I changed my drinking a while ago and mostly I feel very good about the difference it has made in my life. But when I look back at my younger self, I feel so embarrassed about how I behaved. The feeling of hangover shame is so real. How can I leave that part of my life behind? Anja
I’ll be honest that this question touched a raw nerve for me. I feel like I’ve lived many different lives, and I sometimes struggle to reconcile who I am now with who I have been in the past. How can I possibly have acted that way? How can I have wholeheartedly believed things which I know now to be untrue? I comfort myself with the idea, attributed by Oprah Winfrey to Dr Maya Angelou that “I did then what I knew how to do. Now I know better, I do better”. But still, I look back at my past with genuine confusion and incomprehension.
What the fuck was I doing?
Believe me when I tell you that I know what hangover shame is like. I have memories of happy events that are tinged with regret, because I ended the night alone, clinging onto my toilet for dear life. I half-remember amazing parties but I don’t know how I got home from them. I carry with me the guilt of drunken explosions that ripped through relationships. Life is better now, but it wasn’t always this way.
Overcoming hangover shame
I continue to work through this issue for myself, but I wanted to share some pointers for overcoming hangover shame. Here are a few things that have helped me:
- Distinguish between embarrassment and shame. It’s normal to feel embarrassed about the way in which we acted in the past. Life is a process, and all of us did things as younger people that make us feel awkward and uncomfortable now. But shame is different. Shame is about who you were, not what you did. Especially for women, people of colour and gender, romantic and sexual minorities, shame can be a weapon that we internalise and wield against ourselves. Don’t let shame distance you from the times in which you were learning and growing. That kind of shame is toxic, because it robs you of your right to exist. Every part of your history is valid.
- Embrace your younger self with kindness. Imagine for a moment that your younger self was a friend or family member. You watch them messing up, getting into trouble, and maybe even causing damage to themselves and others. How would you treat them? With anger and rejection, or with warmth and encouragement? You can feel that way about yourself. Remember that all those hangovers led you to this moment. So rather than leaving hangover shame behind, embrace it as part of your story.
- Protect your present with gratitude. Shame wants to keep you stuck in the past, and it can undermine your efforts to maintain change in the present. That’s why gratitude is so important. Being grateful for the present doesn’t mean letting yourself off the hook for the past. It just offers you some perspective. That was then, but this is now. Everyday, find three things that you are grateful for, three ways in which your life is better that before. And celebrate those things.
Shame is toxic, because it robs you of your right to exist. Every part of your history is valid.
- Say sorry if it helps you. It may be that some of your hangover shame comes from events in which other people were hurt. Maybe there was a blazing row between friends. Perhaps someone was actually injured. You don’t need to live with the guilt of that experience. It takes courage to face your past mistakes with honesty and acknowledge any damage that you caused. Of course, it’s possible your apology may not be accepted, and you certainly don’t have to beg for forgiveness. There are some relationships you may not want to repair. But think of apologising as an act of self-forgiveness, first and foremost. Do it because it helps you move on.
- Seek support if you need it. As I mentioned before, shame can be used as a tool to oppress us. In fact, toxic shame is one of the hallmarks of complex post-traumatic stress disorder. Many of us end up carrying the rejection and pain of a traumatic childhood into our adult life, and it can take time to learn to live well with ourselves as confident and resourceful adults. If your feelings of shame become overwhelming, and especially if they are linked with emotional flashbacks, seek support from someone who specialises in trauma.
- Club Soda co-founder Laura’s discussion with empowerment coach Harriet Waley-Cohen on overcoming feelings of guilt and shame
- A perspective on alcohol and shame from psychologist and Club Soda Together volunteer admin Deborah Cole
- Dr Brené Brown’s life-changing TED Talk on listening to shame
Whatever else you do, don’t let hangover shame stop you living well in the present. You’ve got a good life, and you’ve worked hard to get it.
Dru Jaeger is one of Club Soda’s co-founders and the creator of our courses for people who want to change their drinking. If you want to explore the relationship between your emotions and your drinking, Club Soda’s free course, How to Change Your Drinking, is a great place to start.