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How Shame Feeds Addiction

Jonathan Riley

“Shame is the root of all addictions” – John Bradshaw

There is significant scientific evidence that shame is linked to addiction and plays a central role in developing and maintaining addictions and compulsions. One of the hardest things about dealing with addiction is the overwhelming sense of shame that often comes with it. Shame is not just a one-time occurrence for those who struggle with addiction; it is something that is experienced almost daily. Sometimes, the shame can feel constant and although you can’t visibly see or tangibly touch shame, it is a persistent companion for many.

Addiction has been described as a pathological relationship to any mood-altering experience that has life-damaging consequences (Bradshaw, 2005). Author John Bradshaw states that shame is the root and fuel of all compulsive and addictive behaviours. Also, he believes shame is one of the most clearly identifiable aspects of addictive behaviour. People may want to use something (alcohol, drugs, food, sex etc.) to give them temporary relief from the adverse feelings of shame. However, if those substances get in the way of your life, you may feel even more shame for using them, causing a vicious cycle.

In active addiction, feelings of shame can become almost unbearable. The chronic sense of unworthiness and inferiority make the addict believe that they aren’t worthy of love, respect – or even happiness. They become ashamed of who they are and, as a result, depression, hopelessness and numbness become chronic. These powerful feelings of shame become a barrier to self-help, as the addict feels they are not worthy of help or attention. While shame can initially cause the addict to spiral into addiction, it can also keep them in the cycle of addiction.

In an often desperate attempt to escape the uncomfortable and painful emotions of unresolved loss, grief, and trauma that are trapped in the mind and body, the cycle of shame and addiction feeds into and off each other. Compulsive behaviours, such as substance abuse, food addiction, exercise addiction, compulsive gambling, work addiction, relationship, love and sex addiction, or codependent behaviour, can become attempts to relieve and control unresolved emotional pain and traumatic feelings.

As the addiction takes hold, the addict becomes entrapped in the cycle of addiction, which reinforces their sense of inadequacy and shame. The cycle of addiction becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy by proving on a regular basis how useless and fundamentally flawed and defective the addict really is and their addiction becomes an advertisement of their shame. This is especially the case when the addict behaves in a shameful or shameless way through intoxication or euphoria. Some people, on the other hand, use addiction to avoid early or historical experiences of shame by becoming preoccupied with the shame that comes with the cycle of addiction and thus becoming addicted to shame itself.

Finally, recognising harmful behaviours is the first step to trying to change them. Guilt is an appropriate response to recognising that your addiction has caused serious issues for you and the people around you. Guilt is a judgement about your behaviour, shame is a judgement about yourself. Having a sense of guilt can give you the motivation to seek recovery, while shame keeps you in a mindset of self-loathing. Guilt pushes you to connect with others in order to repair the wrong, while shame causes you to hide from others in order to minimise the embarrassment you feel. By recognising when you feel shame, you can separate yourself from your actions and start the process of recovery.


Bradshaw, J. (2005). Healing the shame that binds you. Deerfield Beach, FL: Health Communications, Incorporated.

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Kämmerer, A. (2019, August 09). The scientific underpinnings and impacts of shame. Retrieved February 20, 2021, from

Vertava Health. (2019, September 24). How shame feeds addiction. Retrieved February 20, 2021, from