In early sobriety, letting regular emotions exist in the body can feel impossible. But over time, we learn how to process simple joys and disappointments; they become lighter and more bearable the stronger we get. However, difficult emotions like anger, jealousy, and resentment tend to get heavier at the onslaught of our recovery journey. Society has taught us to intertwine these more difficult emotions with shame, even though they are completely healthy.
Instead of facing and processing the emotion and then moving on with our lives, we swallow back memories or feelings because we believe we’re not allowed to “go there”. We might think feeling them will result in a downward spiral or some form of punishment.
We can, however, learn to breathe and cope through these waves of emotion so that they don’t overcome us or lead to unhealthy patterns.
In his book, The Biology of Desire, neuroscientist Marc Lewis explains how the more you think negative thoughts, the more your brain creates scenarios involving loneliness and fear. Often unconsciously, your brain will find a way to deal with those scenarios. Think: I’ll have to be extra nice if I don’t want to be rejected. Through this repeated process, we learn to hide ourselves for survival.
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If you want to experience real freedom and connection in recovery, untangling the web of shame is a great place to start. It’s not enough to just quit drinking. We must develop a set of tools to work through shame and the emotions that come with it.
Once you have the ability to confront intense emotions as they arise in your day-to-day life, you can embark on a new journey into emotional sobriety. Here are some tools to help you begin.
1. Break the chain of perfectionism.
From a young age, I learned to associate difficult emotions with “bad behavior” and pleasant emotions with “good behavior.” So when “bad” emotions crept up, it felt like something was innately wrong with me. This good and bad system trapped me in a cycle where I was constantly failing because perfectionism is unattainable.
According to an article by the Hazelden Foundation, shame makes us constantly aware of our defects. So every time we fail to meet an impossible standard through perfectionism, we experience shame.
The article explains that, “Only an error-free performance can ever satisfy the demands imposed by shame-based thinking. Mistakes are disasters and cannot be openly admitted. The paradox is that we cling to perfection while remaining constantly aware of our imperfections.”
Basically, we will always lose and continue to strengthen our shame-based narrative the more we strive for perfection. But the truth is that we don’t need to control everything we feel, and we definitely don’t need to be pleasant at all times. We just need to learn how to accept our humanness and come to terms with the fact that we’re allowed to experience the full gamut of emotions.
2. Pause and Identify.
Before we can work through shame, we need to familiarize ourselves with what shame-based thinking looks and feels like. Courtney Dunn, a Colorado-based MSW trained in both substance abuse and trauma, explains how cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) can help address shame and open our recovery to love and connection rather than isolation.
CBT is “the idea that thoughts create feelings which create behaviors,” Dunn says. “First figuring out where your shame comes from is the most important.”
Learning to pause and write out thought patterns can help create a map of your behavior. Doing this allows the time and space for you to ask, “What am I thinking about myself?”
3. Create a new story.
Once we identify negative thought patterns, we can stand up to old beliefs about ourselves. Dunn outlines how we can begin this process:
“Catch your negative thoughts as they come up,” she explains. “For example: ‘Everyone is better than me, I am not worthy, I am not good enough, I am a loser.’ Honestly, what evidence do you have to prove this theory? What evidence do you have to disprove it? And in the off chance you can prove it, how helpful is that thought to you? How does that thought impact your emotional state?”
You can change your thoughts based on the new evidence you uncover through this process. If you can find evidence to prove you’re not a loser and you’re actually worthy, you can build a new story around healthy thoughts.
4. Repeat, repeat, repeat.
It took years of walking the same mental pattern over and over again to see yourself in a negative light. Likewise, starting a new path takes time, practice, and a new routine.
“Training ourselves to believe something, even if we aren’t sure, is extremely important,” Dunn says.
We need to build new pathways by changing the conversation in our minds.
She suggests affirmations like:
I am enough
I am well-liked
I am worthy
I am who I am
I am confident
I am capable
I am unique
I am valuable
We can use these affirmations to replace negative thoughts, even if we’re not completely sure we believe them at first.
5. Seek out nurturing connections.
To share the darkest parts of yourself in safe company is to call shame out by its name. Clinically Licensed Therapist, Lisa Silverman, describes how shame keeps us in the dark: “In my experience, shame can be the seed that’s swallowed as a result of trauma and living in a misogynistic culture. This seed can be contained or squashed with healthy connections (including with a therapist), having safe spaces to share openly, and connecting with similarly storied people. Because shame, like addiction, hates truth and light and cannot thrive in a loving connected setting.”
Loving connections are possible even if we’ve experienced unhealthy relationships in the past. When we internalize shame, we’re inclined to seek out toxic relationships to validate our shame story. But Silverman believes uncovering shame and forming nurturing connections can be an antidote for this cycle.
Many of us in recovery have a laundry list of suffering and trauma that keeps us from trusting others, but there is hope. As Sarah Schulman writes in her book, Conflict is not Abuse, finding connection after trauma is possible.
“While unrecovered trauma is so often a prison of inflexibility, some people do have choices about how to respond,” Schulman writes. “And someone else might make that shift possible by daring to imagine what to us may feel unimaginable. Which can be love.”
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Untangling shame and living an authentic life of emotional sobriety means showing up for yourself on a daily basis. You can experience intense emotions without letting shame hijack your body. With practice, we can rewire our thinking and build a safe home within ourselves. We can unlearn shame-based thinking.
Brené Brown, world-renowned shame expert, writes in her book, I Thought It Was Just Me: Women Reclaiming Power and Courage in a Culture of Shame, “Shame corrodes the very part of us that believes we are capable of change.”
Once you find the courage and vigilance to build a new story about yourself, you have the power to release shame around difficult emotions, and you can experience the full spectrum of humanity that you deserve, with love and connection at the core.