Vulnerability – Overcoming the Shame of Addiction

courage

People who suffer from addiction or alcoholism are no strangers to shame. When we can’t control our drinking or substance use, we are embarrassed. In time – repeated failed efforts to get better lead to shame – there’s something wrong with me. It is explained to us in treatment that guilt is “I’ve done something wrong” and shame is “I am something wrong”, a heart-breaking and potentially deadly difference.

A recent article in PsychologyToday states:

Individuals with a deep and ongoing shame of themselves are, by nature, isolated with deep and closely held feelings of being unworthy and unlovable. This, in turn, is linked to depression, and the use of alcohol and drugs is often initially a form of self-medication.I

While addiction is more complex than simply a form of self-medication, it is clear that it is often deeply connected to a cycle of shame. Although our substance of choice provides temporary relief from the effects of shame, it always catches up with us, embarrassing us, and allowing our behaviour to run contrary to our values, causing more shame.

British journalist John Hari popularised the notion that “the opposite of addiction is connection” and that addiction is not about the pleasurable effects of substances, it’s about the user’s inability to connect in healthy ways with other human beings.ii His ideas are largely based on the contentious “Rat Park” experiment in the late-seventies, where rats in large, pleasurable, exciting, sociable cages were far less likely to become addicted to heroin-infused water than their counterparts in tiny, restrictive standard laboratory cages. Although the experiment was never successfully replicated, it does illustrate the broader understanding that we have of the social aspect of addiction – as a lack of meaningful social connection.iii

addiction vulnerability

So if shame, and lack of meaningful connection are connected to addiction, what do we do about it? Enter Research Professor Brené Brown who has been researching courage, shame and vulnerability for over 12 years, and one of our favourite public figures. Brown’s journey began when she was researching “connection”, and she very quickly ran into “this unnamed thing that absolutely unravelled connection in a way that I didn’t understand or had never seen” – shame:

And shame is really easily understood as the fear of disconnection: Is there something about me that, if other people know it or see it, that I won’t be worthy of connection? {…} The thing that underpinned this was excruciating vulnerability, this idea of, in order for connection to happen, we have to allow ourselves to be seen, really seen.iv

In her 2010 TED Talk “The Power of Vulnerability” Brown goes on to explain how vulnerability is not only the antidote to shame, but also “the birthplace of joy, of creativity, of belonging, of love”. The key to beating shame, is stepping courageously into this vulnerability, whole-heartedly – allowing ourselves to be seen. It’s not surprising that this TED Talk and it’s follow-up went wildly viral and currently has over 70 million views becoming one of the most viewed talks in the world. If this speaks to you, we strongly recommend watching the video. With many years of recovery behind her, herself, Brown also talks about addiction, explaining how our fear of being vulnerable leads us to try to numb the fear, along with grief, shame and guilt. The trouble is, we find that we can’t selectively numb these emotions, so we also numb joy, gratitude and happiness.

It’s really not easy to just suddenly jump into whole-hearted vulnerability. Addiction treatment can help us access this vulnerability by providing a safe space and the right support to peel away the armour that we have built up to protect us from ever having to feel vulnerable. We find that we can slowly start to share the exact nature of our hurt and shame, and find connection with others in the same boat.

It is quite incredible that the 12-Step Programme, as outlined in the Alcoholics Anonymous Big Book has been achieving this exact outcome for nearly 90 years, long before we even began to start figuring this out. If you live near a city, you can find a meeting just about every day (and many online meeting options) that are specifically designed to create a safe, contained space to connect, share and find courage in each other’s experience. The courage to access the vulnerability that allows us to trust, love and create joy in our lives.

This is one of the many reasons that the programme at The Cedars is based firmly on the 12-Step Programme, and one of the aspects that makes it so successful in treating addiction and alcoholism.