Sometimes it’s a small nagging voice, “I shouldn’t be drinking so much” or “I’m gaining weight and should go on a diet”. Sometimes it’s a thundering judge, “I have completely screwed up my life!” If you are trying to change a compulsive behavior pattern like substance use, gambling, or binge eating, odds are you have some pretty critical about yourself and your choices.
Rethinking paths you have taken is natural and a helpful guide for moving forward. Regrets for choices made are also natural. Unfortunately, shame is also all too common.
Shame as an Emotion
Shame is a painful emotion that typically arrives upon the scene when we harshly judge our character based on things not going as we had hoped. In contrast to the dull ache of regret, shame has a sharp, cutting edge that usually makes no distinction between reasonable and unreasonable, constructive and destructive in its application. Teasing apart what you have done well, and what you might do differently, is not part of the shame response.
Picture someone you care deeply about telling you about a situation they feel ashamed or embarrassed about. As they look at you with tearful eyes you reply with, “You’re not good enough.” As they become more upset, you add, “You’re so stupid.” You may be reading this and thinking to yourself “Wait… what? I would never say that, and especially not to someone I care about!”
Sadly, as harsh as it may seem, many of us respond to our own suffering in this cold critical way. While it feels natural to respond to another’s suffering with caring, understanding, forgiveness, and support, we often do the exact opposite for ourselves. In fact, you may have been beating yourself up with negative judgments (e.g., “I’m not good enough”, “I’m stupid”, “I’ve failed as a parent”, “I’m a terrible person”, etc.) for so long that it has become completely automatic. We are often unaware of this way of responding to ourselves when faced with challenges like a destructive behavioral habit.
Why do we judge ourselves so harshly when we’re struggling. The reasons will vary from person to person, but some common pathways and thoughts are: “that’s how I was always treated growing up,” “I am just being honest, I really am a screw up,” or “After what I have done, I don’t deserve anything but criticism.”
Substance use and many other behavioral struggles are highly stigmatized conditions. The behaviors are seen as ones that only weak, flawed people engage in and they deserved to be punished. This frame sets people up for failure. If your struggle is a sign you are weak, why bother trying to change? If you know you are going to be ridiculed, labeled or humiliated, then why ask for help?
The question is this: “Has treating myself this way been a successful strategy for positive change”? While shame/self-attack can sometimes feel “deserved”, shame pulls us down, and makes it HARDER to change. Shame leads to isolating, perfectionism, externalizing blame, and a host of other defects.
As you try to make changes, it helps to notice your shaming thoughts. See if you can see the difference between “rethinking” thoughts, and “shaming” thoughts. Rethinking/regretful thoughts include, “I wish I had asked for help sooner.” Or “I wish I had never used drugs.” Shame-based thoughts, “I should have known better.” Or “If people knew they would think I was disgusting.”
By paying attention to the rethinking/regretful thoughts you can cultivate positive change. They are things that you can do differently moving forward. They can offer opportunities for repair (“I wish I had not yelled at my son, I’m going to go apologize”.
Although you inner critic may be really loud, try to strengthen the voice of your inner soother. Self-compassion means practicing self-kindness when you recognize you are suffering. Remind yourself that making changes is hard. When it comes to substance use problems, millions of people have struggled and done things that they have regretted. Cultivating compassion will allow you to be better equipped for positive change.
A helpful practice when feeling shame and down on yourself is to picture yourself sitting on a park bench. Now go sit next to yourself and give yourself a great big hug. It may sound corny, but it works!
If you or a loved one are struggling with alcoholism and/or addiction contact Sagebrush today for a free confidential assessment, 888-977-0573
Blog inspiration: Motivation and Change