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Overcoming Labels and the Shame They Create

By Comments off By the Numbers: Overcoming Labels and the Shame They Create

Many think of recovery from drug or alcohol addiction as a physical and emotional process for only the individual with “the problem.” Creating the important healing within families starts with the language used toward one another.

Although language may seem to pale in comparison to the physical grip of addiction, the words used among a support network can either provide a bridge to recovery or create barriers that inhibit change. That’s because labels can incite shame and other negative emotions that discourage progress, and even trigger continued substance use.

It is critical for loved ones to consider the ways in which they speak to and about each other and some of the labels they use that may not be effective. Family members with nothing but good intentions may be unintentionally running interference to healing without realizing it.

Labels can perpetuate shame

Often families come to us pointing fingers at each other and using labels that keep them from moving forward. I ask families to try to remove certain words from their vocabulary, at least while they’re working with us. Let’s remove “right, wrong, good, bad, always, never” from our vocabulary as we move forward. If we can do that, we reduce our defensiveness and start looking at ourselves more honestly and more objectively.

Being able to take away labels and diffuse shame with families usually starts with honoring one another’s reality even when we disagree. This leads not only to compassion for others, but it also creates personal insight. If I can model empathy for all family members in the room, and be able to show compassion and empathy, we start to diffuse the shame of the individual and the blame from the family members.

My goal is to not only get family members to pause and not say hurtful things, my goal is to eventually get them to think differently so that we’re starting to think in a more compassionate way. We know that shame doesn’t live in the light or hold up to empathy very well.

Compassion reduces shame

Labels of “right, wrong, good, bad,” are very limiting, which is why we want to look at what is underneath the behavior. Typically family members are motivated to achieve progress and healing, but they might not know how to communicate that desire effectively. We understand most people are just trying to get from A to B the best way they know how. So if we take away the labels and we look with compassion at what is behind behaviors that we don’t like, that helps to reduce that shame.

Once we’ve learned to contain ourselves from saying hurtful things to each other, our thinking begins to change. For some couples, for example, that may involve writing down different things you appreciate about your partner each day. Sometimes holding on to those small things that are positive about that person can help people move past the difficulty they’re facing and gain some grace. It is through graceful conversation that true healing takes place.

Wondering how labels might be preventing healing in your family? Send us an email at or schedule a consultation today.