The Role of Shame in Alcoholics Anonymous

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In large part, shame is what keeps those suffering from substance use disorders sick for so long. Rather than addressing addiction as a chronic and progressive medical condition and openly seeking treatment, many individuals keep their substance use a secret, afraid of facing unfair judgment from their peers and loved ones. When making the decision to move towards a life of sobriety, it is crucial to overcome this deep-seated shame by whatever means necessary. Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) serves as a valuable tool when it comes to overcoming shame. First of all, AA provides a safe and supportive setting, free from judgment and stigmatization. In AA, people gather to share their experience, strength, and hope, relating to one another on a deep level and acknowledging the fact that who they were in active addiction is far from who they are in recovery. When the reality of the situation is brought to light, the shame becomes easier to walk through.

If you or someone you love has been struggling with alcoholism or drug addiction, involvement in a 12 Step program could mean the difference between a life of fulfilling recovery and one of continued substance use. For more information on 12 Step programs in New York, contact us today.

Shame & Active Addiction

Shame is defined as, “A painful feeling of humiliation or distress caused by the consciousness of wrong or foolish behavior.” Shame and active addiction go hand-in-hand for several reasons. Unfortunately, because addiction is so widely stigmatized, people who struggle with substance use disorders might feel ashamed of the battle they fight on a daily basis. Despite the fact that addiction is medically recognized as a chronic health condition, many mistakenly believe it is a matter of will-power, weak moral standing, or poor decision-making. Being faced with a great deal of misunderstanding and judgment can cause us to judge ourselves unfairly.

A scientific study published in The Stigma of Addiction reads, “Self-stigma in addiction occurs when individuals with substance use disorders (SUDs) experience shame based on mythological stereotypes in public stigma, as well as from their own sense of what they take to be shameful about addiction. This process leads to changes in identity in line with negative stigmatizing stereotypes. The main source of the shaming process comes from public stigma where powerful others impose upon the individual with SUDs a social world (an ambience) containing false and distorting attitudes and beliefs that are internalized and lead to harmful effects, including further substance use and self-sabotage.”

When a person who has been struggling with addiction is placed in a supportive environment and surrounded by like-minded individuals who understand the struggle firsthand, it becomes easier to break through this shame. This is part of the reason why Alcoholics Anonymous and other 12 Step programs can play such a fundamental role in recovery.

What is Alcoholics Anonymous?

What exactly is Alcoholics Anonymous (AA)? According to the official AA website, “Alcoholics Anonymous is a fellowship of people who come together to solve their drinking problem.  It doesn’t cost anything to attend AA meetings. There are no age or education requirements to participate. Membership is open to anyone who wants to do something about their drinking problem. AA’s primary purpose is to help alcoholics to achieve sobriety.”

This international, mutual-aid fellowship was first developed in the mid-1930s by two men — Bill Wilson, a stockbroker, and Dr. Bob, a surgeon. Both men suffered from severe alcoholism, and ultimately found relief in the process of spiritual development, working through resentments, and carrying the message to other men who were struggling with similar issues. The program quickly evolved to include people of all ages and walks of life struggling with any kind of substance use issue, and has effectively helped millions achieve long-term sobriety. Today, AA is one of the most widely utilized sobriety-based tools, and you can find an open AA meeting at any time of the day or night, making it a cost-effective and extremely convenient treatment tool.

How Do I Join Alcoholics Anonymous

Joining Alcoholics Anonymous is very simple. All you really need to do is show up. You can complete a quick internet search to find a meeting in your immediate area, or call the AA Intergroup in your area for more information. The only requirement for AA membership is a desire to stop drinking. However, you can still attend a meeting, even if you aren’t quite sure you want to quit. Just be sure to find an “open” meeting, which is open to everyone.

How AA Helps People Combat Shame

There are numerous ways in which AA helps people combat and overcome feelings of guilt and shame. These include:

  • Being surrounded by people who you can relate to — people who have done horrible things and who talk about these things openly and honestly — will help you to put the reality of the disease into perspective.
  • Certain Steps are geared towards breaking through shame; specifically the 9th Step. The 9th Step is, “Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.” During the 8th Step you take an inventory, considering everyone from your past that you have hurt or damaged in some way. The 9th Step allows you the opportunity to make things right; to clear your side of the street while taking full responsibility for past harms. This helps combat any feelings of shame you might be holding onto.
  • When you begin living a life of sobriety, you will begin living differently. AA encourages living a principled life; one marked by honesty, integrity, and good will towards all. If you are living an esteemable life you will begin rebuilding your self-esteem, slowly but surely. One of the best ways to break through shame is by living in a way that makes you feel proud of yourself, and reminds you that you are — and have always been — a good person.


Because active addiction looks different for everyone, no two programs of recovery will be identical. Some people benefit immensely from ongoing 12 Step program involvement, while others might find alternative routes to long-term sobriety. If you or someone you love has been battling addiction, the first step on the road to recovery is always reaching out for help. Once you take this initial step you will be put in touch with someone who can offer you advice on how to proceed. We will be there to guide you through the initial steps of the process. Contact us today to learn more.

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