Swinging From The Chandeliers: Alcoholism & Shame

Swinging From The Chandeliers: Alcoholism & Shame

Alcoholism is a complex disorder that only recently we have begun to understand. Researchers are still discovering and debating the multitude of factors that contribute to one becoming an alcoholic. We do know that alcoholism is an interaction influenced by a person’s biological, psychological, and social influences, all impacting each person differently, and with varying degrees (Washton & Xweben, 2006). Alcoholism is a continuum, on which each alcoholic manifests his or her addiction. These varying degrees of addiction can make it difficult at times to recognize if you, or someone you know struggles with alcoholism. Some alcoholics only drink after work, some are the life of the party, swinging from the chandeliers while appearing happy, and some alcoholics black out after a night of binge drinking. As the continuum goes up it becomes easier to spot an alcoholic (i.e., blacking out after a night of binge drinking). However, this easily “recognizable” perception of alcoholism will create stigmas, while drawing attention from others who may be struggling just as badly, while not showing such obvious symptoms. This is problematic because these alcoholics may never receive the help they need. Nor will they understand their own psychological process, and ultimately will never uncover the root of their addiction. Since alcoholism takes many forms it is difficult to identify the disease’s origins and understand what it is that perpetuates the cycle. Each alcoholic has their own unique story of how they became dependent, and each addiction is fueled by very different emotions, such as shame.

Psychology is paramount in understanding addiction. Some emotions are more powerful than others when influencing our thoughts and behaviors. Many people were not taught about their emotional states beyond being taught simple emotions such as anger, sadness, fear, and joy. However, the list of emotional state goes far beyond the four previously identified. Without developing one’s emotional vocabulary beyond these four simple emotions, a person cannot possibly be aware of the true emotion they are experiencing. To complicate things further, alcoholics are experts in masking and changing their emotional sate. This makes identifying and understanding what is happening in regards to one’s emotions a highly difficult task. Since emotions influence our behavior, thoughts, and our perception of the world; they are the hand, and we are just the puppets.

One complex emotion experienced by all alcoholics is shame. In fact, it is possible that the central emotion of addiction is shame. Psychologist Brene Brown, a researcher on the subject of shame and vulnerability defines shame as “the intensely painful experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging-something we’ve experienced, done, or failed to do makes us unworthy of connection.” Shame is usually a deeply buried, and repressed emotional state. Shame develops early in childhood and therefore is an emotional passenger during the most critical stages of our emotional development. Quite often shame can be mistaken for the guilt, or sometimes embarrassment. Guilt and shame however, while closely related, are entirely different emotional states. Being such different emotional states, they will impact our thoughts and behaviors differently. For example, a person may forget to pick up their child from school on Friday, forgetting Friday is a half-day and the child is done by lunchtime. The parent may feel guilty saying, “I made a terrible mistake and it won’t happen again, I will do better next time, I feel horrible.” There is a feeling and desire to improve and the possibility of improvement. Someone who feels shame in that same situation might say, “I am a horrible parent, I am a failure, I can never remember or do anything right.” They become stuck in the feeling, and eventually will identity that emotion as who they are, and not simply what they did. Many alcoholics use this extremely critical self-talk and identify their experience of a feeling as who they are, not an emotion they are just having. This is dangerous because this will lead to using more alcohol to numb those “shameful” feelings, and the cycle will continue.

In the United Sates alcohol is a cornerstone of social gatherings. Alcohol is everywhere; going to get a drink after work with some friends, mimosa on Sunday brunch, a work holiday party, a glass of champagne to toast to at a wedding, or an at your home sharing your day with your partner over a bottle of wine. Wherever you find a social gathering, odds are, there is alcohol. Many people use alcohol to ease their social anxiety. People often feel that alcohol helps them be more fun and more enjoyable to talk to. Some may even believe they are dull without alcohol, or others are dull to them without alcohol. This insecurity can even extend to the nightly bottle of wine with your significant other. The alcohol may help to relax you, allowing you to let go of the day stressors and just be with your significant other. It may even aid you to get into the mood for intimacy as the alcohol lessens inhibitions. Regardless of the justification, the core emotion responsible is shame. Shame is the feeling of being unworthy of connection and love, and the belief that we are flawed. If you believe you are dull, or worried you won’t have enough guts to talk to the pretty girl at the bar, it is likely because you believe that you alone are not enough. Believing that you need a substance to enhance your personality, thus making you worthy of love and connections. Humans are wired to want to feel loved, and simply to belong. Therefore, it is no surprise that if one doesn’t feel that they have anything worthy of love and belonging, then that person might seek substances to help obtain that level of comfort. For many people, that substance is alcohol.

On the surface, it might seem that the alcohol does help one feel more confident.  It might even make you feel worthy of love and a sense of connection. However, alcohol is a temporary illusion and once it is out of ones system the feelings of worthlessness and disconnect will always resurface. This will cause a person to continue to drink as a method to connect because in some ways it does work for them.  Alcohol then very easily becomes a ritual in your nightly routine. You may even begin feel awkward at the bar without a cocktail in your hand.  People might say things like, “hey, you aren’t drinking tonight?” Again, they want to belong and connect and feel that if not participating makes them feel disconnected or possibly judged. So, you have your cocktail and connect and time passes by. The exploration of where your shame originates never begins, and the Band-Aid of alcohol turns from a desire, into a craving, and ultimately, into a requirement.

Not all will become alcoholics. However, many unknowingly, and unintentionally will. According the Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (DSM-5, 2013) a manual used by psychotherapist in diagnosing mental health disorders, you must meet two of the following criteria to be considered an alcoholic:

(1) Alcohol is often take in larger amounts over a longer period than was intended

(2) There is a persistent desire, but unsuccessful efforts to cut down or control alcohol use

(3) A great deal of time is spent in activities necessary for obtaining alcohol, using alcohol, or recovering from its effects

(4) Craving, OR a strong desire or urge to use alcohol

(5) Recurrent alcohol use resulting in a failure to fulfill major role obligations at work,m school, or home

(6) Continued alcohol use despite having persistent or recurrent social or interpersonal problems caused or exacerbated by the effects of alcohol

(7) Important social, occupational, or recreational activities are given up or reduced because of alcohol use

(8) Recurrent alcohol use in situations in which it is physically hazardous

(9) Alcohol use is continued despite knowledge of having a persistent or recurrent physical or psychological problem that is likely to have been caused or exacerbated by alcohol

(10) Tolerance

(11) Withdrawal

How can a person identify whether shame is one of the core emotions behind their alcoholism? There are many ways to explore our own psyche; including (not limited to) individual therapy, group therapy, psychologically based seminars and workshops, and self-exploration in the form of journal writing, meditation, and sharing your story with a trusted friend. Once shame has been identified, only then can one begin building shame resilience (Brown, 2012).  According to Brown, there are four elements to building shame resilience:

  • Recognizing shame and understanding our triggers (e.g. physical responses like our heart racing or tightness in our chest)
  • Practicing critical awareness (i.e. knowing why something exists, how it works, how our society is impacted or impacting on that something and who benefits from it).
  • Reaching out and telling our story (i.e., by reaching out to our support network and sharing our story, we can increase our resilience and create change), and
  • Speaking shame is so important as its survival depends on going undetected (I.e. through secrecy and silence). Subsequently, if we recognize and understand our triggers, practice critical awareness while reaching out to others, we can grow our resilience as we gain valuable experience communicating about our shame to our most-trusted advisors. Those rare people who use their own compassion and courage whist listening and supporting us.

There is no shame in feeling shame. It is a natural emotion that we will always experience to some degree. Instead of focusing on ridding ourselves of shame, we have to learn to live with it. A temporary Band-Aid like alcohol will not fix an internal negative opinion of ones self.  In the end it will do nothing but magnify and perpetuate further of feelings of shame. One must face it, explore it, one must be a gladiator willing to work to find a place internally where you are enough. A place where you are lovable, you are worthy, and you are connected…without relying on alcohol.

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