The Ego and Shame – A Barrier to Humility

By Steve K.

In the book For God’s Sake’  Alan Budge writes…

“Recovery isn’t about stopping drinking (or stopping whatever). It’s about investigating the ways of the ego, and trying to change on the basis of that knowledge. It’s about surrender. For me, the whole spiritual deal is based on the idea that I’m not in charge, there is something bigger: God, the universe, whatever. The important thing is not to think or act as though I’m the final authority, that my best interests are the highest good.”  (p.213)

In terms of Twelve-Step recovery I think Alan Budge is right. All of the Twelve Steps require the practice of humility and therefore a surrender of the ego to a certain degree. I would describe humility in the following way.

“Being humble is having a realistic view of oneself as a limited, imperfect human being and being honest in the portrayal of oneself to others. Humility acknowledges the need for others and reaches out towards them; whereas false Pride/ego denies this need and results in an inner emptiness, it cuts one off from others due to its sense of being better than in comparison and therefore lacks identification and compassion for others.”

The 12 Step Philosophy of Alcoholics Anonymous.

AA’s Step One requires an admission of being powerless in respect of alcohol and acceptance that life has become unmanageable. This admission can be very difficult for the ego to make and involve an immense amount of suffering over a long period of time. However, the ego’s surrender of its illusion of control in this respect is a foundation of recovery. We humbly admit our limitations; and by doing so, open ourselves up to help from others and a power greater than ourselves.

This is the first Step in the journey of recovery; but only the start of the ongoing need to develop humility and the ego’s willingness to surrender its illusion of control over life and others…

“So it is that we first see humility as a necessity. But this is the barest beginning. To get completely away from our aversion to the idea of being humble, to gain a vision of humility as the avenue to true freedom of the human spirit, to be willing to work for humility as something to be desired for itself, takes most of us a long, long time. A whole lifetime geared to self-centredness cannot be set in reverse all at once. Rebellion (ego) dogs our every step at first.”

Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, Step Seven, p.74.

The Ego and Toxic Shame


Most people live with some sense of shame. It’s intrinsic to the development of a healthy self-concept. According to psychotherapist Hayley Merron (1), the problem is one of toxic shame that develops through criticism, rejection, and not being loved for who we truly are.

Those suffering addiction typically have a large amount of toxic shame and low self-esteem, along with the accompanying symptoms: feelings of hurt, insecurity, isolation, depression, and an inability to love or be loved in return. Like false pride..

“[Shame] also prevents humility; it cuts one off from a healthy connection with others as one feels less than in comparison. Shame also prevents identification with others and creates feelings of rejection, anger and bitterness.”

The 12 Step Philosophy of Alcoholics Anonymous.

Toxic shame destroys lives. I can testify to this tragedy as someone who has experienced its effects personally. The deep insecurity produced by toxic shame causes the ego to attempt to control everything and everyone in its path. This self-centred fear often results in avoidance and addiction, as the ego is attempting to defend itself and escape from further harm, pain, and a sense of failure or rejection.

The ego manifests a person’s self-concept and relationship with the world. It reasons and judges what’s right and best, and attempts to compensate for its sense of shame (largely unconsciously) by asserting dominance and control over others and circumstances. This compensatory behavior is revealed in false pride, arrogance, aggression, dogmatism, conceit, criticism and contempt for others.

The above symptoms of toxic shame are referred to in Twelve-Step terminology as “character defects”, which suggests a less than compassionate view of traits resulting from a traumatized, hurt, rejected and fearful ego. The above symptoms of toxic shame are ego defenses and serve as a barrier to vulnerability (true humility); as being vulnerable risks being hurt.

Recovery and Healing

How does the Twelve-Step recovery process help heal our shame and promote humility? The Program and Fellowship accomplish this goal by encouraging honesty with self and others, which, in turn, promote self-acceptance.

The Inventory Steps explore both our strengths and weaknesses by encouraging sharing them with others on a one to one basis and in the group setting.

The practices of sponsorship and sharing in meetings facilitates identification with others. This increases self-awareness and self-acceptance, lessening feelings of isolation, shame and guilt. This process then encourages greater honesty, authenticity and humility.

Vital to sharing with sponsors, and in meetings, is compassion and acceptance from others with whom we are being vulnerable. It’s important to choose the right sponsor and meetings to attend, where we are supported and accepted. Sponsors or Fellowship meetings that are judgemental and unsupportive are damaging to the process of healing.

The Program and Fellowship also provide meaning and purpose in recovery, primarily through the principle of service to others, but also in newly found spiritual beliefs. We learn that as well as needing others they also need us. This mutuality promotes humility as we realise we are both limited and possess strengths. The feeling of belonging and being valued by the group encourages our self-worth and reduces feelings of shame.

Progress not Perfection

Bill Wilson suggests that developing true humility takes a very long time. In his Grapevine article ‘Humility for Today’ (June 1961), he writes… “There can be no absolute humility for us humans.”  This is a realistic statement as complete humility would require a totally secure ego with no need for any defenses. I have not yet met such a person. 

My own experience in recovery has taught me that developing humility, or a “right sized ego”, is dependent upon a growing self-awareness, self-compassion, and self-acceptance. I must also find a willingness to understand and be compassionate towards and accepting of others.  When operating at their best both Fellowship and Program significantly help with this healing process.

Depending upon the level of shame and ego distortion, often more is required in the form of other therapeutic and supportive relationships to help us gain genuine self-acceptance and humility. These healing relationships, whether it’s a great therapist, loving friend, partner, or family member, help us to love and accept ourselves. Healing relationships are not always easy for those that have suffered addiction to find and maintain, as damaged ego’s often cause us to destroy what’s good for us. However, loving support from others is essential to healing shame and to the ego’s excessive need for control and safety.

I’m often amazed at how stubborn my ego is, my shame and fear must run very deep!  It’s through increasing levels of surrender, when I am ready or broken enough, that I let go of my need for control over life. I then take a risk, practice faith, and, to paraphrase the title of John Bradshaw’s well-known book, “heal from the shame that binds me.” (2)

  1. ‘Toxic Shame’. An essay by psychotherapist Hayley Merron.

  2. ‘Healing the Shame That Binds You’.  By John Bradshaw.

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