Dealing with Shame in Addiction Recovery

Written by Steve Rose

Steve Rose, PhD, is an addiction counsellor and former academic researcher, committed to conveying complex topics in simple language.

As you begin your addiction recovery journey, you’ll likely encounter a familiar yet unwelcome companion: shame. The experience of shame in addiction recovery is like a shadow that lingers over you, often leaving you feeling vulnerable and exposed.

It’s like you’re standing in the middle of a room filled with mirrors, each reflection showing a different facet of your life. As you turn to face them, you’re confronted by the choices you made during the darkest days of your addiction. You see the disappointment etched on the faces of your loved ones, the relationships that crumbled under the weight of your actions, and the missed opportunities that slipped through your fingers like sand.

As you face these reflections, shame wraps around you like a heavy, damp blanket, threatening to suffocate your spirit. It whispers words of self-doubt and regret into your ear, making you question your worth and the possibility of redemption. The weight of your past mistakes feels unbearable, and you wonder if you can ever truly recover.

But what if I told you that it’s possible to overcome shame and embrace a brighter future, unburdened by the weight of your past?

In this article, I will explore the complex relationship between shame and addiction, and provide you with practical strategies to help you confront and cope with this powerful emotion. By understanding and addressing shame in recovery, you can reclaim your sense of self, forge healthier connections, and build a life free from the chains of addiction.

Understand Shame and Addiction

Shame is a deep-seated emotion that often stems from feeling unworthy, flawed, or inferior. It can be triggered by various factors, such as personal experiences, cultural norms, or societal expectations. When it comes to addiction, shame plays a significant role in both the development and maintenance of substance use disorders.

How shame can contribute to addiction

Shame can drive individuals towards substance use as a coping mechanism. When faced with feelings of inadequacy or unworthiness, people may turn to drugs or alcohol to numb the emotional pain. Over time, this temporary relief can lead to a pattern of substance use, eventually developing into addiction.

The cycle of shame and substance use

The relationship between shame and addiction is cyclical. As individuals become more reliant on substances to cope with their emotional pain, their addiction may lead to increasingly shameful behaviors. These behaviors can include lying, stealing, or engaging in illegal activities to maintain their habit. As a result, the shame intensifies, further fueling the need to escape through substance use. This vicious cycle can be challenging to break, making it crucial to address the underlying shame when seeking recovery.

Why shame hinders recovery efforts

In the context of addiction recovery, shame can be a significant obstacle. Feelings of guilt and worthlessness can lead individuals to question their ability to recover, create a sense of hopelessness, and erode their self-esteem. Moreover, shame can result in social isolation, as individuals may be hesitant to seek help for fear of judgment or rejection. Consequently, it is vital to confront and work through shame during the recovery process.

Identify Sources of Shame

To effectively address shame in addiction recovery, it is essential to identify the specific sources of shame that may be affecting you. Here are some common sources of shame that individuals may encounter during their recovery journey:

Personal shame stemming from addiction-related behaviors

Individuals in recovery often grapple with shame related to the choices they made while in active addiction. These choices may include dishonesty, broken relationships, or compromised values. It’s crucial to recognize that these behaviors were driven by the addiction and not a reflection of one’s true character.

Societal shame and stigma attached to addiction

Society often places a stigma on individuals struggling with addiction, perpetuating stereotypes and misconceptions. This societal shame can make individuals feel judged or ostracized, further exacerbating feelings of worthlessness and shame.

Shame related to the impact on family and friends

Many people in recovery feel a deep sense of shame for the pain and suffering they may have caused their loved ones. It’s essential to acknowledge these feelings and work towards making amends where possible.

The role of past traumas in shame and addiction

Past traumas, such as abuse, neglect, or other adverse experiences, can contribute to feelings of shame and vulnerability. These traumas may be intertwined with the development of addiction and must be addressed during the recovery process.

Use Strategies to Overcome Shame

Once you’ve identified the sources of your shame, you can begin working on strategies to overcome it. Here are some effective methods for coping with shame during addiction recovery:

Acceptance and self-compassion

Practicing self-compassion involves treating yourself with kindness, understanding, and patience, much like you would treat a close friend. Some techniques to develop self-compassion include:

  • Journaling: Writing about your experiences, thoughts, and emotions can help you process and understand your feelings of shame.
  • Loving-kindness meditation: This form of meditation focuses on cultivating love and compassion for oneself and others.
  • Positive self-talk: Replace harsh self-criticism with gentle, supportive, and understanding words.


Mindfulness is the practice of being present and aware of your thoughts, feelings, and physical sensations without judgment. By cultivating mindfulness, you can learn to recognize and accept your feelings of shame without becoming overwhelmed by them. Some mindfulness practices to consider include:

  • Mindful breathing: Focus on your breath as a way to anchor yourself in the present moment.
  • Body scan meditation: Pay attention to the sensations in your body from head to toe, acknowledging any tension or discomfort without judgment.
  • Mindful walking: Practice being fully present and aware of your surroundings as you walk.

Challenging negative self-beliefs

Negative self-beliefs are often are irrational thought patterns that contribute to negative emotions, such as shame. Some common ones include:

  • All-or-nothing thinking: Viewing situations in extremes, without any middle ground.
  • Overgeneralization: Making broad conclusions based on limited evidence.
  • Personalization: Assuming that you are responsible for events outside your control.

By identifying and challenging these distortions, you can begin to replace them with more accurate and balanced thoughts.

Replacing negative thoughts with realistic ones

These can include statement that encourage self-love, confidence, and resilience. Practicing this daily can help counteract negative self-beliefs and foster a more compassionate relationship with yourself. Examples include:

  • “I am worthy of love and respect.”
  • “I am healing and growing every day.”
  • “My past does not define my future.”

Seeking professional help

Therapy can be an invaluable resource for those struggling with shame in addiction recovery. A mental health professional can help you explore the roots of your shame, develop coping strategies, and provide guidance and support throughout your recovery journey.

There are various therapeutic approaches that can be helpful in addressing shame, including:

  • Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT): Focuses on identifying and challenging negative thought patterns.
  • Dialectical behavior therapy (DBT): Emphasizes the development of emotional regulation and interpersonal skills.
  • Psychodynamic therapy: Explores the influence of past experiences on current emotions and behaviors.

Building a support network

Peer support groups, such as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) or Narcotics Anonymous (NA), can provide a safe and nonjudgmental space for individuals in recovery to share their experiences and connect with others who understand their struggles. These groups can help reduce feelings of shame by fostering a sense of belonging and validation.

Support from loved ones can be crucial during the recovery process. Reach out to friends and family members who are understanding and compassionate, and let them know how they can support you in your journey.

Establishing healthy boundaries with others

Setting boundaries is an essential aspect of building a supportive network. Establish clear limits with those who may contribute to feelings of shame or perpetuate unhealthy behaviors.

Engage in Forgiveness and Reconciliation

Self-forgiveness is a crucial aspect of healing from shame. Recognize that everyone makes mistakes, and your past actions do not define your worth. Allow yourself to let go of the guilt and embrace the opportunity to grow and change.

Recovery also often involves making amends with those you may have hurt during your addiction. This process can be challenging but can help rebuild trust and foster healing for both parties.

Reconciliation involves acknowledging the past, accepting the present, and working towards a better future. To build a shame-free future, it’s essential to commit to personal growth and maintain open communication with those around you. Consider the following steps for reconciliation:

  • Apologize sincerely: Offer a heartfelt apology to those you’ve hurt and express your commitment to change.
  • Take responsibility: Acknowledge the impact of your actions and be accountable for your past behavior.
  • Show genuine change: Demonstrate to yourself and others that you’re dedicated to your recovery and personal growth.

Reframe Relapses

Relapse is a common and natural part of the recovery process. It’s essential to view relapses as opportunities for learning and growth rather than failures. Remember that recovery is an ongoing journey, and setbacks can provide valuable insights to help you move forward.

If you experience a relapse, feelings of shame may resurface. Here are some strategies to help you cope:

  • Practice self-compassion: Remind yourself that relapse is a part of the process and doesn’t negate your progress.
  • Reflect on the situation: Identify the triggers or circumstances that contributed to the relapse and consider how to address them in the future.
  • Reach out for support: Share your feelings with your support network, and seek their understanding and encouragement.

After a relapse, it’s crucial to regain your focus on recovery. Consider these steps to get back on track:

  • Revisit your recovery plan: Evaluate your goals, strategies, and support systems to ensure they’re still relevant and effective.
  • Strengthen your coping skills: Identify and practice healthy coping mechanisms to help you manage stress and triggers.
  • Re-engage with your support network: Attend support group meetings, therapy sessions, or connect with loved ones who can help you navigate this challenging time.


In conclusion, addressing shame is an essential aspect of addiction recovery. By understanding the connection between shame and addiction, identifying its sources, and implementing practical strategies to cope, individuals can overcome this powerful emotion and reclaim their sense of self. As you continue on your recovery journey, remember that you are deserving of love, compassion, and a fulfilling life free from the constraints of addiction. Embrace the opportunity to heal and grow, and trust that you have the strength to create a brighter, shame-free future.

Fascinated by ideas? Check out my podcast:

Struggling with an addiction?

If you’re struggling with an addiction, it can be difficult to stop. Gaining short-term relief, at a long-term cost, you may start to wonder if it’s even worth it anymore. If you’re looking to make some changes, feel free to reach out. I offer individual addiction counselling to clients in the US and Canada. If you’re interested in learning more, you can send me a message here.

Other Mental Health Resources

If you are struggling with other mental health issues or are looking for a specialist near you, use the Psychology Today therapist directory here to find a practitioner who specializes in your area of concern.

If you require a lower-cost option, you can check out It is one of the most flexible forms of online counseling. Their main benefit is lower costs, high accessibility through their mobile app, and the ability to switch counselors quickly and easily, until you find the right fit.

*As an affiliate partner with Better Help, I receive a referral fee if you purchase products or services through the links provided.

As always, it is important to be critical when seeking help, since the quality of counselors are not consistent. If you are not feeling supported, it may be helpful to seek out another practitioner. I wrote an article on things to consider here.

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