Shame, Not Guilt, Related to Substance-Abuse Problems

Reducing feelings of shame may be key to more effective treatment

By Kathleen Weaver

Release Date: August 25, 2005 This content is archived.


BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Findings from a collaboration between scientists at the University at Buffalo's Research Institute on Addictions (RIA) and George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., have established the importance of distinguishing between feelings of shame and guilt when providing treatment for substance abuse and in developing substance-abuse prevention programs.

According to Ronda Dearing, Ph.D., RIA research scientist and lead author on the study published in the August 2005 issue of Addictive Behaviors, shame and guilt -- or a personal tendency toward either emotion -- have important implications regarding misuse of alcohol and drugs.

The study included three groups of participants with different levels of alcohol and drug problems. Two groups were primarily female college students about 20 years of age. The third group was comprised of predominantly male inmates from a metropolitan area jail who were, on average, 31 years of age.

Shame is the tendency to feel bad about yourself following a specific event. It appears that individuals who are prone to shame when dealing with a variety of life problems may also have a tendency to turn toward alcohol and other drugs to cope with this feeling.

Guilt, or the tendency to feel bad about a specific behavior or action, was largely unrelated to substance-use problems. This is one of the first studies to scientifically validate the importance of shame versus guilt and their relation to alcohol and drugs.

Clinically, this study suggests a point of intervention for the treatment of substance-use problems. Specifically, counselors and other medical providers might effectively work with clients toward decreasing shame-proneness and enhancing guilt-proneness.

"Whether or not shame is a cause of problematic substance use," Dearing explained, "other problems that go hand-in-hand with shame such as anger or interpersonal difficulties are sufficient justification for implementing shame-reduction interventions into treatment. Successfully reducing shame is likely to result in better treatment outcomes."

Supported by a $585,000 award from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, Dearing is investigating help-seeking for alcohol problems, specifically whether attitudes about alcohol and alcohol treatment predict how or whether people seek help for alcohol problems.

Dearing wants to understand how people who seek alcohol- and substance-use treatment are different from other people who have similar problems, but do not seek help. In addition, she hopes to learn whether a proneness to shame is a risk factor for drug and alcohol problems and, secondly, whether the tendency to experience guilt is a protective factor against the same problems.

Dearing's colleagues in the investigation were Jeffrey Stuewig, Ph.D., and June Price Tangney, Ph.D., of the Department of Psychology at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va.

This research was supported in part by a training grant to RIA from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism and in part by a grant from the National Institute on Drug Abuse to Tangney.

The Research Institute on Addictions has been a leader in the study of addictions since 1970 and a research center of the University at Buffalo since 1999.

The University at Buffalo is a premier research-intensive public university, the largest and most comprehensive campus in the State University of New York.