Shame spirals are the ultimate saboteurs that take us off our paths, block our growth and stop us from living in aligned purpose rich with self-confidence and self-love. In this article, I describe why your shame spirals appear and 9 tips to free yourself from shame so you can maintain your wellbeing and flow.
All of us, unless we’re very, very lucky have experienced the shame spiral.
They happen most when we’re in public or with one person.
You’ll muster up bravery or vulnerability and share your opinion — yay you! But immediately or later that night, you’ll think, Oh no…why did I do that?!
Then your inner critic comes in and says, “Yes, why DID you do that?! You’re wrong. You should not have done that. Imagine what they think of you now.”
And so, the shame spiral begins.
The downward spiral that gathers speed as it descends, each loop pulling you into a state of shame and some version of a crippling, horrible, slimy feeling of “I am bad. Unworthy. There’s something wrong with me. I’m not okay.”
Each loop of the spiral amplifies the feelings of shame and the voice of your inner critic while burning down your self-esteem and self-love.
Each negative thought makes our shame spiral loop faster and gather intensity.
If you’re nodding in lamenting agreement right now, keep reading.
There is a way to not only free yourself from the shame spiral but to nip it in the bud before it derails your psyche and keeps you up at night.
Why do we set off shame spirals?
- Sometimes there really does not seem to be a traceable reason.The spiral springs up out of nowhere, hijacking us in a flurry. Suddenly, we’re inside of it saying, “How did I get inside here?! This is horrible!” It can feel like you’re literally being sucked into a vortex of shame.This can include phenomenal feelings of embarrassment and beliefs that there cannot be anything good about you at all at that moment. These feelings carry an especially sharp bite since they jump out by surprise.The great news? You don’t need to I.D. the reason to get yourself out of it. You’ll see why in a moment.
- Shame can be triggered by an apparent mistake — the idea of a mistake or a real mistake. The thing about the shame spiral is that it’s ludicrously out of proportion to what you’ve done. The shame, the spiral and the criticism are so much bigger and so out of alignment with the action that you took. This is a major signal that you’re in a shame spiral. A shame spiral is never a true reflection of reality. It’s an exaggerated reaction that activates the inner critic early on. It’s that critical voice that feeds the spiral and exacerbates and deepens the sense of shame. So, whether you merely perceive that you made a mistake or you truly did, the shame spiral takes it and runs, turning it into a bigger and bigger snowball as it loops you downward. Before you know it, that thing you “did” really does seem like the biggest mistake in the world.
- You can spark the shame spiral and not realise it until later. This often happens by going over an edge and doing something new or expansive, or stepping in the direction of your calling or purpose. This is especially easy if you allow yourself to be vulnerable and expose yourself to the world. You could feel fine at the moment, welcoming or proud of your growth and vulnerability. But at some point afterwards, a terrible backlash can hit, fueled by the vulnerability itself.
- A shame spiral is often linked to some of our earliest interactions and wounds around our sense of self. Who we believe ourselves to be is often connected to those moments of sharp, tough or painful things that we experienced as a child. Our sense of self is set in motion long ago by the way we absorbed the sharp experience, especially if it involved negativity or criticism. Painful experiences that pushed our sense of self into question often stay with us (until we address and heal them).
What do you do when you find yourself in a shame spiral?
- Map it. Use a journal and/or someone you can trust to get to know your shame spirals. Start to know what your particular spiral looks like, the kinds of things your inner critic might say and what it feels like when that voice speaks. This awareness is going to empower you to recognize the spiral when you’re in it. if you have a trusted person, friend or therapist that you can sit with and map your shame spiral, it can make a huge difference.Journal it out! Jot down everything you can think of that could help you get out of the shame spiral — and keep this list easy to access so you can refer to it when the spiral arrives.Journal about it when you’re IN the spiral, then journal about it when you’re outside of it. These comparisons can greatly speed up the mapping-out process.
- Recognise the shame spiral when it begins. Recognize that it is happening, simply thinking or saying aloud, “Oh, I’m in a shame spiral.” This seems incredibly simplistic, but it immediately breaks some of the shame’s trends. Recognizing it alone can begin to drain the inner critic’s power.
- Frame it. As you get to know the patterns and signs of your shame spirals, what your particular spiral looks like and the kinds of things your inner critic might say, you generate sovereignty from it. It’s powerful to be able to catch the spiral, acknowledge it and reflect on what you know to be true about it. By doing this, you begin to pull yourself out of it.Try thinking or saying aloud, “Oh, I’m in a shame spiral. This is not a reflection of my true reality. It’s an exaggeration and it’s out of alignment.”You may also simply be feeling vulnerable. If that’s your truth, then you can acknowledge it by saying, “I might not be bad or wrong here, just moving through a new or vulnerable place.”Acknowledge the true cause or source, best you can decipher, and the spiral’s stronghold weakens.
- Reframe it. While you’re inside the shame spiral, what you’re feeling and thinking and what your inner critic is saying is usually way out of proportion to what happened. So, it can be helpful to coach yourself and say, “This is not true. This is not a real representation of what happened. My shame spiral is exaggerating.”
- Be the compassionate onlooker for yourself. Recognize that the shame spiral may have touched on an injury or trauma. Particularly, it can be something early in your life or childhood. I encourage you to be kind to yourself. To be loving and compassionate and see if you can use that kindness and compassion to start to soothe yourself.If you feel too close to the situation, ask yourself what a compassionate onlooker would say to you at that moment to support you. Or think of what you would say to help a stranger or loved one feel soothed.Often, it’s much easier to encourage others than it is to encourage ourselves.
- Pinpoint what helps you diffuse the shame spiral’s hold on you. What helps you gain clarity in the moment when things start to get shaky? The shame spiral can trigger the fight-flight-freeze response in the nervous system. So, anything that helps us to regulate or soothe our nervous systems can be amazingly helpful to deescalate the shame vortex. Sometimes this looks like changing up what you’re doing or where you are for things that are nurturing to us. Get some exercise, go into nature, sit in the sunshine, read a book…Do something that distracts you from the shame spiral and gives you the chance, space and energy to reset and soothe yourself.When you pinpoint the soothing strategies that work best for you, write them down and keep the list easy to access so you can turn to it for ideas when your mind is struggling too much with the shame spiral to remember.
- Speak back to your inner critic! Tell it off. Tell it to shut up. Take a stand against it. Take your side and say, “No, that’s wrong. It wasn’t that bad.”Or maybe say, “Actually, I was so courageous. I went over an edge. I did something that needed to happen. I spoke up on my behalf or someone else’s. I was courageous, not bad.”Stand up for yourself like you would stand up for a loved one.
- Try humour. I use humour with myself and with my clients to try and bring a little bit of playfulness to the inner critic. Speaking back to the critic in a fun, playful and humorous way can be very disarming and calm down the critic. Plus, laughter works wonders to calm the nervous system and make space for clear thought.
- Reach out for support. Get a clearer perspective from a friend, a family member, a therapist, a colleague, or someone that you know and trust who loves you. Receiving love and nurturance is usually the best and most powerful medicine for a shame spiral and can stop it in its tracks pretty fast, or at least slow the whirling down and pull you out of it so you can have a clearer perspective. In my own life, if a shame spiral gets triggered in me, I’m pretty good at nailing it. But if I need a bit of support, I have a few people that I’ll reach out to.Reach out to your people for a clear perspective, for love, kindness, reassurance and for comfort. You will find they are grateful to you for asking for their help and happy to give it.
If you’re a perfectionist…
Finally, a loving note to my dear perfectionists out there.
If you’re a perfectionist, the shame spiral might be something that you know extremely well. As a reformed perfectionist and a therapist to many, I know perfectionists fear shame more than anything. A lot of perfectionism is organized around not experiencing shame.
As a perfectionist, when a shame spiral arises, one of its main motives is to make you give up on your dreams, on your calling, on your growth, on the thing that you’re doing and the new ways you’ve been stepping out into the world.
So, if you’re a perfectionist, it’s crucial to start working your way through the list above. Because you mustn’t give up on your dreams, on birthing your unique ideas and creations and gifts to the world.
It is my deepest hope that as awakening beings, and as humans, we all learn to get out of these spirals quickly and return to equilibrium more constantly. Imagine the self-love and collective love it would make possible!
How do you free yourself from your own shame spirals? I’d love to hear from you in the comments below.