Allen Berger, PhD., Hazelden Publishing

Relapse is a common characteristic of the chronic disease of addiction.

You must address shame if you are going to get and stay sober. Even if you are unaware of feeling shame, it is likely to be an undercurrent in your life—a powerful, hidden undertow that can pull you under if you aren’t prepared for it. Many people who are struggling to get and stay sober are suffering from toxic shame. You see, a part of us has to feel worthy of recovery to take the necessary steps to get sober and stay sober. If we don’t feel worthy of recovery, we will sabotage it. This definition of shame reactions comes from Gary Yontef, a therapist, author, professor, and cofounder of the Pacific Gestalt Institute training program. He describes them as . . . negative emotional and evaluative reactions to oneself, to what one is, how one is, what one does . . . For the shame ridden person, exposure especially as inadequate or bad, brings up an intense affective energy that is almost intolerable.

Shame is born of self-contempt and self-hate. Early in our lives many of us rejected who we really were to become what we thought we should be: the idealized self, the glorified self that we believed would solve all our problems. Well, it didn’t. Our idealized self created a whole new set of problems, including self-hate for never measuring up.

Famed psychoanalyst Karen Horney, who challenged some of Freud’s beliefs, described the problem like this:

The glorified self becomes not only a phantom to be pursued; it also becomes a measuring rod with which to measure [our] actual being. (1991, p. 110)

So we inevitably fall short of the unrealistic goal of becoming someone we are not, of becoming perfect. Self-hate reveals the rift in our personality that started with our creation of an idealized self that supersedes our true self. We experience this split or fragmentation of our personality as a civil war in which our true self is at war with our idealized self. And as with any war there are many casualties, the most prominent being our spontaneity and our ability to sincerely act on our own behalf. We became lost to a tyranny of “shoulds,” self-hate, and unenforceable rules. We imposed a ridiculous set of demands on ourselves and how we should feel, think, and respond. We mistakenly believed many ludicrous things: that we should be above being bothered by anyone or what they do to us, that we should sacrifice everything for approval, that nothing should control us, and that we should be able to make someone love us. The underlying idea is that we should be in complete control of ourselves with no limitations. _at’s because the idealized self is a sort of “superbeing,” always in control, always able to be pleasing to others (and worthy of love), never making a mistake.

This helps us understand the diffculty so many people have in admitting and accepting that they have a chronic illness. How could a superbeing have an illness, especially one like addiction where relapse is possible, where it has to admit its powerlessness? Our shame controls us, which suggests that what we need to do to shed this yoke.

To move beyond shame, we need to take these steps.
•    We need to increase our awareness of the dynamics of shame and the fact that we have a choice over how much power we give it.
•    We need to free ourselves from the automatic and excessive self-attacking that characterizes shame.
•    We need to cultivate compassion toward ourselves and our problem.
•    We need to replace shame with a sense of authentic guilt over the real wrongs we’ve done—a sense that is guided by our own values, not governed by our “shoulds.”

As you read this, you may find yourself saying, “What an order. I can’t do it!” Do not be dismayed. No one among us can pull this off without a substantial amount of help and effort. The inward searching I mentioned earlier will help facilitate this process. It will help you become aware of yourself and others, it will help guide your action, and you will trust that growth emerges from tolerating discomfort.