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SHAME AND THE SOBER ALCOHOLIC

New studies point to a connection between shame and the rate and severity of relapse, suggesting that the more ashamed newly abstinent drinkers feel about their behavior, the more likely they are to drink again (and to drink heavily). A team of researchers at the University of British Columbia, led by Jessica Tracy and Daniel Randles, studied a group of alcoholics who had been sober for less than six months. Participants were recorded describing their last regrettable experience with alcohol and then their body language in those recordings was analyzed, measured, and rated for shame. Months later, the scientists conducted follow-up interviews; according to Tracy,

The extent to which [the participants] showed shame behaviors when talking about the last time they drank quite strongly predicted whether they would relapse within about four months.
The shame of drinking, rather than encouraging alcoholics to stay sober, may in fact lead them to drink again.

This study and other new evidence suggest that confrontational treatment methods, prominent in the history of substance abuse treatment in the United States, may do more harm than good. A recent review of research on confrontational treatment tactics – designed, according to authors William L. White and William R. Miller, to “make clients feel scared, ashamed, or humiliated, with the assumption that such experiences are curative” – came to a similar conclusion: humiliation does not produce sobriety. Active addiction can feel deeply shameful; it follows that more shame would not be its antidote. As White and Miller write, “if suffering cured addiction, there wouldn’t be any.”

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