Lesson 1, Topic 1
In Progress

The Role of Shame

The Role of Shame

To be able to let our own guard down, we’ll need to look at the things that affect our beliefs, our perceptions, and how we think. As Gabor demonstrates, our first tendency is “shields up.” We defend ourselves. One of the ways we do that is by making assumptions, which are often wrong.

Yet those assumptions are rooted in painful experiences that have happened to us in the past. These experiences affect how we interpret what’s being said.  In the first demonstration, Gabor speaks to two people who are each upset at a situation that’s occurred for them. In both cases, he demonstrates that their anger comes from choosing the conclusion that’s most painful to them, instead of another that might be a lot more sensible under the circumstances.

We choose the painful choice because of shame. All of us hold beliefs – mostly on an unconscious level – that we aren’t worthy of love, that we “aren’t enough,” that we’re an imposter. Nearly all of us hold these beliefs to some degree, and generally, the less we talk about it, the more we have it.


When we are feeling ashamed, we tend to protect and hide those parts of ourselves. This invites dishonesty and denial.  Researchers on shame have found that when we communicate with others while feeling shame, we tend to do one of three things:

  • move toward (pleasing behaviors)

  • move against (get angry; come out swinging; say hurtful things)

  • move away (shrink down and try to disappear.

And, of course, we may lie, misrepresent, avoid, or deny the truth, because it’s too painful.  Most of us do a combination of these things, but none of them are helpful.


Shame impacts people in the addicted family in different ways:

  • The person living with the addiction may feel shame that he’s letting everyone down, or that he can’t control his behavior, or that he doesn’t deserve the chances he’s been given, or that he’s a bad person because of the decisions he’s made.

  • The family member may feel like the addicted family member’s addiction is their fault. Or feel like they’ve failed because they “haven’t done enough” Or they blame and feel shame for behaviors and decisions they may have made years ago that had a negative impact.

The key to understanding and letting go of shame is recognizing that all of us, very early in life, learned behaviors that helped us to survive. This might have included pleasing others, not asking for our own needs, or seeking attention. All of those are helpful in some ways, and not helpful in others.

But the important thing is, those behaviors were necessary at the time. Without them, we would have lost attachment, and as young children, we could not have survived. We are not bad people because of the behaviors we’ve learned for survival. And it takes time to “unlearn” those behaviors, even if we’re working hard on it.


We let go of the shame by accepting our faults. By acknowledging we could have done better, and we’re going to do our best to do so going forward. By being honest when we screw up. By giving ourselves permission to screw up. By talking about the shame we feel. 

When we do this, we let go of shame. We act authentically. We take responsibility for our actions. We seek to do better. And when others in our circle of family or loved ones see this, often they will begin to do the same.

That comes from our past traumas. Understanding our traumas is a crucial part of understanding addiction (as well as family communications). So we’ll be covering that more in the next . For now, all you need to know is that we behave, say, and do things in large part because of strategies we learned very early in life. And those strategies were, at one point, helpful and effective for us, even if they aren’t any longer.

One of the most effective tools for changing the family’s perspective is in exploring their own addictive patterns. The trick is whether the family member is willing to do so. For an unwilling family member, sometimes suggestions from other family members will make it easier.

Also, family members (or those struggling with addiction) who have previously been in treatment or 12 step groups may reject idea that addiction is not a brain disease or does not have a genetic component. These are taught as gospel and fact in many (perhaps most) treatment centers.

We don’t need to engage in a debate, convince anyone of any perspective, or make anyone wrong. Instead, invite the resistant family member to be curious. They don’t have to accept or believe or change their viewpoint. All we’re inviting them to do is be curious, have an open mind, and see if this perspective might have some value for them.