Strategies to Stop the Shame Spiral

A friend of mine who is a shining example of someone who Does the Work to reflect on and improve his life recently mentioned struggling with “shame spirals”.

The term was coined by clinical psychologist Gershen Kaufman, who described it as

“A triggering event occurs. … a person is suddenly enmeshed in shame, the eyes turn inward and the experience becomes totally internal, … The shame feelings flow in a circle, endlessly triggering each other … causing the sense of shame to deepen … until finally the self is engulfed.”

In other (wikipedic) words, it’s “ an internalized, self-reinforcing sequence of shame events”. I like to think of it like this: when you wander into the forest of your own brain, sometimes you find lovely, surprising things, or strange wonderful friends…and sometimes you get stuck in the mud. In fact, you can get to the point where you know about shame spirals and you shame yourself for being in them.

Luckily, there’s a superhero who can save the day.

Brené Brown to the Rescue

Everybody’s favorite empathy researcher and writer has a lot to say on the subject, often in frustratingly short snippets of video. However, she does identify the characteristics of people with “shame resilience” – that is, the ability to feel shame and move on from it. I’m not sure I like using the word shame there, myself – I’ve always considered shame to be a situation where you feel inferior for who you are rather than simply feeling regret for something you did.

But I’m not a world-famous shame researcher, so I’m going to go with her ideas.

The first thing is to recognize that shame needs three things to thrive and draw you into the spiral: Secrecy, Silence, and Judgement. If you can counter these things – basically cut off the life-support system for the shame spiral – you can develop your own shame resilience.

On a clip with Oprah, she outlined three things you can do right away to help combat a shame spiral:

  1. Talk to yourself like you talk to someone you love when they’re feeling unworthy Maybe that’s in your head, maybe you need a mirror, maybe you need to put on your webcam and cel phone and pretend you’re self-skyping. But whatever it is, you probably know how you would try to cheer someone else up. Why not do it to yourself?
  2. Reach out to someone you trust. This fights that “secrecy” problem, as well as getting out of the “judgement” idea. Pro tip: let that person know what you need from them, and that is likely not a “solution.” Instead, just finding someone you know likes you (”for who you are, not what you do”) and seeing how the shame spiral stands up to their unconditional love and support. (I predict: not for long).
  3. Tell your story. Brené says “Shame cannot survive being spoken.” Here’s where you get rid of the silence. It’s related to the fact that shame spirals, like most circular logic, don’t really survive being put out in the open and examined.

Shame can hit you from any direction, at any time, especially as you practice being more vulnerable and open to loved ones. the hardest one to learn to love is yourself, after all. At the same time, it’s as necessary as “put on your own air mask before assisting others” – you can love others and be self-shaming, but it’s not easy.

The Banzai Strategy

Take this part with a big chunk of salt, because I might be completely wrong. My own strategy for getting out of shame spirals has very little to do with what Brené Brown recommends (but that’s not saying she’s wrong).

See, I just ignore it. I throw myself into some project or workout or experience that doesn’t give me time to focus on all the things that are Wrong With Me. It can’t be something that only takes part of my attention, like a tv show or surfing the web; it needs to be an engrossing book, or a challenging performance, or a craft that requires care and focus.

There are probably neurochemical processes involved in why this works, but what I find is that when I’m done with the “banzai” project (that is, yelling banzai! and throwing myself into it) (and no, that’s not cultural appropriation; look up the origin of the term yourself) that shame spiral is pretty much a memory. Maybe it’s also because I’ve just done something that required my full attention, and that is something to be proud of.

Regardless, consider that a fourth strategy in case the first three don’t work. But do take action when you find yourself in those self-critical quicksand moments!

After all, it’d be a shame if you didn’t.

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