Escaping the shame spiral

Dr. Melissa Shepard Smiling in white lab coat

By Dr. Melissa Shepard

Yesterday, towards the end of a long day, I was working, and my mind started to drift off into thoughts about how tired I was. I thought about how desperately I wanted a break (not just from work, but from the many stressors in life, as I’m sure most people can relate). Before I knew it, I was knee-deep in a shame spiral, with thoughts like:


“You can’t take a break! You have to work harder, or you’ll never get out of this debt.”

“You should stop writing and get off social media and see more patients. You’ll never figure out a way to make it sustainable.”


“If you were smart enough, you could figure out a way to pull yourself out of this situation.”


“Other people are so much better than me. I’m just a loser. I suck at this, and I’ll never reach their level.”


First, let me say that it’s embarrassing to even write about this kind of a shame spiral with everything going on in the world right now. But, in all honesty, I did get sucked into these thoughts, despite knowing deep down that my problems are tiny in comparison to other people’s struggles.


Shame spirals aren’t exactly logical. But they are so common in those of us who struggle with depression, anxiety, or low self-esteem and what I did to myself yesterday was a great example of one.


A shame spiral refers to those times when we become upset about something (in my case, feeling tired and overwhelmed by our financial situation). Instead of taking action or looking at the situation logically, we turn inward and attack ourselves. We spiral into comparison, self-blame, and (often vicious) self-criticism that is often untrue and unhelpful.


For example, some of my tried-and-true shame spiral themes include things like:


“I’m not good enough and I’ll never be good enough.”


“I’m a bad mom.”


“I’m not really helping people.”


“I’m ugly/stupid/weird and no one likes me.”


“I’ll never get out of this situation. I’m a failure.”


“I’m a hypocrite and I have no business trying to help others if I still struggle sometimes.”


“I’ve made so many stupid decisions.”


“I don’t deserve success.”


So if it isn’t helpful or productive, why do we spiral into shame?


Well, in part, because we are easy targets for ourselves. We know every deep, dark secret of our past and all about our weaknesses. We can easily find something to feel bad about or criticize ourselves for when we know everything.


I also find that, oddly enough, we get some sort of strange satisfaction from the shame spiral. Sometimes things just suck for no reason, but having someone to blame gives us a sense of control.


Sometimes we get sucked into shame because it feels helpful. We often think that if we beat ourselves up enough, maybe it will motivate us to change. Or, if we wallow in self-pity, perhaps the Universe (or whatever we think may be responsible for our problems) will feel bad for us and give us what we want.


In reality, research has shown that self-criticism isn’t particularly helpful in the long term (see Kristen Neff and colleagues). And unfortunately, pity parties are not likely to be rewarded with luck or good fortune (in fact, they make “luck” less likely by distracting us from the hard work that leads to opportunity).


So what do I do when I’m struggling with a shame spiral?


Well, the first step with most things like this is awareness. Realizing you are in a shame spiral can be challenging, but pay attention when you feel stuck in self-loathing. When you notice that you are feeling down, look at the thoughts going through your head. Are they full of shame and judgment?


If the answer is yes, take a step back and ask yourself: Is this really helpful right now? Is dwelling on these thoughts really going to get me closer to my goals of being a better mom, helping people, becoming a better writer, getting out of debt, or building self-confidence?


The answer is usually a resounding no, which tells me it’s time to “defuse” from my thoughts. Cognitive defusion means watching our thoughts rather than getting swept up in them. We may not be able to make our self-critical thoughts magically disappear. Still, we can decide to take them a little less seriously. We can see our thoughts as products of our pasts, feelings, and fears rather than flawless representations of our reality. Cognitive defusion helps me allow my negative thoughts to come and go and refocus on my goals.


I’ve found that approaching my failures as learning experiences can also help. If I can look for ways to learn and grow from a disappointing or upsetting experience, I can focus on moving forward rather than beating myself up.


It’s not easy to let go of the shame spiral, but it’s something that gets easier with practice. And you deserve to let go of the shame and be proud of yourself. I’m proud of you 🙂

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