It happens to everyone: something makes you feel so terrible, so embarrassed and ashamed — and you feel you will never be able to live it down. Sometimes you may not even have done anything, but someone condescended to you, wrote a clipped email or called you out on your behavior in a way that led to your feeling hopeless or wanting to hide.
Often it feels like no matter what you do in the midst of shame, you can’t move past that feeling, and you start thinking about other ways that you have disappointed or embarrassed yourself or others. This is called a shame spiral.
So…What is the Shame Spiral, Exactly?
When you feel ashamed like this, do you ever feel like you’re unable to fully be present in the situation you’re in? Do you have trouble looking others in the eyes, thinking about what a terrible person you are?
These are common reactions to shame. People mired in shame spirals tend to isolate, cutting themselves off from the support of family and friends. Ironically, this prevents them from feeling better, and keeps them mired in shame.
In worst case scenarios, this type of shame can lead to a depressive or even suicidal episode. Shame certainly triggers unhealthy eating behaviors among those who tend toward eating disordered behavior. A binge episode is often caused by shame, as is any self-punishing behavior, like a period of restricting food. Cutting or other self-harm is also often triggered by a feeling of overwhelming shame.
Anxiety or PTSD worsens because of shame. In fact, there is no mental or emotional issue that is not exacerbated by shame.
Sensitive people are more susceptible to shame spirals than others. Since they feel things so deeply, their shame can feel more severe and life-altering. People who tend toward depression and anxiety are also more deeply affected by shame, as they find themselves ruminating over perceived mistakes or reprimands, turning it over and over in their minds, and feel more responsible for their “wrongdoings” as a result. People who were raised by parents who use shame as a disciplinary tactic as also much more deeply wounded by shame as adults.
How to Deal with the Shame Spiral
In order to extricate yourself from a shame spiral, it is essential to do the thing that you least want to do: think openly about what happened.
1. Don’t ignore what happened.
When you feel shame, the natural tendency is to bury the shameful episode, remark, or interaction deep in your subconscious. Yet, as you know if you’ve ever experienced debilitating shame, this never works. The shame keeps coming back and preventing you from fully engaging in your life.
However, if you think, talk, or write about whatever it is that made you feel ashamed, you will notice something surprising. After the first few minutes of talking about it, or even the first few seconds, you start to feel much less ashamed. It’s just true!
2. In the midst of shame, try to trust that shame will dissipate.
This happens all the time in therapy, and it’s magical to see. A client can come in with something that feels shameful and awful, and if they finally get over the hump of not being able to mention it out loud or in writing, their shame decreases steadily over time. Speaking about a shameful thing to a kind, objective person, whether a therapist or a friend, can almost immediately give you some distance and objectivity yourself.
For some clients who feel shame recurrently on different occasions, their trust in the ability to let go of shame gets better with time. It’s all about approaching it with an attitude of experimentation.
3. Write it out.
If you can’t or won’t discuss your shame with an outsider, even a kind therapist, then writing, or even thinking openly about your shame, can be of almost equal utility. Writing is a way to get some healthy distance from your negative thought patterns, and practice mindfulness in a simple way. Put simply, putting your experience down in words helps you stay more present with the reality of whatever your situation is.
For instance, you would force yourself to write a few paragraphs about how you feel about your partner cheating on you, or your coworker pointing out that you gained weight, or your horrible blunder at work. It is almost guaranteed that after 20 minutes of writing, you will be able to move back and see this mistake or episode more objectively, recognizing that while it feels awful and unbearable right now, it may not feel that way tomorrow, and almost definitely will not in a week, month, or year.
If you find yourself trapped in a shame spiral, don’t let it sabotage your mental and emotional health. Reach out to a therapist, friend, family member, or even an online forum, and unburden yourself by sharing your thoughts with them. Shame thrives in secrecy, and often can’t survive in the open.