Shame is painful and, unfortunately, a very common emotion in day-to-day life that has its roots in socialization.
Shame shows its first signs around the age of two years old when our self-conscious emotions begin developing. At this stage, we start to imagine or see ourselves as others might and make beliefs about how we should behave in order to stay in the clan. Basically, shame is an attempt to regulate and adapt to social standards in order to belong, but, if unchecked, can lead to the very opposite…isolation.
Brené Brown’s comprehensive research on shame highlights three things shame needs in order to survive: secrecy, silence and judgment. So, if you have some shame that you particularly want to keep, just keep it hidden, don’t speak a word of it to anyone, and judge yourself for having it.
Of course, I am being facetious…
By keeping it hidden and judging yourself for it, shame can reinforce and lead to a painful and seemingly limitless shame spiral. This can be a serious and debilitating threat to your life and relationships.
A shame spiral is a mental cycle where your experienced shame feeds itself; you feel ashamed of feeling shame!
When you are in a shame spiral, imagining yourself free of it may seem impossible. You may feel a deep sense of lack or worthlessness which may lead to isolation, depression, binging, or blaming others. This experience is so painful and difficult that, of course, you would feel tempted to do anything in your power to get as far away from it as possible. But there are ways to stop the spiral in the moment—and eventually all together—that are healthy and supportive to your life and relationships.
The issue that my clients and I spend the most time working on, no matter what life issue brought them into see me, is shame. It breaks my heart to hear such beautiful people talking to themselves in such a degrading manner (which has been good learning for me because I have experienced my share of these seemingly limitless spirals). The good news is that stopping a shame spiral in the moment is possible.
You don’t have to sit in your shame!
I have seen the following steps work time after time to loosen the grip of shame.
1. Identify your internal critical voice.
If you hear a “you are not good enough” story developing in your mind, the first thing to do is to remember that voice is not you. It is a defense mechanism or an internalization (who, what and why are not important right now—this is where a good psychotherapist comes in). Recognize the critic’s presence, greet them, then tell them to go away. It is important to remember, you don’t want to be mean to your critic because that is what critics do. Instead, try a compassionate but firm approach like, “Hello critic, I know that you are trying to protect me, but go away.”
2. Make space between you and the critical voice.
After you have outed the critical voice from behind the curtain, it is important to remember who you are. You are the constant and unchanging presence that is host to the critical voice. Take a deep and loving breath and tell yourself that you’re okay. The more contact you can make with yourself—free of the critical dialogue—the better the chance that the critic won’t come right back. But don’t worry if it does…just go back to step one and keep breathing!
3. Be your own best friend.
When my clients are in a shame spiral beating themselves up, I ask, “would you talk to your best friend or someone you loved this way?” Invariably, the light bulb goes on—the answer is no. We would never speak to someone we love that way, nor would we allow others to. So be your own best friend and speak to yourself with loving kindness. For example, if you just made a mistake at work or had a fight with your partner and said something you regret, think as if your best friend were reporting these acts to you and respond to yourself in kind. A possible response may be, “You just made a mistake, you aren’t bad. You will have another chance to get it right next time!”
4. Make contact with someone safe and share your shame.
What do I mean by safe? In this context, safe means someone who loves and accepts you. If you have a very critical mother or partner, sharing your shame with them while you’re in it may not be safe. If you have a psychotherapist, now may be a good time to call them. Or maybe you have a trusted friend that you can call or text to just say, “I am having one of those moments.” This step is vital for ending the spiral and reducing their frequency in the future—shame cannot survive empathic contact.
The above steps work to loosen the debilitating grip of shame, which will afford you the freedom of mind you need to make clear and wise choices in life and your relationships. Every time you stop a shame spiral, you learn to love and accept yourself a little more and only good can come of that! Eventually, it is a good idea to start identifying your shame triggers. If you know the life circumstances that trigger shame in you, you can begin to deal with what is being triggered and be better prepared for your next encounter.
Remember, shame is not you. It is natural and okay that you are experiencing this emotion and it is possible to stop the spiral.
Author: Jessie Brown
Apprentice Editor: Lois Person/Editor: Renée Picard
Image: jazbeck/ Flickr