Dealing with “Demons”: Healing from a Shame-Based Identity

Do you ever feel like there is a horrific “beast” inside of you?

Have you thought that something is deeply wrong inside, experiencing disconnection from those around you?

Do you maintain a beautiful exterior life while “demons” of  shame haunt you internally?

If so, you likely resonate with these lyrics of the above video:

Shame keeps us disconnected

Shame keeps us disconnected

This video by Imagine Dragons vividly portrays an experience that is all too common for those battling addiction. On the surface, addicts act out behaviors that are self-destructive and confusing. We can be quick to judge them yet slow to understand. Many addicts are driven by deep shame, which can be the result of serious trauma, abuse, and/or self-injurious choices.

Shame is much different than guilt. Shame researcher Brene Brown explains that guilt says “I did something bad” whereas shame says “I am bad”. Those who live with this shame-based mentality tend to view their addictive choices as proof that they’re terrible people rather than seeing mistakes as opportunities to learn and grow.

Carl Jung says that “Shame is a soul eating emotion.” When it feels like “hell” inside, it’s no wonder addicts want to escape to something comforting and familiar. Despite its destructive nature, addiction feels safe, especially when early traumatic events teach addicts that people are unsafe. For sex addicts, this belief plays a key role in their “intimacy disorder“.

Feeling broken and unlovable, addicts may assume others will reject them. Patrick Carnesdescribes this dynamic writing that “Fear of abandonment and shame are at the core of addiction. The alienation becomes a quagmire within which addicts struggle, only to become more isolated”. So, they shelter themselves and others, keeping relationships at an arms distance, as if to say “don’t get too close, it’s dark inside”.

Brene Brown describes shame’s power in this way:

“Shame is the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging. It’s the fear that something we’ve done or failed to do, an ideal that we’ve not lived up to, or a goal that we’ve not accomplished makes us unworthy of connection. “I’m not worthy or good enough for love, belonging, or connection. I’m unlovable. I don’t belong.”

Maintaining this mindset that they are uniquely flawed, isolation and withdrawal become a way of life for addicts. Addiction is often rooted in this shame-based identity. The shame remains, like a low-grade fever, and it doesn’t dissipate on its own. That is one reason why long-term recovery means more than just sobriety. Healing the roots of addiction requires the harder work of healing from a shame-based identity.

The Way of Escape

Despite feelings to the contrary, there is a route of escape for those battling internal “demons” of shame. There  are a few key steps for those wanting to heal from the shame that binds them. The most powerful antidote for shame I’ve discovered is authentic CONNECTION. This comes in the forms of self-connection through self-compassion and connection to others through vulnerability, honesty, and experiencing empathy.

Brene Brown-"Shame needs three things to grow exponentially in our lives: secrecy, silence and judgement"

Brene Brown-“Shame needs three things to grow exponentially in our lives: secrecy, silence and judgement”

Inward Connection

Self-compassion is foreign to those suffering from a shame-based identity. But, when practiced over time, it can become an avenue of deep healing. It has been shown that “compassionate mind states may be learned, and may alleviate shame, as well as other distressing outcomes, such as depression, anxiety, self-attacks, feelings of inferiority, and submissive behavior” (Vettese, 2011).

Beverly Engel describes how this occurs with these words: “Shame gets stuck in our neural circuitry” and “we can proactively repair (and re-pair) the old shame memory with new experiences of self-empathy and self-compassion”.  To learn more about implementing self-compassion practices, check out the many articles on our blog about this topic (start here).

Outward Connection

Letting safe people see into the “dark” places within can be an incredibly frightening yet healing experience. Brene Brown shares that “Shame derives its power from being unspeakable…If we cultivate enough awareness about shame to name it and speak to it, we’ve basically cut it off at the knees.  Shame hates having words wrapped around it.  If we speak shame, it begins to whither.” Learning to be vulnerable, to trust others, to reach out in times of distress and pain, and to share experiences that are related to past and present shame, prove to play life-giving roles in recovering from a shame-based identity. Groups (both 12-Step and treatment groups) are a great place to begin this process of healing. Individual therapy can provide necessary connection and healing as well, especially for those experiencing the effects of trauma and abuse. When “we share our story with someone who responds with empathy and understanding, shame can’t survive.” We find true connection.

Thus, surrendering to healthy connection – to self, to others, and to a Higher Power – plays a life-giving role in healing from the shame-based identity. As the lyrics in the above video conclude:

“Your eyes, they shine so bright.

I want to save that light.

I can’t escape this now.

Unless you show me how.”

May those who battle destructive demons find light in the eyes of those who have been there yet live unbound by the shackles by shame. May this road of authentic connection lead to a life of motivating hope, joyous freedom, and heart-felt healing.

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