woman feeling shame sits in a dark room behind a pane of glass with rain on it

The shame cycle is a loop consisting of six parts. These six parts include:

  • Shame-A feeling of embarrassment or humiliation that arises in relation to the perception of having done something dishonorable, immoral, or improper.
  • Secrecy-The act of hiding something. Typically it’s to keep others from finding a shameful, embarrassing, or humiliating bit of information, like using a substance or alcohol when in addiction recovery or having a problem with addiction.
  • Isolation-The state of being alone or away from others. Also part of the addiction cycle.
  • Separation-This could be from others or even oneself. To separate is to hide away. To keep a distance so nobody can find out what you’re feeling ashamed of.
  • Trigger- Anything that reminds you of why you are feeling shame. This could cause many emotions, including anger, resentment, and even fear.
  • Acting Out-due to the feelings the triggers cause, acting out is the next step. For an addict, acting out usually means a relapse or deeper dive into their addiction.
  • Back to Shame-After acting out, you can be filled with shame again. It could be for new reasons or the original reason the cycle started in the first place. The cycle is unlikely to end without doing the work to find out the root cause and then dealing with it.

Unmasking Shame

We can look at shame as a mask we wear to cover our real emotions and motivations. To heal from the shame cycle, we must learn to unmask our shame, dig deep within our consciousness, and ask hard questions.

Some helpful questions to ask ourselves to unmask our shame can be: 

  • What was I thinking?
  • What was I feeling?
  • What did I need at that time?
  • What did I do to try to meet my need?
  • What was I trying to accomplish/hope for?
  • What was the true intent of my heart?

Answering these questions for each feeling of shame can help unmask the true reasons the shame started. Keeping a journal or a log of these questions can also help the unmasking process.

What is the Link Between Addiction and Shame?

Addiction and shame seem to go hand in hand. One directly feeds off of and increases the risk of the other. When dealing with massive amounts of shame, they may use substances to ease their unwanted or negative emotions. Once they find the substance or alcohol does ease their pain, they begin to use drugs and alcohol consistently to numb their painful feelings.

During this numbing process, it’s easy to become addicted to the actions of using a substance or alcohol because it’s already known the effects are what they desire. Then once the actions become addicting, the substances can become physically addictive. The cycle of shame and addiction continues to feed off each other until the person inflicted decides to get help.

The Difference Between Shame and Guilt

Feelings of guilt are often connected to and confused with shame. Both are strong emotions that, if left unchecked, could cause mental health issues. Determining the difference between guilt and shame could be a game changer for everyday life.

As we know, shame is a feeling of embarrassment or humiliation arising from the perception of having done something wrong. Guilt, on the other hand, is when a person feels bad about something that was done. An example of feeling guilty is if you said or did something you regret while intoxicated.

Shame is a bit deeper than guilt. Feeling shame is more of a self-perception than a regretful action. Shame can cause feelings of worthlessness or like you’re a bad person. Guilt might make someone feel embarrassed, but not necessarily worthless. Both shame and guilt can potentially increase the risk of substance use disorders or addictive behaviors, though.

Can a Shame Cycle End?

The shame cycle is not a never-ending cycle. It can be resolved, but it takes a lot of work. The work it takes could be painful or exhausting and may cause symptoms of depression. But it’s temporary. Unmasking the root of the shame and reaching within to start healing those roots are the first steps to ending the cycle. The next step would be to increase emotional intelligence, so you become aware of the feelings as they start instead of letting them get to the point of shame.

How Improving Emotional Intelligence Can Help with Shame

Emotional intelligence (EI) refers to the ability to perceive, control, and evaluate emotions. There are a few steps you could take to increase your EI. Learning to perceive emotions by noticing non-verbal cues and facial expressions is the first step in improving your EI.

Reasoning with emotions is the next step. All this means is you use those emotions to promote cognitive activity and deeper thinking. This helps sort through the importance of each emotion or feeling that needs our attention.

The third step in improving your EI is understanding emotions. The emotions that we perceive can mean many different things.  If someone is showing sad emotions, you would need to figure out the cause of the person’s sadness. Then take it further and determine what that might mean.

Managing emotions proficiently is vital at the highest level of emotional intelligence. Regulating emotions while also responding appropriately to your feelings, as well as others, are the pillars of emotional management.

Where To Get Help with the Shame Cycle

Determining where to get help for a cycle of shame may seem overwhelming. But understanding that a shame cycle could lead to an addiction cycle, or noticing it already has, means help is necessary. Absolute Awakenings Treatment Center offers mental health and addiction programs. We can tailor a plan to best help you achieve your goals. Calling an admissions coordinator might be the best thing you ever did for yourself.


  1. Flanagan O. The Shame of Addiction. Front Psychiatry. 2013;4:120. doi:10.3389/fpsyt.2013.00120
  2. Miceli M, Castelfranchi C. Reconsidering the Differences Between Shame and Guilt. Eur J Psychol. 2018;14(3):710-733. doi:10.5964/ejop.v14i3.1564
  3. Cherry K. How Emotionally Intelligent Are You? Verywell Mind. Published November 7, 2022. Accessed January 3, 2023. https://www.verywellmind.com/what-is-emotional-intelligence-2795423

Last medically reviewed January 3, 2023