In my work as an addiction counsellor, I often encounter issues of shame behind substance abuse. The influence of shame on self-destructive habits looks something like this:
A person grew up with a belief that he is unworthy, damaged or a bad person. He struggles with the pain and fear generated by this underlying belief and attempts to invalidate the belief through his actions and behaviours. At the same time, because he has not reconciled his fear of this belief, he tends to perpetuate acts that substantiate the belief.
In other words, he is driven to prove this belief wrong (he does not want to believe it is true), and yet he does hold the belief to be true which makes him create opportunities to behave as if he is unworthy or a bad person – each action reinforcing in him that he is indeed unworthy or a bad person and widening the gap between what he wants to belief about himself and what the evidence is showing him. This internal conflict creates a great deal of pain. Drugs and alcohol usually come in as a coping strategy to take away this pain.
In recovery, the process begins with facing the truth of what a person’s life has become, taking responsibility for her role in creating the painful situations she now faces as she takes stock of her past actions, and linking certain patterns to her behaviours. Without the effects of drugs and alcohol, she now feels the true intensity of her emotional pains. The job of a counsellor is to help the client heal these pains and reconcile her relationship with herself.
How do you reconcile the fear that you are a bad person when the evidence is stacking up against you?
First of all, you need to stop the behaviours that reinforce that you are a bad person; you must stop acting as if you are a bad person. Having the awareness of your patterns and tendencies, it is now in your power to clean up your actions. As you clean up your actions and heal the effects of your past actions, you begin to redeem yourself in your own eyes and move away from believing that you are a bad person.
But merely changing your behaviours isn’t enough. If you haven’t reconciled the pains in you, in time you will return to behaving in your old ways. You must feel the remorse of your actions and move through a process of reconciling it within yourself.
What does this reconciliation look like?
A pain starts with a judgement we hold about ourselves as a result of something we have done or failed to do. Feel the remorse – the shame, guilt and regret – until the energy moves and changes to an openness where you’re able to see the pain in a new light. In this new energy, you’re able to move into forgiveness and eventually into gratitude as you gain an appreciation of the higher purpose of your pain.
This is a simplified description of the process of reconciliation as there is no formula for everyone and every time – it simply describes the general movement of the process. It is not a process that can be forced or rushed. The remorse needs to be felt and understood emotionally before we can reconcile with it.
There is tremendous power in remorse. If we allow ourselves to experience it properly, it cleanses us of who we’ve thought we were and enables us to move forward in our lives with a renewed sense of self. Remorse breaks down the resistance we hold inside us which prevents us from growing. It relaxes our ego’s hold on us and fills us with a sense of humility which grows into a spiritual awareness as we begin to realise that our actions have a domino effect on the entire world. As we follow the effects of the power of our actions we find that it comes back to us in a complete circle of cause and effect, and this realisation can put the power back into our hands – the power to change and affect our world positively.