When I used to drink the drinking threw in a free gift of a helping of guilt and shame on the side – how kind! Guilt is the emotion that we feel when we have behaved in a way that we perceive to be hurtful to others or as a moral lapse. Guilt serves a purpose when we recognise, acknowledge and rectify the behaviour, such as apologising if necessary. The thing is, when I was drinking, sometimes I didn’t remember the behaviour so what I got left with was guilt’s big brother, shame.
Shame is the emotion that we feel when ‘we’ as a person are at fault, not our behaviour. It is the way we feel if we have fallen short of our own internalised ideals or if there is a public disclosure of a perceived weakness or defect. For me shame was the fast track path to self-loathing, failing self-esteem and crushed self-confidence and it was hard not to feel shame as I felt like I couldn’t control my drinking and therefore my behaviour. Erik Erikson argued that “shame is blame turned against the self” and Pete Walker writes that “shame is the death of self-acceptance and self-worth.” If I couldn’t manage this there was something wrong with ‘me’ right?
But if you drink alcohol, which is addictive and designed to make you thirsty (so you drink more) and acts as a disinhibitor (encouraging behaviour that you would not normally engage in) then how is that a weakness or defect in yourself? Now I’m not handing total responsibility for my actions over to the booze monster as the choice to pick up the first drink was always mine. What I didn’t fully choose was the addiction created by the substance to go on drinking to the point of total black out, guilt making antics and no memories to attach the guilt to therefore leaving me with an overwhelming sense of shame. And then I would drink to forget the shame compounding the problem. Shame, drink, shame, lather, rinse, repeat.
The leading expert and queen of shame research is Brene Brown who I love. Her PhD was studying vulnerability. You can watch her TED talk on vulnerability here and her follow up TED talk on ‘Listening to Shame’ here.
What her research found was that shame is highly highly correlated with addiction. Shame is the voice in my head telling me that I’m ‘never good enough’ and I can’t do life sober. Shame is that same internal critic saying ‘who do you think you are’ to blog about my sober journey thinking people would be interested in what I have to say.
This is the most toxic of emotions and now I don’t drink I don’t really experience it like I used to anymore. I know that I can do life sober and have done it for over five months. I know that people are interested in what I have to say because they take the time to read my blog and comment. My internal voice of shame has gone quiet and this gift is perhaps bigger than the gift of no hangover. The no hangover is the physical gift of not drinking but the diminished feeling of shame is the psychological gift of sobriety. And the two go hand in hand for me as part of the hangover distress was the angst caused by the shame. In the words of Brene, for shame to survive it needs secrecy, silence and judgement (of self or of others). Choosing not to drink and this blog is the answer to resolving my shame and I would chose this option hands down every day over drinking now 🙂
PS My other most popular blog post is my Goodbye Letter to Alcohol which you can read here
Edited to add: I found this brilliant card that summed up how this drinking shame and guilt felt for me so if this is how you feel too then can I recommend this self-compassion break 🙂