Working with The Shame of Acting Out

By Ken Wells - 08/02/2022


Series Three: Blog Forty-nine

For addicts in recovery, sobriety is necessary but not sufficient for the long term journey. During acting out, the whole of life is surrounded by addictive behavior. The chemical or behavior became a lover without which there was no reason to go on.

It is important to understand the role that addiction plays in an addict’s life in order to replace it with something that works as an alternative.

Addicts struggle to regulate their emotions because they are poor at identifying and expressing what they feel. Impulse control is lacking because they don’t know what is going on inside of them.

Strong affect like anger, hate, resentment, loneliness and shame create discomfort and trigger ongoing use of addiction to escape the pain. So affect recognition is critical to long term healing from addiction.

Shame is an affect that must be managed in order to maintain sobriety and deepen empathy. Properly guided, shame can actually be transformed into empathy. Offending addictive behaviors trigger historic and current shame. Addicts must learn to address historic shame by identifying the message of mistaken belief that is triggered by destructive behavior. Recognizing mistaken belief underneath destructive behavior requires the discipline of slowing down thinking process. This is achieved by stopping and quieting the mind. Meditation and other interventions are utilized to help addicts slow mind processing.  It requires practice and conditioning.

Addressing historic shame requires identifying the voice of the mistaken belief housed within the powerful feeling of shame. Whose voice is it that is telling me that I don’t matter in this moment? Usually, it comes from the way you were treated or what was said from a caregiver during the impressionable years of childhood. Once recognized, it is important to give back the mistaken belief to the caregiver.

Ideally, you receive assistance from a trained therapist who understands the significant influence of unresolved early attachment issues. Also a therapist who can help with sleuthing out contaminated beliefs housed in unrecognized feelings through significant affect recognition work. It is helpful to have a therapist who through EMDR or other experiential interventions who can help work through the stuck points of trauma. Internal Family Systems work can help identify different parts within and assist a listening process of the sub personalities that will help to integrate the truths that each part represents. Being able to observe and learning to “think about your own thinking” is very helpful toward addressing historic shame.

However, what if you are a part of most of America who cannot afford these cutting edge interventions and modalities. Most people cannot afford the price tag of sufficient therapy to help manage current and historic shame.

So, you do empty chair work focusing on primary caregivers. You verbally give back the shame that was purposefully or unintentionally given to you. You put the caregiver in the empty chair and you tell them exactly what you felt and experienced when you got the message of mistaken belief. You unapologetically say it straight. You allow whatever feeling comes up to be present. It is helpful to have a support person present to witness, give a fair hearing but not to advise or pile on when you pour out your feelings and truth

You practice recognizing the shame of mistaken belief and its source and quietly dismiss the voice, telling the voice of your caregiver that they are not welcome to be a part of the conversation. Taking a few seconds to dismiss the voice of your caregiver in the present moment is helpful in releasing the shame. This is skill set takes practice. In time, you will improve your ability to redirect shame to its original historic source.  You will be less likely to allow the acid of shame to penetrate your sense of self.

Then, there is current shame. Addicts know that their destructive behavior is shameful. It is important for addicts to train themselves to place shame from current acting out on the behavior and not on their sense of self. Shaming oneself only scars and mars. There is no healthy result. I like to say “no one ever beats themselves up to a better place”. It is crucial for addicts to understand that who they are is different than what they do. They are not their behavior. You will feel guilty and remorseful for hurtful behavior. However, once guilt has helped you identify your wrong it is no longer helpful to maintain and wallow in it about what you wrong doing.

When you act out in addiction it is difficult in the presence of shame to believe that you are an unrepeatable miracle of the universe. The word belief is an Anglo-Saxon word that means to live in accordance with. In the presence of mistaken beliefs screaming in colorful language that you are despicable, it is necessary to practice acting as if you are the person your destiny calls for you to be.  You must create a clear vision of what that person is. Then bathe yourself with positive affirmations in order to renew your vision of who you really are. I call this stalking the shame that binds you.

When you are able to focus the shame on your addictive behavior and not on your sense of self, you can better cultivate empathy for those who have been hurt by your addictive self. You can cultivate compassion for yourself by recognizing how addiction behavior is traumatizing to you. In addition, when you consider the impact of your addictive behavior toward another person that you care for, you begin to transform the shame into empathy and compassion for those you have hurt. There is no greater intervention to offending behavior than transforming shame to compassion.

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