It happens at some point to everyone: the dreaded Shame Spiral. No matter how confident you think you are, you might say or do something you don’t feel good about, or someone says something critical/derogatory about you, and you feel a run-of-the-mill pang of embarrassment. The next thing you know, you start thinking of other ways you have disappointed or embarrassed yourself. That negative vibe begins to pick up velocity, and you notice you’re losing your footing, slipping into an abyss of shame by noting how terrible you are on many fronts. It’s a mental pileup of all your misdeeds and an incontrovertible case against you, showcasing how much you actually suck at life. That’s a shame spiral in a nutshell.
Shame spirals are unpredictable and can feel wrenching as they’re unfolding. And to make matters worse, they’re also hard to recover from once that train leaves the station. They can creep up on anyone, but the truth is, some people are more susceptible to them if they’ve grown up in a home that might’ve used shame as a disciplinary measure. Some people may be working with the intolerance of their perfectionism, some are just sensitive, while others have self-esteem challenges they’re working with daily. But what is for certain is that when a shame spiral comes upon you, it can feel like a hostile takeover with its self-punishingly bleak purview. Here are some concrete ways to get right with you, and spiral right back into your old positive outlook on life.
Breathe—bring yourself back into the present, and into presence. Three deep breaths will change up your brain chemistry, and that’s a great start. Don’t abandon yourself by giving into it. Notice that you’re heading off the rails.
Get clear on what actually happened, as you feel yourself internalizing that embarrassment before it turns into full-on shame. For the record: guilt is “I made a mistake,” while shame is “I AM a mistake.” Big difference. Remember who you are is distinctly different from the things you’ve done. Always a good leveler.
Parcel out fact from fiction. Byron Katie, best-selling author and creator of The Work, has four questions you can ask yourself to challenge faulty thinking in a stressful moment:
1) Is it true?
2) Can I absolutely know it’s true?
3) How do I react when I think that thought?
4) Who would I be without that thought?
By answering these honestly, syphoning through all the browbeating and getting to the core of what has actually transpired, you can perhaps shift your mindset, interrupting the shame loop, grounding you back in reality.
Having a toolbox of ways to coach yourself through those shameful moments is going to stave off a full-fledged spiral. These tools can move you into solution mode and out of that potentially hopeless space:
– Remember that everyone makes mistakes.
– Ask what you could learn from this always teachable moment.
– Tell yourself you don’t have a good perspective on the truth right now, and that this will shift faster by isolating the incident, and not looking for other ones to corroborate the story that you’re inept.
– Ask yourself what you need if you have a space of time in your day: is it exercise, a walk in nature, dancing with abandon, playing mantras, or using tapping (EFT)? Then do it.
– Write out your feelings so you can see on paper what’s true for you.
– Call someone you trust to talk about what’s going on. Brené Brown, a preeminent researcher on shame, emphasizes the need to talk it out to “speak your shame.” She says the things shame needs to survive are secrecy, silence, and judgment. And that the antidote to shame is empathy. So, try and give that to yourself by extending some compassion your own way, and if you can’t give it to yourself, reach out to someone in your life who can.
– Practice acceptance of where you’re at: imperfections, mistakes, shortcomings, and all. More tolerance of all the myriad facets of who you are right now, at this time.
– Be of service: get out of self. See how you can show up for someone else AFTER you’ve taken steps to move through your own feelings first.
– Definitely avoid temporary fixes that make you feel worse and compound your list of shaming behaviors (being with toxic people, sleeping with your ex, drinking to excess, binging on indulgent foods). As good as these can feel when you’re distraught in the moment, they’re short-term releases that will leave you feeling more bereft and judgmental of wonderful you.
– Mentally go through all your wins. There are many. You’ve come so far. Focus on those, my friend. This will pass.