Shame Spiral. That is a loaded “feeling” word. I lead a group on Shame Resilience at Akua Mind & Body, and as soon as I mention the word “shame,” the group members fall silent and grow tense. I start off all my groups asking, “What do you think Shame means?”
Here are the responses I often get:
- “a icky feeling in your stomach that you can’t get rid of”
- “a toxic feeling”
- “a painful feeling”
- “a feeling I have when I hate myself”
Shame, according to Brene Brown, PHD LMSW, is “an intensely painful feeling or experience of believing we are flawed and therefore unworthy of acceptance and belonging.”
The definition of shame I use in my groups is the feeling that corresponds with the belief, “I am bad” or “I am a mistake.”
Many people are confused about the differences between “Shame” and “Guilt.” We casually use them interchangeably, but “Guilt” is the feeling that goes with the thought, “I made a mistake,” whereas “Shame” is the feeling that goes with the thought, “I am a mistake.”
It is important to distinguish the differences because you can make a mistake without being a mistake. When you feel like you are a mistake, you don’t feel like you can change your behavior, so you become hopeless.
I believe shame leads to substance use, isolation, anger outbursts, depression, anxiety, psychosis, cutting, suicidal thoughts/suicide attempts, and other maladaptive behaviors.
If you can hold onto the belief “I am a good person” even when you make a mistake, you are able to grow from your mistakes, rather than sink into a shame spiral.
A shame spiral is when an event triggers your shame and you are unable to control or stop your self-loathing.
An example of a shame spiral is, “I can’t believe I just yelled at my wife. I’m such a jerk. God, I can’t believe I just did that,” and maybe at a more unconscious level.
“I am such an awful husband. My wife deserves better than me. I should protect her from me by avoiding her. I should protect myself from everyone because I am a monster.
I will never change, what’s the point of trying. I should just remove myself from everyone” and then comes the maladaptive behavior: substance abuse, self harm, and suicidal ideation/attempts.
To treat shame, you must do the following:
1) Identify your Shame: What do you dislike about yourself? What have you done that you have a hard time forgiving yourself for?
What parts of yourself do you hate? What are you insecure about? Finish this sentence, “I am not _____ enough.”
2) Talk about your Shame: Shame leads you to think that if you share your shame, then you will be judged negatively, so you should probably keep quiet. This thought process keeps you sick.
By sharing your shame with an emotionally safe group of people, you prove to yourself that you don’t need to be silent about your pain any longer and that you are worthy of love and belonging.
3) Develop Self-Compassion: In order to free yourself from shame, you must learn to love the parts of yourself that you hate.
You can learn to love these “dark” parts of yourself by gaining more understanding and insight as to how these parts of you have played a role in protecting you in some way.