Shame keeps you ill?

Following on from Ernie Kurtz’s great video on the role of shame in alcoholism and how the 12 steps help alcoholics in recovery address this shame via the 12 steps, we cite and use the findings of a study (1) which demonstrates how shame about the consequences of one’s alcoholism can prevent recovery and prompt relapse.

Our shameful secrets do keep us ill. We are ill people getting better and dealing with the shame and guilt of the past is essential to long term recovery. “…Several researchers have argued that shame rather than promoting positive change can also motivate hiding, escape, and general avoidance of the problem

….Supporting this account, those who are prone to shame tend to show a range of dysfunctional dispositions and biological outcomes, including depression, anxiety, eating disorders, chronic anger, heightened cortisol reactivity….Shame typically occurs when individuals blame themselves for negative events, and, in particular, aspects of themselves that are stable, uncontrollable, and not amenable to change…Thus, though seemingly counterintuitive, the impact of shame on one’s global self-image (i.e., the feeling, “I’m a bad person”) may lead individuals to believe they have no choice but to be that person, even if it is someone who hurts others…engages in substance abuse…

As a result, shame may lead to an increase, rather than decrease, of problematic behaviors, making shame a risk factor rather than a deterrent…researchers have suspected that shame promotes self-injurious behaviors, and that dispositional shame is a cause of alcoholism and a barrier to recovery…

We tested whether shame about addictive behaviors (i.e., one’s most recent alcoholic drink, among self-identified recovering alcoholics) interferes with addicts’ recovery by increasing their propensity to engage in the shame-inducing behaviors…



Alcoholics, like all addicts, are known to be dispositionally prone to shame…Additionally, alcohol consumption may provide a unique means of coping with painful shame feelings, because alcohol induces a form of disrupted cognition in which self-awareness—an essential pre-requisite for the experience of shame… is decreased or prevented. Thus, some alcoholics may have initially turned to binge drinking as a way to regulate the onslaught of chronic shame. If shame is a risk factor for alcoholism, it may be part of a vicious cycle in which it promotes addictive drinking and is experienced in response to addictive drinking, leading to a cycle of abuse.

If this is the case, then shame may perpetuate addiction and have a negative impact on health. When recovering alcoholics publically discuss their past drinking, the degree to which they demonstrate behavioral displays of shame significantly and substantially predicts changes in their … mental health, their likelihood of relapsing over time, and the severity of that relapse.

Specifically, the more shame behaviors individuals displayed, the more likely they were to relapse and decline in health within the next 4 months. These findings indicate that responding to past problematic drinking with pronounced behavioral displays of shame is a strong predictor of future drinking, and that shame about one’s addiction may be a cause of relapse, chronic drinking, and health declines in recovering alcoholics.

In conclusion, this research suggests that shame about past addictive behaviors not only fails to help alcoholics avoid these behaviors, but also indicates that they are likely to continue engaging in them.”

In later blogs we will address how accepting one has an illness called alcoholism and that one was indeed powerless over past behaviours leads to a transforming power in processing and dissipating these shame based feelings concerning past behaviours.

We become free from this past as it is the non-processing of these negative emotions which keep us tied to the past via the evident negative emotions it reactivates. Negative emotions which in turn activate negative addictive behaviours to cope with these feelings.

This processing of the past or “clearing way the wreckage of the past” leads to an increased ability in emotion regulation and a narrowing focus on dealing with such feelings and emotions in present, every day recovery. Step 4 and 5 inventory helps illuminate which particular negative emotions and their dysregulation trip us up in our every day lives.

I believe the so-called “defects of character” I continually exhibit when distressed are distinct patterns of emotions expressed due to emotion dysregulation. A still ever present in these dysregulated negative emotions are shame which often leads to self pity. This shame-self pity axis could lead to “poor me, pour me, pour me a drink” if I am not vigilant, even if I never want to drink again.

It is my emotional dysregulation that I need to be constantly aware of, my underlying condition.

I suffer from alcoholism not alcohowasm.

As a result I need constant regulation (or inventory) of these continually occurring negative emotions so that I can identify, label and process (often by/through sharing with another recovering person). In other words, the 12 steps leads to a greater ability to manage our emotions one day at time by becoming aware of the damage this emotional dysregulation has caused in the past and has the potential to do so again.

This manageability of our condition leads to an emotional sobriety. A living of life on life’s terms.


1. Randles, D., & Tracy, J. L. (2013). Nonverbal displays of shame predict relapse and declining health in recovering alcoholics. Clinical Psychological Science,1(2), 149-155.