Breaking the Cycle of Shame and Addiction in Young Adults

By Frank Sanchez, PhD, LMFT, Clinical Director, Promises Young Adults Program

I’m not good enough. There’s something wrong with me. I’m defective.

 While people of all ages and backgrounds suffer from shame, young adults especially can be easily derailed by it because they don’t have enough life experience to know that things do get better and so much of their focus is on the external — what other people think and how other people may react.

There is evidence that the brain is not fully developed until a person’s mid-20s and this can lead them to make decisions based on feelings rather than logic.  So when shameful episodes arise, or shame is triggered, reaching for drugs and alcohol can be the simplest solution for feeling better.

The Shame and Addiction Cycle

Shame is a powerful force in the lives of young adults. It can drive behaviors during recovery and interfere with attempts to get sober.  Many young people start out with dreams, plans and goals. When they get lost in addiction and realize they have not accomplished their goals, they may begin to believe that they never will.

Reasons for substance and process addictions vary, but when someone becomes hooked at an early age, they lose sense of who they are ― and who they can be. Shame can keep them stuck in addiction or lead to relapse. It helps to understand the ways in which shame undermines their lives and reinforces addictive behavior.

  1. Shame is a hidden emotion. It lurks beneath the surface of things, tainting the way people see themselves. Studies show shame can seriously impair their lives. They may feel things, or react, but they are not aware of the reason. They may experience depression but have no clue why.
  2. A sense of failure looms. Feeling like a failure is exacerbated when they see how much further along friends may be. Perhaps while surfing social media, they see images of friends graduating or on work assignments. It’s painful because a sense of failure that is triggered by the success of peers can be debilitating. They feel they should have accomplished some of those goals, too, and it becomes a negative experience for them.
  3. Belief that the world sees only their failures. If you have that inner voice saying there’s something wrong with you or you’re defective, then subconsciously you think everybody knows that and everybody can see that. They constantly portray themselves — to self and others ― as a defective person or an incomplete, un-whole person. This impacts their personal and well as professional life.
  4. Prevents them from trying. They stop trying to succeed to avoid risk. They don’t want to be compared to a successful student or individual so they might be resistant to take a class or put themselves in a social situation around successful people. They don’t want to go to that AA meeting where there are going to be a lot of people around because they don’t feel whole or complete. They don’t feel like they belong so they stay away from life, including situations that are beneficial.
  5. They limit themselves. It is important to be with like-minded people in recovery, and they will reach out to people who are like them or who have recovered from their addictions because they don’t have that sense of failure with them. However, they may be reluctant to reach out to friends who are doing well and who can offer support and encouragement. Those are missed opportunities.
  6. It can lead to withdrawal from family. The weight of their shame can keep people separate from their families. Even in recovery they may refuse to participate with family members. They’ve been able to put them off while they were in their addiction. While getting sober, they’re facing them for the first time and having to deal with lost time, the sense of failure, and the fact that they engaged in behavior the family views as negative.
  7. It can lead to isolation. In the extreme, it will keep people isolated from everyone. Shame keeps them from connecting with others because they do not feel valuable or worthy of love.
  8. Using becomes the path of least resistance. Feeling down, without realizing why, they may reach for substances to feel better. Shameful feelings can exacerbate the addiction and keep the addiction going. Even if somebody wants to stop using, when they have these experiences and they don’t feel good about themselves, the addiction continues because it’s an easier way to feel OK.

Struggles to Remove Shame

Shame is often exacerbated through addictive behavior and getting involved with things the person does not feel good about. There are steps they can take.

  • Identify shame. Because shame is so deeply rooted and hidden, not everyone knows it is there.  It may manifest in depression or addictive behavior. Naming shame is the first step toward healing.
  • Know the reason. Delving into the genesis of their shame, and the things that have added and shaped it over time, is key to becoming free of it.
  • Unveil the true self. Shame is like a blanket that is covering who the person really is. It is constructed by the messages they received in childhood and the self-defeating beliefs that have been confirmed over and over through their thoughts and actions. They need help pulling the blanket off so these feelings can be fully expressed. It is like removing a layer of self-deception so they can see themselves clearly without the influence of shame.
  • Learn self-compassionStudies show that part of the mending process is continuing the journey of self-empowerment behaviors and techniques that can lead to true healing.