As Brene Brown says, guilt is the feeling that comes from having done something bad. Shame is the feeling that comes from feeling you are bad. While shame can have a positive impact, such as helping us to socially conform, very often when people speak of shame, they are talking about toxic shame.
The base of our toxic shame is often built in our early life and/or as the result of unhealthy relationships or difficult societally stigmatized life events. Once the path has been laid, then it is that much easier to set off a chain reaction called a shame spiral.
Most of us have had this experience. First we make a mistake. Then we judge ourselves for the mistake. We withhold love and acceptance from ourselves, and in this weakened state, we continue to make more bad choices, feel more shame, and withhold more love and acceptance.
Shame spirals can last for any length of time. In one way of looking at things, the bad choices and negative self-talk on a daily basis can be seen as a constant shame spiral. However, most often we are talking about an acute experience that sets off one or more of our triggers.
The first step in making a change is awareness. We need to be aware enough of the problem that we can see where we might be adding new behaviors to it. After you become aware of your struggles with shame and the shame spirals that rule the difficult parts of your life, then you can start to employ methods to get yourself out of shame and back on track.
Here are six steps to help you stop a shame spiral:
1. Know your triggers. Sometimes the best remedy is to stop a spiral before it even happens by avoiding or working around triggers. But even when you don’t, if you know your triggers, then you can act that much faster after one of them has been activated. If, for example, “failing” publicly is a trigger, then you know to immediately take some counteractive measures should you bomb a presentation.
2. Hear your inner voice. What you may or may not be aware of is that your shame spiral is led by your inner critic. This inner voice will tell you all the ways that you messed up, how people are judging you, and what negative things to think about yourself. Because it has an inside view of what you are most ashamed of, this voice is expertly targeted at your weakest points. When you tune into this voice, you can set it straight.
3. Don’t indulge in bad habits. The bad habits are the things you do when you are feeling shame that make you feel even more ashamed. You make a choice to fight with someone that you care about, drink too much, or not do something important that needs to get done. You might wonder why on earth we would do more “stupid” things when we am already feeling so bad, but shame impairs our judgment and often leads to forms of disassociation that make it difficult to make good decisions.
4. Love yourself anyway. Mistakes happen. Bad choices get made. In order to stop a shame spiral, we need to accept ourselves and our choices. We don’t need to condone them, but being on our own side and being understanding is key to stopping the shame from getting worse. So, regardless of how many bad choices you have made, offer some love and support to yourself. You did not make those choices because you are a bad person. You made them because you didn’t know what to do or couldn’t choose it at the moment. Chances are that was because of some past traumas in your life.
5. Choose supportive behaviors. If our bad habits can bring us down, our good habits can bring us up. When we get triggered, we can actively choose to do things that help us feel better rather than worse. We can look at the things we have done right. We can participate in an activity that helps us feel better.
6. Connect with loved ones. This is a supportive behavior that deserves its own category. Because shame thrives on secrecy, connecting with someone who really sees you for who you are can be one of the best antidotes to shame. This can be very hard for people who are experiencing shame, but if you can muscle through the discomfort, you will soon find yourself free from your feelings of shame.
It is never too late to stop a shame spiral. That little voice telling you that it is too late is only part of the shame spiral itself. It does not matter how deeply you feel that you have dug yourself down—you can turn it around. Keep trying. Keep loving yourself and shame will become less and less a part of your life.
For more ideas about overcoming shame spirals, check out my article >>> “What is Wrong With Me? Healing From Toxic Shame.”