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.”
Lapses in confidence are common, but when we are left feeling like we have somehow fallen short regardless of our accomplishments, it might be time to look a bit deeper to find out what might be driving this feeling.
I remember a client of mine several years back asking, “How do I love myself? What does that even mean?” For someone who has been well initiated into shame, self-love is so far beyond their comprehension that it is like describing a different universe.
We develop shame through life experiences, social conditioning, and cultural indoctrination. In short, we believe we are bad because we had experiences where people made us feel that way—overtly or covertly. These experiences are most impactful in our childhood when we are much more easily conditioned. However, the right combination of experiences at any point in life can leave us believing in our worthlessness.
Shame is complex and can be difficult to take apart. Understanding how and why it develops can give us a bit of insight.
Children learn to regulate their behaviors by developing an emotional “clutch,” located in the prefrontal cortex, that can turn the accelerator off when the brakes are applied and redirect their interest in more acceptable directions…. An activated accelerator followed by the application of brakes leads to a nervous system response with a turning away of eye gaze, a feeling of heaviness in the chest, and a sinking feeling (Dan Siegel and Mary Hartzell).
This internal mechanism helps the child learn how to get along well with others and regulate their behavior in a way that is socially compatible. This happens in a very healthy way if, along with the child’s instinctual “braking,” there is love and connection offered from the outside. If, on the other hand, love and connection are withdrawn, then the child will have a different interpretation of the events.
This does not happen after one episode. When the experience is repeated, and the more it is repeated, the child comes to believe that there is something wrong with them. They will come to believe that what is wrong with them is either something someone told them in conjunction with these events or a seemingly random problem they might have found in their environment.
One of the simplest ways to heal ourselves is to reverse the process that we experienced. In other words, if we lost love and connection when we had a shame reaction, the best thing we can do for ourselves is to connect and feel love when we start experiencing shame.
This is easier said than done, but each time that you can choose this, it will help you to feel less chronic shame, and through that, strengthen your sense of self-worth.
When trying to reconnect and heal from toxic shame, there are some important things to consider.
Is this person safe?
Are they capable of supporting me?
Do I know what will help me?
Do I have a back-up plan?
Is this person safe? Not all people are capable of meeting you as you try to connect and come out of shame. If you are not sure about your personal relationship, it may be helpful to first do this work with a professional to ensure the maximum safety for yourself. Even when working with a professional, try establishing the relationship’s security before sharing highly sensitive material.
Are they capable of supporting me? Someone may love you a lot and be very trustworthy but lack the ability to show up in the way that you need during this vulnerable time. Sometimes, you will not know if someone is capable of supporting you until after you have tried. That is totally fine. However, if someone has proven themselves unable to show up in the way you need, you will be better off waiting to share with them until you have shed some layers of shame.
Do I know what will help me? Very often, the answer to this question is no. However, it is still worth thinking about and finding some answers to. When you know what you need, it is that much easier to get it for yourself. We often learn this by getting what we do not need and then using a process of elimination to learn what works best for us.
Do I have a back-up plan? Crossing this divide can seem really risky. There are reasons that you decided to hide rather than connect. Not every attempt is going to be met with success. In fact, your defense mechanisms might make it impossible to feel successful even if many successful features are present. Taking good care of yourself means knowing where you can go or how you can take care of yourself if your situation ends up being less than optimal. In time, as you grow in this skill, it becomes less necessary as the whole process will become easier.
It is helpful to keep in mind that the vast majority of people deal with some kind of shame that holds them back or shuts them down. You are not alone, and your bravery not only paves the way for your own expanded life, but also helps others heal from their shame.
An important element in overcoming toxic shame is learning to love yourself. Read more here to learn why this is so important >>> “7 Reasons to Love Yourself First.”
Brene Brown caused a big stir when she stood up and started talking about her own vulnerability. As she candidly put it in her TED talk, she did not think that she was supposed to feel vulnerable. Only to discover, that she actually was missing out on some of the best of life—namely intimacy—by being unwilling to surrender to being vulnerable. I am so grateful for her efforts to make the world a little more real and a little more humane.
It takes a lot of discipline to open up when you feel threatened but that is just what vulnerability asks us to do. It asks us to let go of our pride –our need to be right—and open to the greater truth of ourselves, the other, and the situation. When we are vulnerable we loose the stranglehold of our lesser selves. Vulnerability requires that we are able rely on a much deeper and stronger part of our self –one that is not caught up in our ego.
Let me describe the process:
It happens all the time! I get myself into a situation where I can feel myself armoring up. I feel judged, disrespected, misunderstood. It does not matter what the specific situation is, really. Just that I can feel it coming on. This intense desire to protect myself -sometimes, at all cost. My heartbeat goes up, my muscles tense, my thoughts start running away, taking my rational self with them.
I know that nothing good can come with this approach but, it is so automatic sometimes. Can you relate?
It takes everything I’ve got to remember that my reaction is causing the problem not protecting me from it. I remember I have nothing to lose but my pride and I let go. My breath deepens. My muscles soften. I can feel my heart open up. NOW, I can make something good happen.
Now let’s break it down step by step:
Why is this important?
I am going to give you two reasons why this is so critical to our overall fulfillment in life. First, we are unable to develop real relationships that are deeply caring and intimate if we do not allow ourselves to be vulnerable. Second, if we need to pretend that we are not vulnerable then our whole life becomes a charade. We have to work all the time to keep up appearances and in short that makes us miserable.
Short and sweet summary: If you want to be happy, learn how to be vulnerable.
Tune into this weeks Real Answers Radio for more on how to create meaningful relationships through vulnerability. The show is always live and your questions are always welcome!
Good fences make good neighbors, and nowhere is this more true than in your romantic relationship. But many people hide their stance on a subject, or at least soften it, to be more likable at the start of a new relationship.
“I like hanging out with your family every weekend.”
“Your vegetarianism is no problem for me. I hardly eat meat now anyway.”
“Sure, we can keep the lights off.”
Over time, it becomes too difficult to move that boundary back to where it feels right for you, whether you’re talking about how much time to spend with your in-laws or how much sex you want to have. And it’s confusing to your partner, who thought you liked things this way because you always went along with it before.
Perversely, you make your life less desirable in order to be more desirable to your partner.
Over the years, this can get messy and you might eventually complain that the love of your life doesn’t really know you at all. But if you aren’t stating your boundaries and desires up front, how could your beau know?
The Difference Between Walls and Fences
Walls are built to keep people out, figuratively and literally. You can’t see inside someone’s house unless they invite you in, and even within a home each room is blocked from view unless you enter it. When you hide something from someone, you are walling it off.
Fences, on the other hand, are built to maintain a peaceful coexistence with others. You can usually see right through a fence because it is simply a demarcation of the boundaries of your property. It’s a public statement on where you stand on issues.
Your fence keeps soul sucking people who would disrespect you on the outside. They will go find an unfenced property to do their damage, not willing to expend the effort to climb yours (soul suckers are nothing if not lazy).
Fences are also easily moved or enlarged when a property is expanded, unlike walls which mean a reconfiguration of the entire house.
Walls destroy a relationship. Fences make it stronger. Big difference.
How to Determine Your Boundaries
1: Know Where You Stand
The key to setting your boundaries lies first in identifying them yourself. If you don’t know what you want, how in the heck will anyone else? This is no time for guessing games, with yourself or with your mate. And be very, very careful of the “I don’t really care” mentality because in truth you really do, about everything. You just don’t care about making a fuss right now.
It’s important that people should know what you stand for. It’s equally important that they should know what you won’t stand for. ~ Mary H. Waldrip
So give a damn now and you won’t be damning your partner in the future. Think about how you really feel about every new situation or question and answer honestly and thoughtfully. Because what you say and do now determines what kind of life you’ll be living later.
2: Identify Boundary Breaches
Sometimes it takes a while for a message to sink in. It’s not usually because your one true love doesn’t care. Your partner just needs firm reminders of your boundaries. You can do this gently at first with a pretty white picket fence surrounded by flowers and escalate all the way up to barbed wire and electricity if you need to (though at that point it might just be better to ask them to move).
Everyone pushes a falling fence. ~ Chinese proverb
Demanding the respect you deserve takes diligence on your part. Again, most of the time this is a simple and clear reminder to people.
No, I don’t want to do that.
It’s not okay for you to talk to me this way.
You said you would do this and I depend on you to honor your word.
When you allow your boundaries to be breached again and again you’re telling the other person it’s okay to be late, to not follow through on their commitments, or to otherwise disregard your feelings. But when people know there are consequences – “I’ll wait for you for 10 minutes, but if you’re later than that I’ll leave without you” – they can no longer breach with impunity.
You cannot control the actions of others, but you can certainly control your own.
3: Survey your property
When you live a life of experience, your boundaries will change because you will. You’ll grow and evolve, and so will many of your preferences. It’s important to regularly survey your boundaries to make sure they still fit. Your requirements for intimacy, communication, social activity, exercise, education, and entertainment will evolve with life and circumstances, and you have to be clear with yourself and your partner when they do.
Read more by Betsy Talbot here
Continually poking at your own boundaries will make it easier to explain them to others. How to Establish Boundaries Know where you stand on the important issues. When you know for sure how you want to be treated, it makes it easier to clearly state this to another person. Begin by asking yourself every day if you’re okay with what’s going on around you. If not, why? If it’s not clear to you, it won’t be clear to your partner. State your boundaries along with a consequence. “I understand you are really frustrated at work right now, but I’m not okay with you taking it out on me when you get home. I’m not your enemy here. The next time it happens I’m going to suggest you burn it off at the gym and I’m going to leave the room.” You can’t control the other person’s actions, but you can control your response. Test your boundaries. As you evolve as a human, your priorities and feelings will change. It’s important to question yourself on a regular basis to make sure the beliefs and ideas you hold are still true. When your boundaries change, it’s time to move your fences and let your partner know. (more…)
I recently had a bout with jealousy. I started to compare myself to someone else and just kept coming up short. Everything this other person excelled at was something that was in my wheelhouse but not my gift. I started to feel the pain of being “less than.”
I know that there is a way out of this bind. So, I spent some time and got some support in coming back to a place of love. Because, in this place of love all the rest gets put in perspective.
This time of year many people think about the state of their relationship, their love life, and the like but love is much more than dinner dates and flowers. It is much more ever-present than your last crush or even your long term relationship.
Love is quite simply the most powerful tool you have in your toolbox. Because, love can burn everything else away –everything that does not serve you that is.
I think that it is a force more powerful than any other. Mystics have spoken about it throughout time. They have tried to teach us that if we can connect to our hearts and return to this space of love then we have the ability to move mountains and part seas.
But, what does this mean for you and me?
When you are faced with a situation –maybe it is a coworker, a lover, or a friend—where you are at odds with someone else, see if you can return to a place of love. This might seem like a foreign concept to many people. It might bring forward thoughts like, “How the heck do I do that?” So, here is one way you can do it:
Take a few minutes for yourself. Get comfortable. Close your eyes… Actually, no!! Scratch that. That could be a method but I think it is time to approach things from a new angle!
What secret negative longings do you have? Take an inventory. If you can figure out your negative intent then you can clear it. When you clear it it is that much easier to return to a place of love.