The Secret Emotion

ShameAs we complete the second quarter of the year, the dizzying pace of change has slowed. Thankfully, we have not had any relapses in several months and are settling more deeply into the business at hand: healing, teaching, supporting recovery and inspiring honor. It occurs to me that the concept of honor, as in our stated mission to transform our young addicts into honorable men, is the opposite of shame, a central but often overlooked aspect of addiction.

Many of our young men come to us suffering shame. Often they’ve used drugs and alcohol to self-treat it, escape it, or submerge it deeper. Shame by its nature begs to be kept secret. Sometimes nobody knows about it even if there were someone willing to tell, not even the young man himself.

Shame is not guilt.

Guilt comes from knowing you did wrong and caring. The capacity for guilt is good. It tells you to quit doing wrong, to acknowledge that you did wrong, to ask for forgiveness, and to make amends. Our guys deal at length with guilt while doing the Steps, and we are also leading their families through that process. Those who feel no guilt for hurtful things they have done have more work to do than those who feel the guilt.

Shame is different. Shame is a harmful feeling you carry for something that is not your fault but marks you with an X. You may be different or poor or come from a country that was once the enemy. You may have been molested, suffered trauma, been bullied, or afflicted. You may have been made to feel worthless. You may have been wrongly accused or not believed. Your whole family may have been shunned or suffered harm because of what one person did or was. Or maybe the shameful event or status wasn’t so bad but it was kept secret so some part of you knows there’s something wrong and suffers from what it might be, worse than what it actually is. Secrets perpetuate shame. Sometimes even discovering another’s shameful secret causes the witness himself to share the shame and carry it on.

John Bradshaw (Healing the Shame That Binds You, 1988) expressed what he calls “toxic shame”:

“Guilt says I’ve done something wrong; shame says there is something wrong with me.

Guilt says I’ve made a mistake; shame says I am a mistake.

Guilt says what I did was not good; shame says I am no good.”

Shame either inhibits the expression of all emotions or it triggers intense anger.

Emotional deadness may alternate with outbursts of rage. We have seen young men who felt emotionally dead cut themselves just to feel something. And we have certainly seen rage.

What does shame feel like? Shame has a physical component. Reminders of the shameful event or state of being cause a rush of adrenaline. The body’s response to this natural stimulant are part of the fight-or-flight response. Your breathing and heart rate speed up so you can act, but there may be no appropriate action to take. Your blood vessels dilate to improve the delivery of oxygen. This may result in a hot feeling all over your body or prickles over your skin. Unlike short-term embarrassment, which causes brief blushing, shame lingers. It can be indistinguishable from post traumatic stress syndrome; a constant low-level stress demanding constant vigilance broken by sudden rushes of distress.

I know of many people who report strong physical sensations associated with shame.  In fact, I know a man who had suffered just such a physical reaction to being shamed by his peers who shunned him and made fun of him because he had Tourette’s syndrome and associated ticks. Shame was a major factor when for years he self-medicated with alcohol. Even now, after he has healed and been in recovery and sober for more than 17 years, the sudden warming of his skin when he steps into his morning shower sometimes brings back a flooding of uncomfortable emotions, a conditioned response to the long ago heat of shame.

At best, shame renders us ineffective. At worst, shame makes people do to others what has been done to them as a way to act out their feelings that they deserve the shame. Thus shame and guilt mix; separating one from the other is done in therapy.

Talking about shaming events or conditions is the best way to dissipate them from our emotional being—talking at the time of onset, talking now, talking again whenever needed. I take this personally. When I was a child of four years of age, my mother was forced to kill my father in self-defense after seven years of abuse. I was there. She was exonerated in the longest grand jury in the state of Florida . There were decades of private and public repercussions. I was certainly a candidate for lifelong shame, but I had the advantage of talking about the event and my feelings from the very beginning. I talked to my mother; I talked to a therapist; I am still talking. The circumstances around the events are out in the open and, while I experienced pain, I have not felt shame about what happened. For that I am grateful.

At Recovery Outfitters we create an environment safe enough for our guys to explore their emotional lives. When they feel brave enough to recognize instances or lifetimes of shame, we can help them. When they are brave enough to tell others in Group, with our support, they find their feelings are accepted; their peers have experienced or felt the same. This acceptance by peers eventually leads to self-acceptance as they can put aside their misconceptions about themselves. Through psychomotor therapy and psychodrama they can physically and experientially face and defeat shame, while others cheer them on. It is a highly emotional experience that we share, both humbling and empowering. It is perhaps the strongest experience that binds the ROI community together so we can do our best for each other and hold confidence and hope for those who are yet to come.


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