2. Shame and addiction: under the skin

One problem with my last post was the implication that shaming and soothing both come from outside, from other people. IFS (and some other therapeutic approaches) take a very different stance. It’s what’s inside that counts.

The comments on last week’s post were great, and I’m sorry I haven’t had a chance to reply yet. But obviously people in the addiction community are very familiar with how shame exacerbates addiction. I ended the post with the (also familiar) observation that connections with caring others is the sure-fire antidote to shame. Yet this is so often a losing battle, because addicts increasingly isolate themselves.

So what happens when we focus on our insides, under the skin, not on the reactions of those around us?

First let’s think about where shame actually comes from. We imagine that it’s other people who cause us to feel shame, through their deprecating remarks, anger, accusations, and so forth. But other people aren’t required. Our own internal critic actually induces shame with little or no validation needed. IFS calls this critic a manager — a part whose job it is to anticipate others’ reactions and try to avert worst-case scenarios. But notice: anticipation is a mental state, not a social exchange. It’s really just a belief we carry around with us.

Second, in addiction, this internal critic grows increasingly hostile and shaming…the longer we continue using. And why shouldn’t it? Shaming children is a powerful (if often flawed) means for getting them to shape up. So try it! Except that now…nobody’s listening…

I spent years researching the emotional lives of young children, and one experiment stands out most in my memory. My grad student Carla and I set up scenarios where 3-5-year old kids would accidentally pull off the arms of a toy doll  — one she’d already prepped with an exacto knife. Then Carla would say “Oh no!” and “Oh my!” (at timed intervals) while gazing at the child’s face. The poor kid would then look away, hide his or her head, and often protest: It’s not my fault! An internal shame-inducing “program” was now at full throttle.

(Just so you know, psychologists aren’t all sadists. Carla took a lot of time to reassure the children by showing how the dolls were pre-cut and then playing with them, soothing and comforting if needed. )

Carla didn’t cause the shame. She helped trigger it. But it was the child’s  spring-loaded shame-inducing circuit that did the rest. And that network stays with us for life, simply adding to its bank of of contemptible deeds along the way.

Cece Sykes is an IFS therapist and Senior Trainer with the Internal Family Systems Institute, who has made it her mission to refine IFS ideas and techniques to help people with addictions. I’ve been lucky enough to engage her as a consultant for my psychotherapy practice. Cece points out that, especially in addiction (but also in abuse survivors), all that shame travels to exactly the wrong (inner) location. As you know from my previous posts, IFS relies on the idea of parts. And the druggie part (what IFS calls the Firefighter — and Cece sometimes calls the Distractor) is much too strong and too smart to listen to this shaming inner critic. I know exactly how to feel better, it says. I don’t have to listen to you. I’ve done this countless times before. See ya.

Defiance feels a lot better than denigration.

So you call your dealer and get some stuff. But what happens to all the shame flowing from the enraged and frustrated critic? It goes to the child part of us, the part that is already overcome by self-doubt, helplessness, despair, and yes, shame — the part that fuels the need to get high in the first place! Cece calls this “a reservoir” that keeps filling up. With shame. Because, as we can see from Carla’s experiment, children (including our inner child) are exquisitely vulnerable even to a hint of blame or accusation. So when that inner critic is lambasting us, we continue to crumble inside. And getting high is by far the most obvious solution.

As noted last week, the addict’s shame is so wounding because of lost connections with caring, loving others. So what’s left? How can we be soothed? IFS is all about establishing and reinforcing connections within us. The theory points to a calm, empathic centre in each of us. The part that’s not a part. They call it Self with a capital S. To me, that centre feels like a warm glow of self-forgiveness or self-compassion or just I’m-ok-ness, though of course words don’t do it justice.

When the inner child is writhing with shame, this self-forgiveness can connect with it, regardless of who’s out there in the world. You can say to that fragile part, I get how ground-up you feel, how long it’s been going on. I care about you. And I can keep you company, so you don’t have to be so alone. I know it sounds almost trite. Oh, that’s self-compassion…we know about that. No, it’s not that simple. This is the act of connecting with a part that has been expelled — innumerable times — because that’s what shame does. A part that’s desperate for compassion…or, at first, at least, a bit of company.

As the child’s shame is soothed and softened, the urge to use or drink may soften as well. But that’s not the whole story. There’s still this druggie/drinker part, this Firefighter, in full regalia, ready for action, laughing at the critic. According to Cece, that firefighter can also be helped by the part that’s not a part. It can be talked to — hey there! — but not by The Critic. Rather, it needs to hear from the Self, which can say: I’ve got your back. I’m not the familiar part that’s always screaming at you, that critic. I’m going to help take care of things. You don’t have to do all this drastic stuff yourself. And just between us, you do leave quite a mess.

When the firefighter actually gets a sense of that kind, friendly and competent person — who You are, despite the crazy gyrations of your parts — it gets to relax a bit, breathe a bit, and slow down. (We don’t have to get smashed every night!) It might also try other outlets. It may welcome the chance to be independent, even sassy, without making such an enormous mess.

The point is, now there are connections, internal relationships, a kind of sharing. When before there were only separated, isolated voices and needs, each with its own quirky strategy. From this place, anything’s possible.







14 thoughts on “2. Shame and addiction: under the skin

  1. CM December 17, 2020 at 4:22 am #

    This being human is a guest house.
    Every morning a new arrival.

    A joy, a depression, a meanness,
    some momentary awareness comes
    as an unexpected visitor.

    Welcome and entertain them all!
    Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,
    who violently sweep your house
    empty of its furniture,
    still, treat each guest honorably.
    He may be clearing you out
    for some new delight.

    The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
    meet them at the door laughing,
    and invite them in.

    Be grateful for whoever comes,
    because each has been sent
    as a guide from beyond.


    • Larissa March 15, 2021 at 1:27 pm #

      Thank you so much for this wonderful poem!

  2. CM December 17, 2020 at 4:23 am #

    The Water said to the dirty one, “Come here.” The dirty one said, “I am too ashamed.” The water replied, “How will your shame be washed away without me?


    Thank you Marc ✌️

  3. Thom December 17, 2020 at 3:12 pm #

    I recently took my son to a school sponsored COVID protocol following outdoor play session. Led and prompted by adults, they played some games and ran around in an relatively organized way. One activity was a relay race. There was one kid probably 9 or 10 years old, who wasn’t as fast as some others and he lost his leg of the race. I watched as he bent over, put his hands on his knees and started sobbing. After a few seconds, he stood up, raised his hands toward the sky and yelled “I am such a failure!”

    I’ve heard my own son – who has an ADHD diagnosis – say something not to dissimilar when he struggles with some life problem. Notwithstanding some environmental/social factors (I am no way a perfect dad), there seems to be something more in play, some sort of internal shaming mechanism that we are born with, but must nonetheless contend.

    • Marc December 26, 2020 at 1:46 pm #

      Yes, I think we’re born with a sensitively-attuned capacity for shame, but its potency varies hugely from one person to the next. I’ve raised a number of kids in my life (two marriages with offspring) and one of them was so shame-prone I’d say that it has played a major role in fashioning his personality.

      When he was 4 or 5 years old, I was astounded to see a shame reaction of sci-fi proportions. I noticed that he was spreading as much peanut butter on the counter as on his piece of bread, and I asked him (in a calm voice) to try to be more careful. He immediately jumped up, landed on the floor and started yelling. Then began crawling backward, on his belly, out of the room, screaming his head off the whole way.

      I was shocked. How could that much shame be triggered that easily. This boy also had a hard time making friends until his adolescent years, at which point he found that humour was an ideal means to reshape real or imagined criticism.

      Yes, shame is built in, and it’s powerful. Without it, perhaps we would all be sociopaths. But when it’s the king of our emotional world, watch out!

  4. Steve K December 18, 2020 at 4:16 am #

    Our sense of shame and therefore the inner critic is an innate aspect of our social instinct in most people (excluding sociopaths etc). It’s a vital part of being a social animal and our need to be part of the group to survive. I would suggest that there are two types of shame, a healthy sense of shame or guilt and a toxic sense of shame. The toxic sense of shame is a chronic belief that I’m not worthy or loveable. I believe that this toxic sense is developed from the outside by neglect, criticism and abuse from others, primarily in the developmental years. I think that to heal this and learn to connect inwardly to our self-love and compassion, and positive self-talk, we do need the love, care, soothing and support from others. However, I take your point Mark that these loving, healthy relationships are not that easy for addicts to find or maintain due to our tendency to withdraw from and sabotage relationships that are good for us.

    Here’s my take on the ego and shame from a 12 Step perspective… https://12stepphilosophy.org/2016/07/21/humility-a-right-sized-ego/

    • Larissa March 15, 2021 at 1:35 pm #

      Your blog is very insightful. My problem is overeating not alcohol or drugs, so I don’t have the same kind of social stigma. However, humility and just being oneself is key – I can remember feeling the onset of shame on the school bus when some kids laughed at me and how I would do anything to avoid that feeling and that situation. Too bad how that shaped my life. Avoiding situations rather than opening to possibilities and being one’s unvarnished self. Thank you for your blog.

  5. Joe H. December 20, 2020 at 2:32 pm #

    I’ve just stumbled across this blog having started with one of Marc’s lectures on Utube.

    I am recovering from a problem with alcohol. Detox in 2017 and basically on my way since then. SMART facilitator running a weekly group (independent of the local drug and alcohol service provider) until Lockdown. Several lapses and one or two lasted longer than I care to admit.

    Recently had one lasting several days and was surprised to see that I was experiencing sadness, and yes, loneliness but stunned to realise that I was also angry. Not in a rage but persistently very angry. Then I realised that what was powering it all was SHAME. My own belief in how awful and despicable I was etc.

    When I surfaced I decided to write a short essay entitled “The [10?] Things You Don’t Need To Tell Me”. The precise number is up to you; we can all run off such a list and of course, we all know then reason why. OH, “Do not tell me you are saying it for my own good” — through gritted teeth and with murderous intent. Thanks. Much to think about.

    • Marc December 26, 2020 at 1:54 pm #

      What a wise interpretation of what was going on in your inner world. Shame and anger are astoundingly close allies. Shame creates anger because it’s so painful, and the shame we automatically feel when failing in our commitment to stop substance use…quickly activates the internal critic: How could you do that?! Again! What the hell is wrong with you! Yet the angry self-critic can do little more than exacerbate our shame, so you get this inevitable snowball effect…which very often leads to more drinking or using. What else does one do with these ugly, hurtful feelings!

      Thanks for sharing this experience with us.

  6. Jeroen January 3, 2021 at 8:01 am #

    Dear Marc,

    After a couple of startling and exciting weeks, in which I (finally) have been able to make a fundamental shift in my thinking and behaving, I feel like I want to share briefly how your work and thinking have allowed me to ‘move on’ and how thankful I am for your role in this process.

    The last 13 years of my 30-year-old life have been a constant and continuous mental battle with a, as I’ve experienced it, pretty severe cannabis addiction/habit. A couple of weeks ago, after the umpteenth attempt to fight this habit followed by yet another relapse, I found myself telling my close friends that I made peace with the fact that I am a person who will be addicted to smoking cannabis every night for the rest of his life. The weird thing is that, at that moment, I calmly and deeply acknowledged that to be my personal reality. Despite knowing that this behaviour had been responsible for seeing so many of my dreams, wishes and goals go up, quite literally, in smoke. I felt beaten by the habit and, tired of the ongoing battle, allowed the resignation I felt to be my reality.

    Two days later, I randomly ran into your book ‘The Biology of Desire’ in a bookstore in my hometown. Because I had been studying the concept and mechanism of addiction for so long (in a desperate attempt to try to make sense of how and why I functioned the way I did), I was triggered by the subtitle ‘Why addiction is not a disease’. This idea was something new to me, something so different from how I had grown to see myself.

    I bought the book, read the first half and found myself feeling a relieve I hadn’t experienced before. A prison of personal believe and self image started to fade by the words I was reading.

    About 10 years ago, 3 years into my destructive yet passionately loved habit, the acceptance that I was suffering from a gripping addiction crept onto me. Accepting that wasn’t the problem. Ironically, accepting that I was addicted allowed me to continue the behaviour which was causing so much emotional pain. Ever since those days, I saw myself as a chronically ill person. Someone who would have to fight a lifelong battle and who would have to remain vigilant forever for falling prey again to the chronic condition in my brain. I don’t really know why, but that knowledge paralysed me, made me unable to make a lasting change. The idea of having to fight this disease forever, made me feel like I already lost the battle. Therefore, why even bother to put up the fight in the first place?

    Every now and then I found myself to be so sick of the repetitional life I was living, that I tried nonetheless. After relapsing sooner or later, my thinking would be slingshot to the other extreme: I am a stoner, stop trying to deny that. Stop trying to prove yourself wrong and make life easier by just being what you are. The coming and going of this process has been the story of my life for the last 10 years.

    Your book has finally allowed me to fundamentally shift my perception. To not see myself as a victim of a chronic disease, which I have to fight the remainder of my days. Instead, I was allowing the comforting idea that my behaviour is a repetitive and deeply ingrained habit. A habit which can be unlearned, just the way as I learned it in the first place.

    It’s a subtle yet fundamental change in the story of me I’ve been telling myself for so long. It rids me of the anxiety, stress and stigma I have been feeling. And that creates the mental headspace to actually, practically work on the new idea that there is the possibility to learn to be the person I’ve dreamt of being for so many stoned nights. I now -believe- that’s possible in a natural way, instead of believing that it would be a battle in which I had to fight the nature of my brain, forever. It makes all the difference I needed.

    Marc, I cannot thank you enough for stubbornly challenging the existing paradigm in the way addiction is explained. For me, it works magic. I feel sure, confident and actually motivated that I will find more joy, meaning and purpose in life when I continue living the way I have been for the past 6 weeks: sober and freed of the compulsive idea that I was chronically ill and that therefore, I needed to indulge every night, just because that is was addicts do. I am unlearning the habit which I thought couldn’t be unlearned without a lifelong struggle. The crazy thing is that because of that, it costs me nog struggle at all.

    Warm and kind regards from Holland,

    • Marc January 6, 2021 at 6:25 pm #

      Thanks for this intimate and touching comment. I’ll get back to you soon, but if others would like to respond, I’d welcome that.

    • Marc January 30, 2021 at 10:42 am #

      Hi again Jeroen. This time I read your comment carefully, in depth. It makes me happy in a deep way — not really bright happiness but more like satisfaction that accumulates somewhere to the side of my consciousness — that my book could be so helpful. And I’ve received messages of thanks from many many people. It’s kind of overwhelming, which is maybe why the joy of it moves off to the side.

      Your story is exactly, exactly, what I try to emphasize when I give talks, especially to people who still trust the disease concept. I gave such a talk in Norway, just a few days ago, by Zoom of course. The central point is just what you say:

      ” that knowledge paralysed me, made me unable to make a lasting change. The idea of having to fight this disease forever, made me feel like I already lost the battle. Therefore, why even bother to put up the fight in the first place?”

      There is a handful of studies that actually measure this. People who believe their addiction is a disease have a harder time believing they can ever be free of it. Well, it’s obvious, isn’t it? But where did we get this idea in the first place? We humans have so many bad habits — racism, infidelity, greed and envy — but we never consider them to be diseases.

      The brain works through habits, habits of thought and feeling. Otherwise it would be terribly inefficient, I mean if it had to assess situations without biases and make choices afresh from one situation to the next. Inefficient brains would not evolve. We are what we are.

      And habits are not that complicated. But the problem with highly emotional habits, habits of need fulfillment, is that the attempt to change them amplifies the need, which is often self-defeating. So….according to IFS or just good common sense, we need to go about this gently, giving ourselves latitude and forgiveness, allowing the process to advance at its own rate, without savage recriminations, which ALWAYS defeat the momentum of change.

      Thanks so much for sharing your story and capturing the importance of this perspective with such clarity.

  7. smartclinic June 3, 2021 at 1:50 am #

    The Research on Alcohol Addiction is quite helpful and informative. There is a suggestion for people facing stress to practice relaxation techniques and also by doing yoga and meditation. If you are going through mental illness then you can meet with the Smart Clinic practitioners for good guidance and faster results

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