4 Strategies for Overcoming Shame Around Alcohol Misuse

Alcohol is one of the most misused substances in the United States.1 Many people experience shame, guilt, or regret about their alcohol use or their behavior associated with it, like arguments with family and friends or uninhibited actions.1 Overcoming shame can be a barrier to seeking alcohol addiction treatment or progressing in recovery.

In this article:

What’s the Difference Between Guilt and Shame?

What is guilt and what is shame, and what is the difference? Both emotions share common factors, including self-reflection, and they are both associated with unpleasant feelings.1

Guilt is a moral self-reflection where you feel as if your past actions, beliefs, goals, or personality traits are “wrong.” Shame encompasses what you think about yourself during that self-reflection. It reflects a gap between who you think you are and who you think you should be. Shame involves feeling regret over who you are as a person, not simply over past mistakes.1

Studies suggest that guilt and shame also arise from different experiences.2 You may feel guilty if you operate against your own conscience in a private setting. Feelings of shame are more likely tied to acting in ways that make you feel as though other people judge your actions or behaviors.2

When Does Shame Impact Behavior?

In some cases, temporary feelings of guilt, or even shame, can motivate you toward changing specific behaviors or belief systems. In these cases, your shame acts as a “moral” emotion, motivating you to avoid antisocial behaviors and encouraging you to seek intervention for the behaviors that triggered the shame.2

But shame can also appear in distorted ways that may facilitate substance misuse, create a barrier for seeking therapy for alcohol abuse, and reinforce negative perceptions you may have about yourself.

Shame Spiral

When shame causes you to withdraw, this can interfere with efforts not to misuse alcohol.3 For many people, negative feelings like shame are triggers for alcohol use.3

Misusing alcohol can then lead to increased feelings of shame, which can become toxic shame because that feeling leads you back to alcohol.3 This shame does not inspire change, it just worsens misuse, leaving you feeling overwhelmed and even hopeless.3 In this state, you’re less equipped to change alcohol use behaviors or potentially even to seek help for alcohol misuse.3

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Toxic Shame

Toxic shame consists of a self-perpetuated negative self-image. If you are experiencing toxic shame, you may mentally or verbally call yourself names like worthless, foolish, silly, inadequate, or simply “less than.”4 Toxic shame can paralyze you.4

When very serious, toxic shame can change the way you see the world, not just how you see yourself.4 Experts suggest that toxic shame does not come from being told repeatedly by yourself or others that you did something bad, but that you are something bad.4

Toxic shame can be linked to childhood physical, sexual, or emotional abuse or neglect.4 This is how the child grows into an adult who thinks, “I’m not worthy of love and attention.”

What Helps With Overcoming Shame?

You may struggle to progress in recovery from alcohol misuse or addiction if you do not also work to overcome the shame, and forgiveness is key. You can forgive yourself for a specific event that causes you shame.1 You can also forgive yourself for not living up to your standards.1

1. Learned Objectiveness to Overcome Shame

Listen to the voice in your head that shames you and realize you don’t need to react to it. You may even realize that it does not sound like the “real you,” the you that strives for success, has dreams and aspirations, and that believes you can progress in recovery. Try observing the voice from a removed perspective, and try to watch it pass by.4

This “objectivity” about your own thoughts can help you become more compassionate with yourself. Everyone has characteristics they don’t like and has made mistakes in their past they wish they had not.4

People make mistakes, and that’s okay. That does not negate the emotions you feel, but can provide some perspective and allow you to accept outside help. Learning to accept and sit with the pain is part of what prepares you for future life challenges.4

Learning to hold two opposite yet true concepts is one skill taught in dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), which is a recommended therapy for alcohol abuse.8 In DBT, you may learn, for example, to acknowledge that you feel deep shame about a choice or event, but also that you would not believe that someone else in the same situation was undeserving of recovery, forgiveness, and happiness.

2. Mindfulness for Overcoming Shame

Mindfulness principles can help you overcome the remaining shame that lingers over past alcohol misuse.4 Mindfulness teaches you to live in the present, not dwelling on what happened previously. This helps you let go of obsessive thoughts about earlier actions.

Mindfulness may also help feel less intense anxiety or worry about the possibility of future relapses.4

Mantras can be a useful tool in mindfulness when overcoming shame. A mantra is any word or phrase that you can frequently repeat to help you stay present.6 Mantras help you push away negative thoughts, replacing them with familiar and positive thoughts.6

Mantras are not the only way to practice mindfulness. You can learn many methods for practicing mindfulness, including mindfulness meditations of different complexities and lengths. One of the simplest forms of meditating is stopping to take a number of measured, deep breaths. For example, if you simply stop and take 10 deep breaths, you may feel more grounded.5 Grounding methods like this are one way to stop a shame spiral.4

Mindfulness can also strengthen your formal therapy treatments or shift your mindset in therapy.5

3. Alcohol Abuse Therapy for Overcoming Shame

Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is one of the most common types of therapy for alcohol abuse and other substance use disorders.7 With CBT, you explore your learned behaviors that contribute to alcohol misuse. Then, you work on replacing alcohol use with positive behaviors. During CBT, you also learn strategies that can help you break unhealthy patterns by exploring your thoughts, feelings, and behavior.7

Dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) is another form of behavioral therapy is used in alcohol addiction treatment.8 With DBT, you work to change behaviors while also working on overcoming shame about your alcohol misuse or other problems you may be experiencing.8

Your therapist may use CBT, DBT, and other techniques to help you break the shame cycle. Your therapist may talk you through the reasons you’re feeling shame or the first event that caused you to feel this shame.7 This will make it easier in the future for you to stop yourself from spiraling.7

Even in therapy for alcohol misuse, you may experience challenges.9 Whenever you start to spiral, reach out to your therapist. Your therapist can help you to learn how not to direct shame at yourself.9

Through this process, you will learn from the “mistakes” you make how to do better next time. Learning from missteps and falls can help you begin to see them as part of life rather than personal flaws. When you can externalize shame, it is easier to learn new coping mechanisms that are not alcohol-related.9

These steps can change your self-perception. When you gain the ability to give yourself self-affirmation without accompanying it with feelings of shame, you begin to see your value as a person. You’ll be able to tolerate creeping feelings of shame better and work on developing a healthy identity. You will begin to see the value of not only yourself but of others; community, camaraderie, and all the things that make you human.9

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4. Peer Support for Overcoming Shames

Twelve-step peer-support groups, such as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), and other peer support groups offer help for alcohol misuse by helping you work through each of the steps in the program.10

While each of the 12 Steps in AA’s model can offer support for people who struggle with alcohol misuse, Step 4, Step 5, Step 6, and Step 7 specifically focus on inventorying what you feel you may have done wrong in the past and becoming ready to move past it.11

Step 5 is:11

Admitted to God [or our higher power], to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.

Studies show that people who complete Step 5 of AA display lower levels of shame and higher levels of self-compassion.12

Additionally, regularly attending AA meetings, speaking at AA meetings, and connecting with sponsors and other members outside of meeting times correlates to reduced shame and increased self-compassion. 12

You may have learned to feel shame when you see yourself as different from others.7 But all people feel some inadequacy; the feeling of shame is something that connects you to other people, not something that separates you.9

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  1. Scherer, M., Worthington, E. L., Hook, J. N., & Campana, K. L. (2011). Forgiveness and the bottle: promoting self-forgiveness in individuals who abuse alcohol. Journal of Addictive Diseases, 30(4), 382-395.
  2. Tangney, J. P., Stuewig, J., & Hafez, L. (2011). Shame, Guilt and Remorse: Implications for Offender Populations. The journal of forensic psychiatry & psychology, 22(5), 706–723.
  3. Treeby, M.S. (2011). Shame and guilt: Implications for the regulation of alcohol use. [Doctoral dissertation, University of Tasmania].
  4. Golden, B. (2017, April 22). Overcoming the paralysis of toxic shame: an essential step for cultivating healthy anger. Psychology Today.
  5. Garland, E. L., & Howard, M. O. (2018). Mindfulness-based treatment of addiction: current state of the field and envisioning the next wave of research. Addiction science & clinical practice, 13(1),
  6. Burke, A., Lam, C. N., Stussman, B., & Yang, H. (2017, June 15). Prevalence and patterns of use of mantra, mindfulness and spiritual meditation among adults in the United States. BMC Complementary and Alternative Medicine, 17(1),
  7. McHugh, R.K., Hearon, B.A., & Otto, M.W. (2010). Cognitive behavioral therapy for substance use disorders. The Psychiatric Clinics of North America, 33(3), 511-525.
  8. Dimeff, L. A., & Linehan, M. M. (2008). Dialectical behavior therapy for substance abusers. Addiction Science and Clinical Practice, 4(2), 39-47.
  9. Kaufman, G. (1974). On shame identity and the dynamics of change. Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Psychological Association.
  10. Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, Inc. (2001). Alcoholics Anonymous: The Story of How Many Thousands of Men and Women Have Recovered From Alcoholism.
  11. Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, Inc. (2016). The Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous.
  12. Newcombe, S. R. (2015). Shame and self-compassion in members of Alcoholics Anonymous (Order No. 10107161).
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