Second Hand Shame

Feeling the shame of someone else’s choices

There has been no shortage when it comes to shame in my life.  I also know this to be true for those who have been in the grip of addiction, and for those who love someone struggling with substances.

In fact, when it comes to addiction and those it impacts, shame is often the dark cloud that enters every room ahead of us.

For family and significant others battling shame related to the behavior of someone they love—the feelings are similar to one who has been betrayed by a partner or spouse.

Those living parallel to an addiction sometimes get a double portion of shame, especially at first.

We often take on what the person we love has done (or become), wanting to hide, cover it up, and not face it—just as much as they do.

I call that Second Hand Shame.

By virtue of the work I do, I’m regularly approached by whispering family members looking over their shoulders, as they’re looking for help and hope for a loved one in the grips of compulsions such as addiction, alcohol abuse, gambling, and other destructive behaviors.

Because it’s so familiar to me personally, the shame they carry by proxy is almost always what I sense first.

So I try to start there; putting them at ease by telling them that they’re safe to share, they need to share (“A problem shared is half a problem”), and that I understand completely what they are feeling.

Our details may vary, but our dynamics are the same.

As I’m around more and more people in the world of recovery, I also can’t help but notice that those with the addiction (especially if they’re working a program of recovery with some success) are much more comfortable talking about it, than those who love them are.

Family members and other loved ones sometimes seem more ashamed and withdrawn, having understandably been traumatized by the chaos, shock, chronic stress, worry and pain the issues may have caused.

Additionally, the affected family members are many times most focused on the person they love coming to a place of peace, health and progress, without realizing they need to open up, find support and get healthy as well.

The reality is, we all need to do the work to get (and stay) healthy and well. This is where we fall short in our understanding that an out-of-control chemical dependency is an interpersonal, interconnected, family problem.

It’s communal.

Addiction is a problem everyone needs to recover from.  It’s also an issue that no one deserves to feel shame for.

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To keep my life healthy, I have 7 Rules for shame.

  1. Amends

“It’s not a person’s mistakes that define them – it’s the way they make amends.”  ~Freya North

I strongly believe in a process of amends, it’s part of my program.  That said, if I have done wrong and you (like an adult and without spewing poison), present it to me—I will happily apologize and make it right. And I will do the same for you.  I don’t want a mess residing in me!  As much as I’m able, I want to live free of conflict and hard feelings.

If that system is not in place between us, and there is no respectful way to resolve an issue, I will not receive shame, or criticism from you.

I won’t receive hateful shame from anyone.

  1. Return to sender

“Life is an echo. What you send out, comes back. What you sow, you reap. What you give, you get. What you see in others, exists in you. It always gets back to you. So give goodness.” ~Zig Ziglar

I consider the source when shame comes for me. If it’s coming from within, I know I need to deal with the condemning, troublesome thoughts.

If it’s coming from an outward source, particularly if it’s presented with hateful language, I just say a little prayer to send it right on back to the source (again, if there is something I need to make amends for I will promptly. Otherwise: Return that gesture to the sender!).

I let it go back where it came from, hopefully to do some good work.  Maybe that person needs to receive a little of their own medicine fed back into their life. Just enough to wake them up to the need to extend compassion and empathy to others.

Believe me, garbage comes back around.  Some call it the “Great Magnet.” What you put out, you will attract back around.

In our family we call it “The Wheel.” What you put out toward others (good or bad) goes on life’s wheel. Around the corner it goes, but it will come back to the sender.

The hope is the offending party will learn, and become a better person than they were in their negative moments.

  1. To Do List

“Nothing will make you feel better except doing the work.” ~Anonymous

Because I have been so susceptible to mental torment in years past (as a result of many factors, written in my first book “Unhooked”), I am always monitoring how I’m feeling about things.  How I feel about myself, my life, my interpersonal relationships, connections and so on.  Spot checks are always on my To Do List.

A few other To Do’s:

Keeping things simple and healthy.

Keeping sensitive personal things close, only sharing with those who are safe, trustworthy, and loyal.

Regular check-ins with healthy mentors who help me remain aware and accountable. This keeps my side of the street clean.

Maintain positive, kind friendships.

Regularly attend supportive, therapeutic meetings to keep my mind healthy.

(When it comes to shame, I keep my mess in check!)

  1. Toodle Loo List

“When I loved myself enough, I began leaving whatever wasn’t healthy. This meant people, jobs, my own beliefs and habits – anything that kept me small.” ~Kim McMillen

Interestingly enough, the word “Toodle” in this phrase comes from Toddle, which means to walk in a relaxed manner. Toddle off means to walk away or to leave a place—in a relaxed way.

I have processes in place for doing just that. Including two minute breaks if chaos erupts, frequent walks, phoning a friend, or mentor etc., to offset troubling thoughts if they begin to torment me.

I had to say good-bye to several toxic situations, settings and connections. If a relationship involves regular spitefulness, passive-aggressive comments, insulting behavior, or things such as back-and-forth (unfriendly) competition with what either of us may do, say, think, and feel; I know I need to “toddle off” for my own well-being.

I said Toodle Loo to those who were unable to show up for me, or consistently keep their word.

I created a safe space from anyone unable to discuss issues in a healthy, adult way (and without turning on me), so that we can work it out. Resolution is always the goal.

When you’re healthy, you’re motivated by peace. It’s reasonable if conflict is occasional, and balanced.  That’s fair. But if we’re in a constant gridlock of it, you probably need away from me as much, as I need space from you.

I worked very hard to eliminate toxic situations from my life. And to be honest, the bulk of my shame and torment problems went with them. The good news is that when we say good-bye to those things, healthy people, places, and patterns show up in their place.

  1. Tend to it

“Self-care means giving yourself permission to pause.” ~Cecelia Tran

Practice the pause. Get still for a minute.  If I have a down day, or if I realize I’m slipping into a shaming mindset, I stop and sit with it.

I tend to it.

I analyze  what triggered it. Who triggered it? How might I have triggered it?   Is this some second hand shame that I need to step out of?

If someone close to us is destructive or dishonest, blame for their choices does not fall upon you or me.  We’re each responsible for our own actions only.

Once you identify the root of the problem, you can take the reins of it, and figure out a solution. It’s critical to puts space between impulse and action in these moments.  The healthiest question is always “How can I get to peace and wholeness as quickly as possible?”

Do what you can do, do the next right thing, and keep it moving.

  1. Find something to be grateful for

“Gratitude makes sense of your past, brings peace for today, and creates a vision for tomorrow.” ~Melody Beattie

We can always take a moment to think of something, or someone we love and are grateful for!  This process actually helps heal and rewire our stressed out brains.

  1. Do something kind

“Kindness is loving yourself enough to love those around you.” R.K. Tiwist

Creating ways to encourage people is one of my favorite things to do.  I am no longer scared of the outcome.  Shame doesn’t get in anymore when it comes to the possibility of ridicule or rejection for stepping out and trying to do loving things.  I know how much we all need it.

Sending flowers, a card, or a compliment through text or email, showing up for someone, calling someone who may need a boost and so on…helps everyone!

That’s not only how we put some positivity out to an often negative world…it’s a great way out of the mental loops of shame.

Rerouting shame-based thinking takes time, it’s a process.  Have a plan, make it a positive one and watch shame not only decrease from your life, you’ll see goodness expand.

This is how we recover.

Recovery is about unity, and it’s about compassion for ourselves.

Still learning,



Author of books: Unhooked, and Unbroken, Navigating the Madness of Family Dysfunction, Addiction, Alcoholism and Heartache

Host of:  The Unhooked Podcast

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For information, comfort, encouragement and support:

Codependents Anonymous

Parent Support – TAPU

Family Recovery Support