Toxic Shame Cycle
I’m a bad sister, a terrible daughter, a worse friend, a useless employee, an insufferable know-it-all, an awful writer, a lazy housekeeper, a horrible budgeter, and the world’s most pitiful 30-year-old.
Or at least that’s what my shame tells me. There are multiple times a week when I catch myself in a shame cycle, listening to those cruel, repetitive voices we all have in our heads that remind me over and over again how many mistakes I’ve made and how many more I’ll probably make. Because it can be so difficult to break out of those cycles, it’s not uncommon for them to last for hours, days, sometimes weeks… but I’ve spent a lot of time practicing shame awareness over the past decade, and on a good day, when I’m taking good care of myself, I’m actually able to quiet those feelings of shame and move in a more positive direction. If you struggle with your own shame cycles, please know you’re not alone. Everyone (at least occasionally) has those secret, sinking feeling that maybe they are the absolute worst. You can’t necessarily stop the shame from trying to rear its ugly head on a regular basis, but you can learn to acknowledge the feeling and become more resilient to the times when it gets loud.
What is Shame?
Shame usually starts with guilt. Guilt is when we feel badly about making a particular mistake. Maybe you bombed a quiz at school. Maybe you snapped at your mom or your best friend in frustration. Maybe you forgot to take out your trash, move your clothes from the washer to the dryer, call your grandmother back, or turn in that one homework assignment. Guilt is the feeling when you realize you wish you’d done something different. Guilt is when you acknowledge that next time, you’d prefer to behave differently. Guilt is useful, because guilt is when your brain learns how you want to be as opposed to how you recently acted.
Shame takes guilt a step too far. Shame is when you go from realizing that you made a mistake to feeling like you are the mistake.
Guilt tells you that you forgot to take out the trash, and shame tells you that makes you a terrible roommate. Guilt tells you that you bombed a quiz, and shame says that makes you are stupid. Guilt reminds you that you forgot to call your grandmother, and shame tells you that’s because you’re a self-absorbed jerk.
Shame can be very convincing. Shame, unlike guilt, is not useful. In fact, it’s extremely harmful!
Why is Shame Harmful?
While that temporary feeling of guilt can motivate you to do better in the future, the feeling of shame lingers. It sinks in. It settles in your mind and makes you feel like you can’t do better. You get stuck in shame. This can either lead to or be a leading symptom of mental illnesses like depression, anxiety, BPD, bipolar disorder, PTSD, eating disorders and many more. Our brains can form habits of shameful thoughts, making it almost impossible to break out of the cycle without help. And perhaps worst of all, shame can convince us that we aren’t worthy of that help, that we aren’t worthy of being free from shame, that we deserve to be constantly berated by the lies that say we are worthless garbage. It’s no surprise that getting stuck in that headspace can lead to destructive behavior patterns, addiction, and even self-harm. That’s why it’s so important to learn how to identify and reduce feelings of shame when you can… shame can be so powerful that addressing it can actually become a matter of life and death.
How Can You Reduce Feelings of Shame?
There is a lot of research out there now about the differences between guilt and shame, how to combat persistent feelings of shame, and ways to be more aware of your mental wellness to prevent shame cycles. One of my favorite mental health advocates is shame researcher Brene Brown. You may have heard of her, because ever since she did a popular TedTalk back in 2010, her work has gotten a lot of attention, for good reason!
Brown calls shame “the gremlin that says I’m not enough,” and turning my inner shame into the idea of a cartoonish gremlin has been instrumental in my own shame resilience journey. When I realize that one of my shame gremlins is speaking up to say something like, “You’re running late on that deadline because you’re a loser,” it’s helpful for me to name the gremlin. I literally say aloud, “Okay, shame gremlin, I hear you saying I’m a loser, and I know where you’re coming from, but I’m going to need you to take a backseat for now.” I imagine picking the gremlin up, gently, because that gremlin is a part of me, and tucking him into a corner where he can be quiet for a little while.
I recommend giving this a try. Is it cheesy? Maybe, but as Brown reminds us over and over again in her work, shame thrives on staying hidden. When you call shame out into the open, it immediately loses some of its power. So, next time one of your shame gremlins starts to whine about how you’re a failure because of this or that, call it out! It also helps to tell a trusted friend, “Hey, one of my gremlins is being really talkative today.” Usually, once you tell your (trusted) friend that a gremlin is trying to convince you that you aren’t worthy, they’ll let you know that you’re incredibly valuable to them, and that affirmation from a loved one can also work wonders in silencing that gremlin for a little while. And actually, my go-to friend to tell about the gremlins is Jesus… He’s always the first person to remind me who I am, that what the gremlins are saying is a lie, and that I’m fearfully and wonderfully made, perfect in His eyes, and precious no matter how many times I leave dirty dishes in my sink overnight.
Practice Shame Resilience
It takes consistent awareness and practice to become more resilient to shame, so being patient with yourself is key. Those gremlins will always be around--that’s just part of being human--but you can learn to tend to them quickly, aggressively, and kindly so that you don’t get as overwhelmed by their lies as you used to. Sometimes, though, we all need a little extra help with that part, so don’t be afraid to ask for help from a counselor or therapist. A great place to start might be to reach out to one of our email mentors or Hope Coaches for guidance on how to find mental health resources in your area. It’s also important to make sure you’re taking good care of yourself so that you have the energy to cope with the gremlins. Above all, don’t let the shame stay hidden. As Brene Brown says, “shame always has a seat at the table,” but shame doesn’t deserve to thrive. You do.
It's possible to feel better about yourself if you have low self-esteem by practicing these 5 simple things.