Don’t Externalize Blame or Swallow Shame

by Joshua Hoe

I have been to several meetings lately that made me think about the ways that I can externalize blame.

This is pretty important stuff, because when most people outside of the recovery community hear someone say “addiction is a disease” and think “just another excuse for bad behavior.”

It is a tricky dance, trying to be responsible and honest while also avoiding dwelling in a house full of toxic shame.

I usually feel 100% confident in what I am writing, but this feels a bit more experimental to me. I am thinking out loud through some tricky waters here.

So feel free to disagree or add your own opinions below.

Don’t Externalize Blame

I was at a meeting listening to convention speakers, one mentioned powerlessness as an excuse to play the victim.

This can be a real thing for me, why was I afflicted with this damn addiction – I am not doing it, it’s the addiction.

But I am the addict, the addict is not something external to me.

Addiction happened because of trauma that was both of me and beyond me, but my addiction resides inside me (not outside of me).

It does me no good to disown or externalize it.

In point of fact, it hurts me more to create additional excuses for acting out.

Plus, most of the greater worlds criticism of the powerlessness concept is because they see it as a means of externalizing responsibility.

What Does Powerlessness Mean to Me?

I have never felt that powerlessness in the literature means we don’t have responsibility for our acting out.

We are powerless over our substance or behavior (the urges to use) but we are not helpless.

We have built a recovery toolbox and we have retrained ourselves, once in recovery, to use the positive tools of recovery in place of acting out.

Powerless, not helpless.

We are responsible for any harm we cause and any bad things we do, but we are powerless over our urge to act out.

When the literature says we are powerless – no matter what version of the program you adhere to – it says we are powerless over the object of our desire to act out (alcohol, lust, food etc) not incapable of surrender and/or substitution.

My Addict, Myself

I have written before about how sometimes I get worried when I hear people talk about “their addict.”

This is another version of that same externalization problem.

Often it sounds like people are saying that they have an alien living inside of them that they are not responsible for.

You are your addict and your addict is you.

But, it can be helpful to refer to your addict as long as you are not using it as an excuse to remove yourself from your own chain of agency.

As long as you are using it to highlight your stereotypical addictive behaviors and not to say that other person – that alien over there – made you act out.

Powerless not helpless.

But, this is obviously, just my opinion, I have no secret knowledge.

I just reflect on these razor thin lines between being powerless, helpless, responsible, and shame-filled.

What About Triggers

I was listening to yet another convention speaker, and they were objecting to they use of “triggers” because, again, using triggers allows you to say “it’s not me it’s the fault of the trigger.”

For instance, say being around someone rude is a trigger, I could say that the rude person was to blame for my acting out.

I could externalize the blame.

But, there is also great value to the use of triggers.

A value to having a mapped out list of the things most likely to encourage your acting out.

If for no other reason, so that you can avoid the things most likely to cause you problems.

But, you can also realize that the fault is inside your own thinking process, part of your thinking errors, instead of blaming the trigger.

Once again, the problem is not the concept, it is the using a concept to externalize blame IMHO.

The Delicate Dance With Shame and Blame

Of course all of this gets to another problem I face all of the time, not letting myself live in gigantic piles of toxic shame.

If everything is my fault, shouldn’t I feel ashamed?

Doesn’t externalizing blame protect me from shame?

Sadly, in my experience, no.

This might be just me, but I have always felt that no matter how much I externalize blame before I act out, I always feel like it was all my fault – no matter what excuse structure I created before acting out – after I am done.

Toxic shame always follows my acting out, no matter what nonsense I create beforehand to justify the acting out.

One thing the critics of addicts never seem to understand is that we suffer from no absence of guilt or shame.

We spend a great deal of our time miserable and feeling awful for what we do.

In addition, I have recently become convinced that when we do something actually wrong, something that could potentially hurt someone else, we know – deep down – that what we did was wrong.

I don’t know if our system of guilt is baked in, but I know that no matter how hard we try to drink, eat, sex, gamble, or work it away, it will still be there for us at the end of most days.

I also think one of the real challenges of addiction is learning how to process your own guilt productively. It is critical to learn to use guilt as motivation without letting it turn to toxic shame.

Toxic shame becomes just another part of the cycle way too often for me. Once I tell myself I am helpless and cannot ever recover I am just a few minutes from acting out.

I will admit that all of this is a delicate game, and that the lines are very thin. But, I think it is a game we have to play with ourselves. We have to take responsibility for what we do wrong, use our guilt to motivate our changes, and not allow ourselves to blame others for what we ourselves do.

What do you think about the externalization of blame? About toxic shame? Let me know your opinion, leave a comment!


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