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Warning: naughty language ahead!
I stand on the edge of a great abyss. I’ve been here before, all alone as my legs tremble on still solid ground.
I feel in shades of grey. The inky-black darkness below has no shape, yet grows around me. And from that darkness, gentle whispers pierce my soul…
They don’t care.
You’re not worth it.
You don’t belong.
You aren’t loved.
I close my eyes and struggle against familiar words. What started as a whisper, grows loud. I try, how I try, but the pull of the darkness is fierce. These words made of fury and pain reach up and grab me. Depleted, I can no longer resist, and I’m pulled into the shadows of my shame.
This is my struggle with shame, specifically when my fear of abandonment gets triggered. The feelings are dark, scary, and full of internal drama. I’ve struggled with this my entire life, so it’s also familiar—like being snuggled in a blanket of pain, insecurity, and isolation.
Many of us struggle with shame, and there’s a long list of triggers that kick off our shame spirals—failure, feeling unloved, rejection, body image, feeling excluded, imperfection, abandonment, feeling judged, humiliation, and the perception of weakness (especially for men) to name a few.
But usually, one or two of these kick our ass much more than others and can be intensely painful to deal with. My personal struggle with unworthiness and fear of abandonment triggers is much harder for me than anything else.
Shame is hard to talk about because while we know how it feels, we aren’t always sure what it is. Simply put, shame is the intensely painful feeling that there is something profoundly and deeply wrong with us. We want to hide ourselves away, afraid that what’s inside is so ugly we don’t dare show it to the world.
We’re pulled into a shame spiral when our deepest shame is triggered. Our fight-or-flight response activates, causing a physical as well as an emotional response to our trigger. Our thoughts swirl faster than we can process as we begin to spin story after story supporting our worst fears. Never mind that the stories we tell are not rooted in reality—the pain we experience is real and traumatic.
Invariably, we’ll try to discharge these uncomfortable feelings—we might lash out in anger, or simply shut down, withdraw, and disconnect. We feel completely isolated and alone.
While we don’t talk about shame, it’s at the heart of our suffering. For some of us, this pain is so intense that we’re driven to addiction, eating disorders, and depression.
To say shame is difficult to deal with is an understatement—it’s a fucking monster.
It can be brutally hard at times, but there’s reason for hope. If we’re willing to do the work, there are ways we can increase our resistance to shame:
Deep inner work is the new sexy.
It’s all about the work. Time to stop beating the crap out of ourselves. A lot of shame comes from childhood when we had no control and no idea what was happening to us. It all takes place on an unconscious level, and we carry it forward into adulthood.
But regardless of where it came from or whose fault it was, it’s our responsibility to heal ourselves. Like so many things, the amount of healing we do is proportional to the amount of effort we put into it. The work will look different for everyone—it might be therapy, group meetings, or whatever works for us.
It isn’t easy—it’s hard as fuck actually—but learning how to turn our lives around is well worth it.
Be aware. Be very aware.
When it comes to shame spirals, awareness looks like this: doing enough deep inner work to be able to observe what’s happening to us as it happens. Like watching ourselves in a movie from a safe distance. We’ll learn to recognize our triggers, as well as our reactions.
When we spiral, we’re mixing unhealed pain from our past with whatever triggered us in the present. We don’t realize we are doing this, and when we mix all of these painful feelings together, our reactions quickly spiral into something unmanageable.
With awareness and practice, we’ll learn to recognize these past traumas and separate them from our triggers. We’ll start to appreciate our shame triggers as guideposts, telling us where we are stuck and need more work.
I’ve found journaling these feelings to be immensely helpful. It builds honesty and vulnerability within ourselves, and it helps us learn how to more clearly articulate our feelings.
Can we talk?
Eventually, we’ll be aware enough to say to ourselves, “shit, I’m triggered. I recognize these feelings and I don’t want to go down that rabbit hole.” We’ll wrestle and fight with ourselves, trying to stay out of the hole. It’s exhausting.
But instead of the struggling and judging we put ourselves through—“I shouldn’t feel this way,” I shouldn’t react that way,” and “what the hell is wrong with me”—there is a healthier way:
Just fucking talk about it.
And not with just anyone—with people who are worthy of our vulnerability. Those who are empathetic and kind, and provide a safe place for us to share our biggest fears—to say out loud that which we have spent a lifetime holding in.
“Our stories are not meant for everyone. Hearing them is a privilege, and we should always ask ourselves this before we share: ‘Who has earned the right to hear my story?’ If we have one or two people in our lives who can sit with us and hold space for our shame stories, and love us for our strengths and struggles, we are incredibly lucky. If we have a friend, or small group of friends, or family who embraces our imperfections, vulnerabilities, and power, and fills us with a sense of belonging, we are incredibly lucky.” ~ Brené Brown
The most effective way to combat shame is to be vulnerable enough to talk about it. We know that shame thrives on secrecy and silence. The more we hide it away, the more we suffer. But sharing it out in the open is how we manage our shame in a healthier way.
“I struggle with shame, I got triggered, and I’d like to talk about it.” It takes real courage to speak these words. With lumped throats and a pounding hearts, sharing these words are powerful enough to free us from our shame spirals.
While the work we do won’t eliminate the experience of shame entirely, the resilience we build will lead to greater self-acceptance, trust, and deeper connections in our relationships.
“If we can share our story with someone who responds with empathy and understanding, shame can’t survive.” ~ Brené Brown