No matter how many times doctors tell us addiction is a disease, and no matter how many times we hear it, the stigma surrounding addiction persists. We insist on attributing it to a failure of will or character.
With perceived failure often comes shame. And, as a new study suggests, shame begets relapse—reminding us once again that blame doesn’t help anyone when it comes to addiction. It probably makes things worse.
On one hand, that’s pop psychology 101. People who feel bad about themselves, the logic goes, have greater incentive for self-destructive behavior, which has also been noted in studies of obesity. The trouble is quantifying that logic. As researchers at the University of British Columbia note in their paper, published in Clinical Psychological Science, shame is a difficult emotion to measure. Subjects are unreliable when self-reporting feelings of shame because, for starters, feelings of shame feel shameful.
The researchers decided that body language like slumping shoulders and a narrowed chest—non-verbal expressions associated with shame—would be more reliable because they’re harder for people to control. Having gathered a group of newly-recovering alcoholics, researchers observed their body language and asked them questions about the last time they drank and felt bad about it.
Based on follow-up interviews four months later, researchers found that non-verbal expressions of shame strongly predicted a subject’s likelihood of relapse. It also predicted how bad the relapse would be. (Self-reporting on shame predicted nothing.)
Their findings have clear implications about how we treat addicts as a society. “Our research suggests that shaming people for difficult-to-curb behaviors may be exactly the wrong approach,” the report argues.
When we feel ashamed, it’s partly because we feel powerless to change our “bad” behavior.
So what’s the right approach? In conjunction with previous research, the new study suggests that controlling non-verbal expressions of shame could be of help.
When we feel ashamed, it’s partly because we feel powerless to change our “bad” behavior. Unsurprisingly, expressions of powerlessness look just like expressions of shame. But as Harvard social psychologist, Amy Cuddy, notes in a recent Ted Talk, non-verbal expressions of power and powerlessness are a lot like breathing. We don’t tend to control them, but we can if we stop to think about them.
More importantly, Cuddy’s research indicates that when we consciously control our body language, it influences our physiology. We express because we feel, but we can also feel because we express, and our bodies literally reflect that phenomenon. Specifically, Cuddy found that assuming a posture of pride and confidence (chin up, shoulders back) can actually change the levels of testosterone and cortisol in our bodies. Respectively, those hormones have a lot of bearing on how we assert ourselves and how we handle stress.
In other words, we can “fake it till we make it” when it comes to feeling empowered—the opposite of the helplessness that accompanies shame.
So what if faking confidence helped us beat our addictions? What if ashamed addicts were made aware of their unconscious body language and reminded to correct it whenever possible—to consciously sit up straight whenever they saw someone drinking, or to broaden their chests before walking into a party?
Could that help foster the confidence addicts need to beat back their demons? No doubt it’s hardly a cure-all. But it’s hard to imagine it wouldn’t help them recover, and it seems like a far better strategy than shaming them.