The role of shame in reinforcing narratives that encourage “misbehavior”
We began this journey toward understanding dependency and addiction by exploring the impact of influence and control in taking back our lives. Then, we explored the differences between breaking free from a dependency, and breaking an addiction. These two ideas gave us some perspective on the approach we might take in trying to change, and understanding how and what we might feel along the way. The next aspect to unpack in the process of addressing unwanted patterns of habitual behavior, especially dependency and addiction, is the role of shame.
To begin, we must conceptually differentiate between the terms guilt, regret and shame. It is critical to do so in order to highlight the separation between internal feelings of disappointment in ourselves that are useful, and those that are not.
Often times people, racked by abusive and destructive feelings of guilt and shame, assume that the only way out of their destructive cycles, is to be rid of all guilt completely . This is ulitmatley a grave error because the only path that will allow us to grow and develop according to our convictions, and of our understanding of Our Creators will for us, includes the development of guilt and regret as a powerful tool. The experience of productive guilt and regret has the power to straighten our perspective, inform our future choices, and heal our broken spirits. We will return later in this series to a more thorough discussion of what a healthy and functional guilt and regret looks like on a practical level, but will begin with the conceptual points here.
Regret and Shame: Two sides of the same coin
Guilt is the feeling we experience when we behave in a way that fails to meet our standard of acceptable and or ideal. This feeling can illicit two responses;
- We can acknowledge the guilt in a constructive way, harnessing it as motivation to repair and grow, or
- We can wallow in the past, believing that our previous behavior informs our value and worth as well as our future.
In the first type of reaction (constructive and forward directed guilt) we feel discomfort, and subsequently acknowledge that we have acted beneath our expectations and our values. By doing so, we subtly affirm that we deserve to do better. Pangs of regret fill out hearts, and the resolve to take action and to avoid repeating these mistakes in the future develops. We begin to seek a plan to help ourselves grow to a place where the misbehavior is reduced or even stopped completely. In this scenario our feelings of regret constitute a self-affirming attitude; “I am a good person who did a crummy, or even abhorrent thing. I deserve to do better, and I can do better.” The result of this orientation is initial discomfort followed by a resolve to move forward, with a positive sense of ourselves and the future. For our purposes we will call this Regret.
In the second type of reaction (wallowing in the past and allowing previous missteps to inform our future) we misbehave and sense an internal guilt. We then use that guilt to reinforce what is, more often then not, a preexistent insecurity, or surety, about our lack of self worth. “I behaved badly because I am bad, see, here’s the proof. I am so terrible, why can’t I be like somebody else or better yet be someone else.” The result of this form of guilt generates a sense of disempowerment that strips away positive self-esteem. It may inspire actions toward changing our behavior, but those mostly boil down to commitments and resolutions to not act badly (as opposed to a resolution to grow). Behavior-focused resolutions don’t work out well in the long term. We may be initially motivated to restrict ourselves from misbehavior for a month, a week, or a day, but in these cases we haven’t really changed, so after enough time has passed, we lose the emotional stamina and resolve to repress our impulses. The result is nearly always a return to the past behavior, or the adoption of some alternative dysfunctional pattern. For our purposes we will call this cycle Shame.
Yet, why do we find that people are always driven into cycles of shame as opposed to constructive processes of regret driven growth? If it is so clear that Shame doesn’t work and healthy regret is positive and empowering, why is it so complicated to break free from this pattern? Once the destructive nature of shame is laid out, why doesn’t everyone just stop shaming themselves and practice a constructive regret?
When you break down why people continuously engage in shame cycles we find it is because shame feels good. Not the good feeling of eating ice cream but rather the goodness of feeling Virtue. Humans have a fundamental need and desire to see themselves as virtuous and worthwhile. In the optimal circumstances, our associations of virtue are productive and motivating. We feel virtuous because we do the right thing, make the right sacrifice and act according to our ideals and convictions. In its most ideal state we feel a sense of virtue independent of the recognition of others. While we may appreciate when others see our virtue, we can maintain our self-image, regardless of others opinions of us.
Yet there are other, destructive, forms of virtue seeking that people engage for a variety of reasons. In the place of a real sense of virtue, we as people sometimes chase superficial and false expressions of that. We might seek to be seen as virtuous by other people, playing the part of a good person, or even sadder, hoist ourselves up by putting others down, deluding ourselves that exposing their lack of virtue somehow makes us virtuous. These patterns are incredibly destructive to all involved and lay at the foundation of much misbehavior in many areas of life.
Yet, there is another form of virtue-seeking that is even more destructive, and it acts like a drug, bringing about an internal insanity. This drug is Shame. People that become wrapped up in a cycle of destructive shame develop, and or are taught, a twisted concept of guilt and repentance that equates it with hating or judging ourselves. This is especially true when a person lacks a healthy sense of self worth; “I am a bad person BUT at least I know I’m not good, a lot.” In this equation, the more shame they feel, the better they feel about themselves. Looking at shame through this lens reveals just how destructive it can be. The more despicable I behave the more despicable I feel about myself, The more despicable I fell about myself the more repentant I must be and therefore the more virtuous I am.
This subtle and unconscious insanity creates a very dangerous and destructive cycle as it actually incentivizes us to maximize our shame, by inviting and encouraging us to behave shamefully. If the only way we feel like we are virtuous and worth anything is knowing what a piece of garbage we are, then our brains are actually unconsciously motivated to misbehave so we can feel like a piece of garbage and thereby virtuous. This cycle is so destructive that people even become “addicted”, so to speak, to relapses. 
In addition, the illusion of virtue, especially within the context of religion, distracts the individual from the motivation to actually grow and address their problems. The more religious they feel, the more shame they feel when they act out. The more shame they feel, the more virtuous they feel, the more virtuous they feel, the more motivated they are to engage in obsessive compulsive rituals that mimic actual religious behavior, and the cycle continues.
Therefore, if we are going to have any chance of success at recovering back our lives and sense of sanity, if we have any chance of growing our religious and spiritual selves in a functional manner, we will have to consciously choose to disengage from the addictive and destructive cycles of shame. This is only possible when we learn and practice the art of a healthy, empowering and productive regret. A discipline of truth and courage, facing our selves and our behavior while affirming that we deserve to live better. When we operate in that space we foster a sense of true esteem, with motivation to live up to the vision of what we might be.
 It is important to note that shame imposed externally by others is just as disempowering and destructive as when we shame ourselves. Often people with destructive patterns of shame were trained in their upbringing or schooling to process guilt this way. None the less, as adults we have no choice but to focus on developing better habits of thought, and keeping watch for maladaptive shame, instead of blaming those in our past, for this destructive pattern.
 Oftentimes, a phenomenon in the addiction recovery world known as chronic relapse is actually fueled, if not completely, at least partially, by the inability of individuals to feel virtuous except when recounting their “sin” of relapse. This phenomenon at times leads to a certain destructive emotional voyeurism, as these individuals compulsively recount their shame in public spaces like support groups and recovery meetings. Often times, their sharing, is limited to an admission or, perhaps better labeled, confession, of their shame. This is particularly challenging in the sphere of certain addictions where “relapse” and setbacks are inherently a part of the process of recovery. Often times understanding what a relapse is and isn’t, is part of the process of identifying the addiction and a plan for abstinence. This maladaptive pattern keeps many people stuck in a cycle of shame that leaves them trapped, and even begets worse and worse behavior as they have to constantly up the anty of their misbehavior to keep up with their need to feel shameful. Their shame becomes a drug they chase, worse than the “drug” they chased in the first place, and just as acute as the intense dependency that comes along with many substance addictions. In these circumstances the recovery groups or social circles themselves, which are often the key lifeline to getting well, actually become a trigger for acting out. Sharing in the meeting becomes the drug of voyeurism. This is a destructive and sad cycle that must be addressed if they have any chance of getting well.