I’ve had it with the argument that suggests seeing “addictive” behavior as freely chosen automatically bestows shame upon those who engage in it. It’s usually presented with the request that we “treat addiction as a disease so that people won’t feel ashamed.” This argument is so wrong, but it’s rarely questioned and analyzed with any depth.
I wanted a real quotable example, so did a quick google search and found a recent article discussing shame and addiction. The author’s husband “died of alcoholism” and she’s pondering why there’s so much shame surrounding addiction. Her conclusion:
Likely, the shame stems from the lack of understanding about what causes addiction – is it a disease or a lifestyle choice? It’s so easy for some (presumably those few without first hand experience) to say that it’s a matter of choice. I believe it’s a physical condition – a disease or a mental illness.
… The shame keeps us from talking about addiction and mental illness. Without talk, nothing will change. How many more beautiful souls will lose their battles to addiction before we start treating it as a disease, stop feeling ashamed and start to find solutions? Once we do I think we will see so many improvements in our society.
If I’m right, and it’s not a choice then there is no shame.
See how she pits disease against choice and concludes that seeing it as a choice bestows shame upon people? But if you really understand what shame is and is not, then you will see that recognizing a behavior as freely chosen does not automatically doom you to shame.
Doctor Brene Brown, an accomplished researcher and author on the topic of shame, is THE recognized expert on shame. In a discussion with Oprah, she defined shame, and it’s difference with guilt, in this way:
“The difference between shame and guilt is the difference between ‘I am bad’ and ‘I did something bad,'” she tells Oprah.
For example, Dr. Brown says, imagine that you had too much to drink one night and showed up to work hungover, missing a meeting. Someone experiencing guilt will say to themselves, “That was a really stupid thing to do. I wasn’t thinking.” In contrast, someone experiencing shame will say, “I’m an idiot. I’m such a loser.” In other words, guilt focuses on behavior while shame focuses on self.
Here’s a good video of Brown explaining this:
Pay attention to the distinction, because it’s important. We all know that shame and guilt are related to behaviors perceived as negative, but I don’t think most people realize the defining feature of shame: “I am bad.” That little bit of self-talk is what would be called in theories of attribution, a “stable” attribution – which means that the person thinks of the cause of the behavior as a permanent unchangeable condition. “I AM BAD” doesn’t allow for a different choice, it doesn’t allow for a mistake or misjudgment, and thus it doesn’t allow for better outcomes in future similar situations – it means that you are fundamentally flawed – that your very nature will always lead to such behaviors/outcomes.
Viewing yourself as having fixed psychological/behavioral “traits”, abilities, or “talents” is also a matter of stable attributions – or as another prolific researcher, Carol Dweck calls it, a “fixed mindset.” It’s a way of thought that can be damaging even when applied to positive attributes. For example, someone who thinks that they are intelligent but that their level of intelligence was born into them as a stable unchanging trait will tend to fall apart when faced with challenges and then limit their efforts so that they avoid any potential challenges – because they view difficulties and the need for effort as a sign that they’ve reached the limits of their intelligence.
So for shame to set in, the individual must first judge their behavior as bad, and then they must internalize that badness – thinking of it as a stable unchanging part of their very basic nature or identity.
Contrary to the unending claims that believing addiction to be caused by an incurable disease would absolve people of shame, it actually PROMOTES this sort of thinking. In the disease model of addiction you are taught to think of yourself as having an incurable disease; a fatal flaw; a trait that will forever be with you.
This is only compounded by the fact that recovery zealots often demonize all drug use; take a temperance attitude towards alcohol; uphold total abstinence as an ideal; describe substance use as “selfish”; and work hard to scare anyone who believes they are in control and can change into doubting their self-control with charges of “denial”; etc.
And let’s think about that whole denial game for a minute. If someone says “I can stop whenever I want” as they’re being scornfully grilled by someone who disapproves of their substance use, then such a statement is classically mocked as an expression of denial. It may often be met with “well then how come you haven’t stopped yet?” – to which the real answer is because they simply haven’t wanted to stop. They have desired their substance use, and they are under no illusions about. But the denial confronter takes it as a given that substance use is so “bad” that everyone should want not to do it. In this way, they implicitly transmit the strong message that “what you are doing is bad” – that is if they haven’t already explicitly screamed it at the person along with a bunch of dire predictions about how their entire life will go down in flames if they keep using substances.
I could keep going on how the recovery culture instills this disapproval and view of substance use as inherently “bad”, but you get the point I’m sure – especially if you’ve experienced it firsthand.
Let’s review the essentials here though – to end up with shame you need to first believe your behavior to bad, and then to think that it’s due to a stable/unchangeable trait/condition within yourself. As Brene Brown describes in the video above, you can think of a behavior as both bad and chosen by you, but not end up feeling shame over it – in this case, you’d feel guilt, and guilt can be a productive emotion, when you simply act upon it to resolve the regretted choice/resolve to not repeat it. There are reams of research backing up this distinction between shame and guilt, the nature of both, and the effects of both.
Long story short, acknowledging that a behavior is chosen does not automatically instill shame in someone – in fact, that a behavior is freely chosen has absolutely nothing to do with whether you experience shame surrounding it or not. To create shame, you need to:
- Judge the behavior as bad, then…
- Internalize the badness as a stable unchanging part of you – make it part of your identity
Shame Is Ultimately A Choice
Guess what? You don’t even have to view the behavior of substance use itself as bad. I don’t. I don’t see anything inherently wrong about substance use. I’m not gonna make a case for that now except to say that I believe my life is my own, and if I wanted to use substances, thinking it was a good way to enjoy myself (and I do drink occasionally), I wouldn’t see any problem with that. You get to choose what you think about it – and you don’t even have to think it’s bad in the first place. I’ve found that most of the shame surrounding substance use starts because we’re trying to avoid the disapproval of others – because we’re not simply owning our behavior. The man from the article I mentioned at the beginning of this piece obviously went through this, as his wife recounts:
I realize that the addiction causes the addict to act in shameful ways. Gerard would hide bottles wherever he could. He would put his drinks in unmarked cups, chew gum so you couldn’t smell the alcohol on his breath. He would try not to show that he was drunk. I could always tell. Although he was a “happy drunk” I could tell within about two seconds that he was drinking and how much he’d had to drink so far. I saw the incredible sadness, shame and guilt he felt the next morning after a binge. This would cause him to drink again, and so the destructive cycle would continue
Doesn’t all of the hiding show that he’s terribly concerned about what others will think or how they’ll react? I don’t fault him for doing so; many of us have been there. But I think the author got something wrong – the source of the shame isn’t this so-called “disease of addiction” itself – an essential component of shame is believing the behavior to be bad in the first place. Unless they’re from some uber-religious home where drugs and alcohol are seen as sinful, most people are pretty happy about their substance use until others start to express their disapproval. Then the hiding starts, the desperation for an excuse to freely do what you want kicks in, and then the user begins to explain their behavior as something they can’t control (knowing this will be accepted more than “I like doing it”), and then they begin to believe the hype themselves.
You don’t have to think it’s “bad” in the first place – you might come to believe it’s no longer your best choice, but that’s different from thinking it’s “bad” in that sinful taboo sort of way that our culture impresses upon us. You can choose to own your substance use. You can choose to see it as a pleasure like any other, that you have the right to enjoy as the owner of your own life and body. It’s risky, but every action carries some risk, and there are probably safer pleasures available – so I don’t recommend drug use, but I do want to say that its riskiness doesn’t make it automatically horrible. Each person has to decide what level of risk they’re comfortable with.
The second point is that even if you do think it’s bad, you don’t have to also think that it’s due to some stable trait within you, because in reality, it’s not. Substance use is the result of the belief, in the moment, that substance use is your best feasible way to create an enjoyable existence for yourself. You can choose to change those beliefs/thoughts/evaluations. [I won’t elaborate on the fact that it is freely chosen, because there are countless other articles on this site expressing this point in more detail]
Or, you can deny that ability within yourself, believe your substance use/desire for substance use to be an unchangeable flaw and live in shame.
There’s no shame in choosing – but you can choose to have shame or not.
[please note I mean no ill will toward the author of the article I quoted. I’m just using her words as an example of how this connection of shame with a choice view of substance use problems is typically communicated]