How To Stop Beating Yourself Up When You Feel STUCK In A Shame Spiral

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why shame is painful

Shame is like the mythical monster under your bed. 

You are SO terrified that it will devour you that you won't even look to see if the monster is real.

When you allow yourself to see and feel your shame by shining a light on it, you will see that the story about your shame was all made up — just like the monster under the bed.  

I have let shame run my life for many years, by not allowing myself to look at it, acknowledge it or feel it.

By keeping it at bay, I thought I was protecting myself from the pain it generated, but what I really did was created an environment for it to fester and grow, perpetuating my pain far longer than the painful experiences out of which the shame grew. 

My shame pattern looks basically like this:

  • I do something.
  • Someone I care about doesn’t like it and reacts – likely from fear.
  • I register their disappointment or anger, feel immediate shame and freeze.

When preparing to write this article on shame, I thought I had a perfect example I could use to portray the shame experience. 

There was a pattern of engagement I had with a close friend in which our personalities went into battle in such a way that I played the victim for a long time. 

In the draft of the article, I went into some detail about our relationship and thought I would run the article past my friend before submitting it for publication, since I referred to our relationship.  

As you may have guessed, she was not happy with what I wrote and did not want me to publish it. 

She thought I should have known that she wouldn’t want me to write about that since I knew she was a private person.

When I heard her negative reaction, I felt a pang in my stomach and a wave of nausea.

Then I froze. 

I didn’t want to feel like that.

I thought, “I can’t write about shame, because it will hurt my friend. I have to trash the article.”

I stopped myself in my own tracks. 

Then I got angry because I thought she was trying to control me and started fretting about how I could ever write about anything, because I write from personal experience and my experiences often involve other people. 

I started to explain how it was really about me, and how I noticed my pattern around pushing away shame, not looking at it in order to feel peaceful. 

Then I felt another pang in my stomach and nausea again. This time, however, it occurred to me to pay attention to that physical reaction. 

It was telling me something.

Suddenly it dawned on me that I felt ASHAMED for not thinking of how the article would impact my friend  how it would feel to her. 

Instead of running away from the feeling, I decided this time to let it come and wash over me.

I dropped my thoughts, turning my attention to the sensation in my body, and the emotion I was feeling.

Quite frankly, it felt awful. 

I cried and cried, fearing I had created permanent disconnection with my friend by even conceiving of the article.

But, lo and behold, after not such a long period of time, my breathing slowed down, my muscles began to relax, the nausea and fear went away — and I was, much to my surprise, okay. 

I was okay, and I realized that I hadn’t actually done anything wrong.

Then I began to laugh out loud.

It occurred to me that I didn’t need to write about the pattern with my friend at all.

I had all I needed right there in front of me.

The experience of writing something that triggered a fear reaction in my friend ended up triggering a shame reaction in me that I could see in real time, allowing me to observe who I become when I am in the grips of shame. 

So here is what I saw:

I feel SHAME and then…

I go through my physical response cycle, then I try to resist that feeling and turn away from the shame.

Then I judge the messenger — whoever delivered the words or judgment that triggered my shame.

Then I make up stories about them. They shouldn’t have reacted that way. They just don’t understand me. They are trying to control me. They don’t care about my creativity. 

Then I feel more shame.

How could I react that way? I am so mean and insensitive.

I jump to artificial compassion for the messenger, in order to avoid my feelings and feel better about myself imagining that I am more understanding than them.

Then I deflate and become a smaller version of myself.

I cry.

I hide.

I disengage.

I lose focus.

I am literally unable to think.

On and on it goes. 

In a nutshell, I utterly and completely go out of the state of being present in my emotion and experience, and I lose myself as I resist the shame.  

What I was reminded of through this experience is that I have a habit of shaming myself and running away from the shame I created.

I actually create more pain for myself when I resist feeling the shame and go into my crazy tailspin, fueled by judgments about myself and others. 

The tailspin lasts far longer than the couple of minutes it takes to drop my judgment stories and let the shame wash over me and dissipate.  

It is the not wanting to look at and feel the shame that is the problem, not the feeling of shame itself.  

There was a time in my life when I would let shame knock me down for days, months, years at a time.

It was a well-established habit. What I eventually came to understand is that the only way to break the habit is to practice allowing the shame to roll on through.

It is just a form of fear that I trigger in myself, believing I shouldn’t have done what I did. 

It is far more productive to let the shame move through, from a space of presence for it, and then consider whether a different course of action would bring me closer to what I want.

I admit, I do feel surprised when I realize that I, even with practiced awareness, can still let shame stop me in my tracks.

And, if I am not present, I can shame myself twice over for getting stuck in shame. 

Over the years, I have come to accept that this is a blind spot for me, but I am okay with that because I know that the antidote is simple:

Hold the shame lightly and let it go.

Not only do I get to free myself from prolonged pain when I break the shame habit, there is the benefit of who I become when I free myself from shame.

Reliably, after releasing shame, my creativity flows. I am more open-hearted, compassionate and understanding.  

I am open to possibilities and solutions. I have so much more energy. I feel much more powerful and joyful.  

To me, the benefits far outweigh the relatively brief period of discomfort.

So, when you imagine that shame monster lurking under the bed, instead of pulling the covers over your head, wishing it would go away and leave you alone ... grab your flashlight and take a look.  

If you're ready to release shame, sign up for a complimentary coaching session with Michelle Thompson, who is a life coach specializing in personal and relationship transformation. Visit her website for more information.