Role of Toxic Shame in Addiction by Sidrah Mohsin

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Role of Toxic Shame in Addiction
“Shame is a soul eating emotion.” – C.G. Jung

by Sidrah Mohsin,
Program Director
Nishan Rehab Islamabad

The life of active addiction is full of secrets, lies, and manipulation in order to get the substances an addict needs to hide the toxic behaviors from loved ones. Addiction occurs as the result of many factors, but it can be fueled by trauma, mental illness, environment and upbringing, low self-esteem, and secrets. All of these feelings function to disconnect people from their authentic selves and the world around them and cause some people to turn to substances like drugs and alcohol for comfort. Shame is a master emotion that takes two forms, healthy shame and toxic shame. Both forms of it go hand in hand as the process of socialization goes on. Shame is a complex emotional state which can be difficult to define and understand. Many think of shame (emotion of blaming self) as similar to guilt (feeling of blaming the act of committing a mistake) but they are inherently different emotions. Toxic shame is an emotion that can fester over time and make addictive behaviors worse. This is just one way that toxic shame and addiction can deter someone from seeking treatment because toxic shame is a multi generational disease in nature. Healthy shame keeps us grounded. It reminds us that we are not supreme and all powerful, that we are just human, and we make mistakes. Toxic shame contributes to addiction because it causes people to develop skewed images of themselves that further motivate them to seek comfort in substances.

When shame becomes internalized or absolutized, it becomes a state of being. Toxic shame is the most destructive emotional sickness of self a person can have. It is a true soul sickness that serves as both root cause and perpetuator of all addictions. It lethally disgraces us to the point where we literally disown ourselves. This self-alienation requires an elaborate masking or cover-up of the true and authentic self by creating a false self, which is essentially our protection against our felt sense of toxic shame. Trauma and unresolved emotional difficulties in the environment while growing up can cause some people to use drugs and alcohol to cope with their emotions. Internalized shame is like cholesterol. It is internally destructive and if left unchecked will ultimately kill us. Instead of a momentary feeling of being embarrassed, making a mistake or feeling less than a person comes to believe that their whole self is fundamentally flawed and defective. We are no longer perfectly imperfect human beings, we are totally and absolutely imperfect.

The fuel of all addictive behaviours is this rupturing of the self, the belief that we are flawed and defective human beings; we are a mistake. Deep, internalized, toxic shame gives rise to distorted thinking where our worth is measured on the outside instead of the inside, “I need something outside myself (alcohol, drugs, sex, money, power, food, etc.) in order to be okay,” which results in acting out on this thinking, followed by more shame over the consequences of our behaviour. Addiction in and of itself can quickly turn healthy shame into toxic shame. We at Nishan Rehab see this very often among the young people we work with who are barely out of their teens. The role of an addict is to identity they have ever known, with the compulsive cycle of addiction being fuelled and regenerated by their identity and shame as an addict. 

Shame thrives in darkness. The more we avoid it, the more it grows and the worse it becomes. We need to bring it out of hiding. Healing requires “externalizing” the shame. This can be tricky because there is the risk of premature exposure, or exposing our shame before we are ready, which can, in turn, create more internalized shame. The key to successful externalization is finding a non-shaming intimate person or support group and honestly sharing our innermost feelings. Nishan offers help to all those suffering souls who are hiding their true selves under dark skin of addiction and addictive behaviours. Anyone can seek help in order to restore the healthy circle of a happy life. Reproach is shame, blame, disgrace, disapproval and a disrespectful attitude toward yourself. When you’re under reproach, your behaviour shows it. -Joyce Meyer





Sidrah Mohsin
M.Phil Psychology
Program Director, Nishan Rehab Islamabad, Pakistan

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