This post will show how to stop the shame spiral.
Okay, this is important, but it’s pretty straightforward. When you make a mistake you have two choices, shame or guilt.
What’s the Difference Between Shame and Guilt
So, let’s say you hurt someone you really care about. Guilt says, “Oh, what I did was wrong. I made a mistake.”
Shame says, “I am a mistake. There’s something wrong with me.”
So let’s say you flirt with your ex on the internet while you’re in a committed relationship.
Your girlfriend finds out, you have a huge fight.
In this case, shame doesn’t look like drooping your head. It looks like hot shame.
Maybe you scream and yell about what she does wrong too. You blame her for snooping, for being over-sensitive, for overreacting – and then storm out of the apartment and drive off.
But as you do, deep down you feel like a loser, like you’ll never be lovable because you’re such an F up. You don’t want to see anyone.
You don’t want to talk to anyone because you’re ashamed of what you did, or you know that you’ll never be happy because you screw up so much.
And then you head to the bar to be alone and drown your pain.
This is a shame response.
Shame says, “You’re a complete screwup, and you’ll never have a good relationship.”
Guilt says, “I messed up. I need to fix this.”
Now, deep down you know you messed up.
Deep down you value being honest, being faithful, and you know what you did was wrong.
So, let’s imagine this conversation goes differently.
Your girlfriend catches you flirting with other girls on the internet. What would honestly facing your guilt look like? Maybe saying something like, “I messed up. I’m so sorry. I’m going to fix this. I’m going to keep learning and get help so I can figure out how to stop doing this. Can we go to therapy together? How have I hurt you? Let me validate how awful this must feel for you.”
Now, this isn’t manipulation. This shouldn’t be manipulation. It should be taking responsibility.
Remember how pure emotions serve a function. The emotion of guilt can be motivating. It motivates us to make repairs.
“I will apologize. I will change. I’ll try not to do this again.”
The lie of shame tells you that your behavior is a permanent identity.
“I’m just a failure. I’ll never be loveable.”
Shame is paralyzing because it distorts reality, and it tells you that what you did wrong comes from some unchangeable aspect of yourself, that you’re broken and defective, that you’re damaged beyond repair.
Shame leads to defensiveness, trying to cover up what you’ve done, or just giving up.
Shame is a very subtle form of avoidance. It’s your super-smart brain trying to squirm its way out of responsibility by saying that you had no choice because you’re just a bad person.
But shame is a lie. It’s a distortion.
Shame can lead to self-punishment, withdrawal, blowing up relationships, and destructive behaviors like drug use.
On the other hand, guilt – and I’m not talking about exaggerated guilt due to impossible standards – but honest guilt can actually help improve relationships.
For an addict in recovery, feeling guilt can be a sign that you’re going through a healthy recovery process by owning your behaviors and trying to change them.
Okay, let’s do another example.
Let’s say you’re the manager of a marketing team, and you’ve got some serious challenges coming up.
You’re under a lot of pressure from upper management to get performance.
So, in a meeting, you find out that one of your team didn’t complete the task they were supposed to, and you just lose it.
You blow up at them. You chew them out in public. Everyone goes quiet. The meeting goes stale.
You tell everyone to get back to work and to get their jobs done.
But then you head back to your office, and you know you messed up.
Shame says, “You’re just not a good manager. You’ll just never be successful. No one likes you because you’re such an idiot. Why couldn’t you keep your cool and handle it like Bob does? Everyone likes him because he doesn’t get so uptight.”
Shame says, “Oh, you should just quit or change jobs.” Or “Just stop trying to have a good relationship, and rule like a tyrant.”
Shame’s message is “You’re just not a good person, so you might as well stop trying and withdraw.
Guilt would say, “Dang, I messed up. I need to apologize.”
And then you need to try to make repairs.
You work on yourself, apologize, manage your stress better, set better boundaries, use more clear expectations and outcomes when people don’t perform as expected.
Now, can you see how taking responsibility is so much work compared to shame?
Shame feels like self-righteous self-punishment.
It feels a little vindicating, but it’s really just a sneaky way to evade responsibility for your actions, for the work it takes to make repairs.
And shame leads to lost opportunities, cutting yourself off from others, drug use to numb the pain.
It leads to low self-esteem and in general, just not growing.
It’s just wallowing in a pool of self-loathing. So, what to do?
How to Stop the Shame Spiral
Here are three steps to letting go of shame: learn to identify it, face it, and take responsibility.
So first, get good at recognizing shame’s story in your life.
What does shame sound like for you?
Maybe write down the way you talk to yourself when you shift to shame.
And then catch yourself doing it.
When you catch yourself shaming yourself, say “That’s shame. That’s a lie.”
Number two: face it.
There’s this phrase in treatment, “shame dies in sunlight.”
So just like bacteria is killed by sunlight, shame dissipates when you look it in the eye.
Face your shame directly.
Say it out loud: “Shame is telling me I’m a terrible person.”
It may help to tell someone about it. They can help you see through the lies shame tells you.
This is one of the most powerful aspects of therapy, telling someone about the things you’re ashamed of and learning that the shame isn’t truthful, that it’s not your fault that you’re abused, that you’re not a terrible human being.
Maybe you just have some things to work on.
Then check yourself for responsibility.
If you think you’re a terrible person, what kind of person do you want to be?
A patient boss, a faithful partner?
These characteristics speak to your values.
A value is a direction, not an outcome.
A value is something you can always take action on in the present moment.
You can always strive to be a little closer to your values.
So, take responsibility for your actions.
When you do mess up, which we all do, let the beautiful but uncomfortable emotion of honest guilt serve its function.
Let it motivate you to do the hard thing. Admit your mistake. Try to make repairs. See what you can learn so you don’t do it again.
But don’t get sucked into the shame hole, where you just spiral around feeling like crap but not fixing anything.
You are not broken. You are not bad. You are not irreparable. Don’t let yourself believe shame’s lies.
Combat Anxiety and Depression that Comes with Shame
Most people don’t know that when you have depression, some physical structures in your brain actually shrink.
But most people also don’t know that when you change the way you think, you can actually change the physical structure of your brain.
Modern imaging has given us a window into the brain to show us that the brain has plasticity, meaning it changes depending on how you think and how you act.
Now, most people have never been taught these simple ways to improve mental health.
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In this course you’ll learn a bunch of ways that your mind and body are connected.
You’ll learn what to eat to combat depression and anxiety and how light therapy actually changes the serotonin levels in your brain – and research shows that it’s more effective than antidepressants for mild to moderate depression.
You’ll learn that when you improve your sleep, 87% of people see their depression symptoms decrease.
These skills are all backed by research, and many of them only take a few minutes each day.
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So, if you’d like to learn more, check out the link below.