Although we’re not usually aware of it, the world runs on social agreements. Red lights don’t stop cars. They stop because our society agrees that (a.) intersections are dangerous places and traffic needs to be regulated, and (b.) when we see a red light facing us, we need to stop in order to avoid possible death or serious injury.
I use that as an example because, in order for social agreements to work out, there also needs to be a degree of enlightened self-interest involved.
That is, we agree to stop for red lights because if we don’t we might get a ticket or worse. However, as with most widely-accepted agreements of this sort, there is social pressure as well. We obey traffic laws and other rules because if we don’t we are liable to be rejected by some part of society. If it’s a part that we consider important, we’re likely to adhere pretty closely to the agreed upon behavior. If not, we’ll probably flout the rules when we think we can get away with it.
Shame is the fear that we will lose connections with others. Those of us who have spent part of our lives breaking the rules are likely to find it difficult to admit when we are getting started in recovery. We desperately want the good regard of the people in our programs, and to begin with we find it difficult to believe that they will not judge us. We begin to overcome the shame when we internalize the idea that we weren’t really such a horrible person after all — that others did the things we did, and look at them now!
Once we get past the shame of sharing who we really are and truly listen to others telling us who they are, we begin to develop new social agreements. We start to think in terms, not of “I’m an addict; I’m sick,” but more along the lines of “my friends don’t (drink, drug, overeat, etc.), and neither do I.” “My friends don’t lie, and neither do I.” “My friends don’t ______, and neither do I.”
When we have truly integrated ourselves into the recovery community in this way, when we begin thinking and acting according to the new social agreements that we are making, then we are past one of the stumbling blocks of early recovery. As we begin to change the habits, thinking and voluntary behavior of addiction, thus minimizing the power of the involuntary parts of the disease, we begin to overcome the shame — the fear that if they know who we really are they’ll reject us — that has kept us from relating to people as a whole.
It’s a matter of acceptance: “This is the way I live my life today.” But until we accept the new social agreements of our recovery community, we aren’t there yet.