The Complex Shame of Kleptomania

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Complex Shame, Control and Remorse in Individuals with Kleptomania

Shouldn’t a person who steals things from others feel ashamed? John Bradshaw discusses the difference between shame and guilt as: I am bad (shame) vs. I have done bad things (guilt).  For this reason, shame often prevents people from seeking treatment for their stealing behavior.  For many who do start treatment, shame can become a defensive obstacle that gets in the way of progress.  For example, instead of really thinking about their behavior, some people simply say, “I am a terrible person because I steal, period.”  Shame can be a tricky way of not feeling guilt and not really taking responsibility for one’s life and actions.

People in treatment for their stealing behaviors need to be able to question their behaviors, feelings and beliefs in order to break through denial about the reality of their impulse disorder.  When shame gets in the way of real thinking it is hard to build an effective intervention and a relapse prevention program.

People with kleptomania need to truly accept that they have an impulse disorder that leads them to steal and that on their own, without support they are helpless to prevent it from happening again and again.  Accepting one has an impulse disorder isn’t easy.  It means that one has to accept that they are not in control and this can be a terrifying reality.

It can also be partly relieving.  When a patient accepts their impulse disorder they can take responsibility and build a program of sobriety and relapse prevention by learning to lean on others in a healthy supportive way and by changing their behaviors and thoughts.

A significant part of the recovery process is the acknowledgement that their stealing behavior has caused harm to others.  A sign of recovery is when they feel remorse and begin to question how they plan to make amends for the problems and pain they have caused. But if shame combined with self-criticism is allowed to remain in charge and goes unchallenged it is likely that the self-defeating cycle of relapses will continue. 

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