stopping the shame spiral.

Fine.  I’ll admit it: I wear shame like a second skin.  But up until now, I’ve refused to acknowledge it.

I’ve struggled with extreme shame sensitivity for as long as I can remember.  One odd look, a slightly off-color remark, any mild criticism (constructive or otherwise), and I tumble headlong into a vicious shame spiral.  It’s like I’m Alice, and shame is my personal rabbit-hole.

But, before I get completely emotionally naked, I’ve got to give credit where credit is due.  The term “shame spiral” (and the inspiration for this post…and many posts to come) is the absolutely incredible Brene Brown and her book, The Gifts of Imperfection.  If you have never seen any of her TED Talks or read any of her books, do yourself a favor and check them out.  Like, yesterday.

Much of Dr. Brown’s research–and a major area of personal exploration during her “2007 Breakdown Spiritual Awakening,” as she affectionately calls it–pertains to shame and its manifestations.  And, as I read about her experiences and insights, I realized that I need to ask myself many of the same questions that she confronted.

So, here we go.

What messages and expectations trigger shame for me?

A more fitting question might be, “What messages and expectations don’t trigger shame for me?”  In all seriousness, I think that I am most susceptible to shame in my personal relationships, my professional life, and as a function of my own behaviors.  For example (note that the items listed below are things that I tell myself or that I “read into” others’ behaviors…not things that are necessarily explicitly stated.  Yet I still feel immense amounts of shame about them.):

My relationships:

  • I am not a good enough girlfriend. (This is probably my #1 issue…”You don’t give me enough space,” “You’re jealous for no reason,” “You overreact about the smallest things,” …and the list goes on.)
  • I am not a good enough daughter/sibling.  (“You don’t visit enough,” “You’re selfish,” “You don’t call enough,” “You don’t seem interested in what’s going on in so-and-so’s life.”)
  • I am not a good enough friend. (“You’re flaky,” “You make everything about you,” “You never want to do things that I suggest.”)

My professional life:

  • I’m not smart/skilled/talented enough.
  • I don’t appreciate the work that everyone else does.
  • I make everything “all about me” and the work that I do.
  • I don’t devote enough time to work.

My personal behaviors:

  • I drink too much.
  • I smoke (my e-cig) too much.
  • I weigh too little/too much.
  • I don’t work out enough.
  • I don’t spend enough time on myself.

How do I react to feelings of shame?

Shame has been difficult for me to face and contend with, partly because of my extreme and immediate reaction to such feelings.  I don’t think that blood literally rushes to my head, but it certainly seems like it–my face feels hot, my mind starts racing, and I have trouble hearing or listening to anything around me.  I have a history of OCD, and my obsessions come back in full-force when I’m feeling ashamed.  I beat myself up for ending up in a shame-provoking situation, and I can’t stop thinking about how others are responding to me and the implications for the future.

Once the shame-provoking situation has passed, I tend to isolate myself so that I can spiral even further.  Depending on the intensity of my shame, I might not eat, I might drink more than usual or suck on my e-cig as though my life depended on it, and I might be extremely unproductive at work. I might tear up or lose my cool at the slightest provocation.

If my shame sources from something in my personal life (e.g., I overreacted to something my boyfriend did), then I have the tendency to “puff up” and lash out if directly confronted.  On the other hand, if my shame is the result of a professional slip-up, then I tend to “shrink down” and become small and meek.  In other words, I sometimes become a cruel and malicious bitch (which I think is partly a residual effect of my prior relationship, and partly a sad attempt to stand my ground and be “heard”), and I sometimes try to become invisible.

How do I overcome my feelings of shame?

As an extrovert, I often don’t feel like I truly “overcome” my feelings of shame until I’ve “talked them out.” It’s easier to overcome feelings of shame that source from my professional life–I’m fortunate enough to have an open and trusting relationship with my boss, so I tend to work through some of my more intense feelings with her.  Depending on the circumstances, I can sometimes confront the person that made me feel ashamed to get more clarity or context.  Sometimes I’m able to take action and quickly prove myself.  The remainder of the time, I have to just let my feelings of shame pass.  Fortunately, my “professional shame” subsides more quickly than it used to, and I’m generally over it within 24 hours (and often more quickly).

Shame sourcing from my personal life is a totally different story.  I tend to process most of my emotions with my best friend (ugh…she must feel so honored that I ask her to co-shoulder most of my emotional baggage), and I’ve recently started working through things with my mother as well. Dr. Brown talks about how not everyone deserves to hear your struggles…that people have to earn that privilege.  I love this idea, and it’s made me think more deeply about trying to pair each opportunity for processing my shame with the ‘right’ person.

Regardless, I’m usually not able to totally crawl out of my shame spiral until I’ve talked things out with the provoking party.  Meaning, I might suffer silently for days or weeks or, in one particularly impressive case, two years.  Once I’ve worked up the courage to confront the provocateur (so to speak), then I usually am able to process, package, and put away my feelings of shame within a day or so.

So, this is fascinating.  I’ve always had a general sense of how I react to the shameful moments in my life, but I never realized how necessary it is for me to confront my shame head-on, either by taking concrete steps toward reclaiming my sense of self-worth or by hashing thing out with the provocateur.  In order to promote a faster ‘recovery,’ I apparently need to take ownership of how I’m feeling and do something about it.

How can I claim my shame?

I think that Dr. Brown is right–by acknowledging shame, we undermine the power that shame has over us.  I need to feel more comfortable recognizing my feelings of shame, leaning into them, and calling them by name.  I need to take action more quickly instead of allowing myself to wallow in self-doubt and self-pity.  I need to embrace my vulnerability as a lovable part of myself and feel comfortable sharing it with others in order to live more authentically.  To do this, I need to start identifying (and cultivating) relationships that are deserving of such revelation.

Whew.  Well, that was brutal and freeing.

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