Therapist in Los Angeles
Darren Haber PsyD

Trauma, Shame and Addiction

There is a direct connection between trauma, shame and addiction.

There is a direct connection between trauma, shame and addiction. Shame often has its roots in feelings of inadequacy and incompetence around skills necessary to navigate life: relationships, work, sex, money, etc. This is because these challenges naturally produce anxiety for your average person, and a traumatized person reacts more intensely to these life challenges. When this person is also an addict/alcoholic, you've got a real double whammy; what often results is an "acting out" in a way which only makes things worse. This acting out usually involves some kind of self-medicating, or isolating, which only feeds the repetitive cycle of shame and is itself re-traumatizing, which then feeds the need for another drink/drug/sexual partner, etc...

One question many of my traumatized clients ask is, "why can't I do this?" By "this" they mean coping with difficult feelings, sharing difficult feelings with partners, bosses, friends, working through emotional "knots", etc. But consider this: almost everything we do we have learned to do, especially viz. our interactions with others and the world outside us. Wo/man is a highly socialized creature. Besides our basic primordial functions of sleeping, eating, eliminating, etc... the acts of talking, reacting, withholding, disclosing, etc., are all a result of learned socialization. If we were socialized in a traumatizing or even dysfunctional environment, our skills in this area will reflect that. And here again the double whammy of trauma: the primary incident of wounding leads to a deficit in dealing with others, and even oneself. If you grew up in a family where "we don't talk about things", then sharing with others, even appropriately, will be challenging. But the mere fact that it's challenging – when it doesn't seem to be for your peers – brings on more shame, which can in turn lead to more isolating or excessive behaviors, which lead to further self-recrimination, self-loathing, shame and so on.

This feeling of inadequacy is, ironically, somewhat accurate: the person hasn't been properly trained to deal with life on life's terms...which isn't their fault, though people with trauma often feel that it is (especially if the trauma happened in childhood). This is where good therapy (and recovery) enters the picture. Therapy itself is a kind of social "milieu" wherein the therapist can de-stigmatize, firstly, the need for help in areas where others don't seem to need it. The truth is, most of us do need it in one area or another. It's just that, in our highly individualized "up by your own bootstraps" society, this need for help is often kept secret because of... you guessed it...shame. But don't let shame be a barrier to getting healthy. The strong person comes to know and accept their own vulnerability. The weak person pretends he/she doesn't have any, until it becomes as obvious as a bad toupee.