Of all of the emotions we can experience as humans, shame is perhaps one of the most hard-hitting ones of them all. Indeed, a study from The Journal of Psychology showed that shame feelings are associated with low self-esteem, hostility, and psychological distress, with women experiencing higher levels of shame in comparison to men.
But what exactly is shame, anyway? And how can we be kind to ourselves if this emotion starts taking over? Read on for my tips.
The Crucial Difference Between Guilt and Shame
I define guilt as an emotion that occurs when you feel that you have broken your own moral code in some way. We feel guilty when we snap at our partner after a long day, when we didn't call our mom when we said we would, or when we generally acted in a way that didn't align with our personal value system. In this way, guilt is actually a very healthy and important emotion as it guides us to make amends.
Shame, too, can be useful when it's in healthy doses. Shame is the emotion that might step in when we feel like we've really messed up and can direct us to turn our attention inward and see what needs to change for us to feel like we're acting in healthier ways for ourselves and others.
But then there's toxic shame.
Toxic shame occurs when shame overrides your entire sense of self. Instead of thinking, "I'm a good person who did a bad thing," you think, "I'm a bad person. I'm unlovable. I'm disgusting." Your entire sense of self erodes and you start experiencing feelings of hopelessness and worthlessness, too. Unlike guilt or healthy shame, which often motivates us to make positive changes, toxic shame is paralyzing. In this state, we shut down. And when this state persists for days, weeks, or months, we enter what's called a shame spiral, where we eventually reach a point of feeling like others or even the entire world would be better off without us. It is a place from which no healthy growth can occur.
I'm sure it's no surprise to hear that toxic shame has the potential to lead to a number of mental health disorders, from anxiety and depression to eating disorders and substance abuse (1).
What to Do When You've Entered a Shame Spiral
1. To know how to gently remove yourself from a shame spiral, you have to know when you're in one. Here's a super useful acronym I found that indicates the different symptoms of shame (2):
Avoidance of the here-and-now
2. Brené Brown, one of the leading researchers on shame, found that individuals with a high degree of shame resilience—meaning they can move through shame "without jeopardizing their authenticity"—had these things in common:
They know what their shame triggers are.
This is very personal to each person. For those with eating disorders, for example, breaking one of their many eating rules like eating too many calories in a day has the potential to trigger a shame spiral. I often witness mothers feeling ashamed when they feel as though they haven't met the endless unrealistic expectations that are imposed on them from society. Or the couple going through infertility might feel ashamed and thus keep their diagnosis from friends and family.
PRACTICAL TIP: keep a journal or note in your phone and jot down the different moments in which shame arises. With heightened awareness, we can take more intentional steps to take care of ourselves proactively rather than reactively.
They have the ability to check the facts.
Whenever I'm feeling any intense emotion, I tell myself to check the facts, which is essentially about giving yourself a reality check.
PRACTICAL TIP: ask yourself questions like the following during a shame spiral:
Is it possible that there's more to the story that I'm not considering right now?
Is it possible that I'm being unnecessarily hard on myself?
They share their story.
I have learned that the antidote to shame is to be seen and learning that maybe—just maybe—you're not as bad as you think you are. One of the most powerful parts of therapy can be that you share your deepest, darkest secrets, only to learn that your therapist doesn't see you any differently at all.
I created a course recently called "Food, Feelings & Fertility," (not currently being offered) which was designed to support individuals and couples going through fertility struggles in a holistic way. From discussing natural ways to enhance fertility through nutrition to identifying infertility as a form of complicated grief, the course also created a sense of community for people going through similar journeys. It turns out that this was perhaps one of the most important aspects of the course. It was so powerful to watch peoples' shame dissipate once they learned that the "forbidden" things they were thinking or feeling were actually incredibly common. The person who admitted to feeling jealous about their closest friend becoming pregnant suddenly realized how normal that was once countless other participants shared similar stories. The person who said they felt alone in their struggle learned that others had been feeling really isolated, too. Sometimes, there's nothing more powerful than hearing someone say, "Me too."
3. See if there was ever an important function behind your toxic shame.
Taking a trauma-informed approach in psychotherapy is about moving away from asking, "What's wrong with you?" to "what happened to you?"
It can be very de-pathologizing to help people see how the problem they're bringing to therapy could have actually been a solution for them for a very long time, especially for individuals suffering from trauma.
Take someone struggling with an addiction, for example: on the surface, they might say that the problem is that they're drinking more than they want to be and that it's damaging their relationships. Upon exploring what alcohol does for them, I might learn that it is only when they're intoxicated that they feel that they're able to escape feelings of worthlessness or shame. Implementing behavioural strategies designed to help them cope with cravings will thus help, but will be insufficient. If we don't address the origins of the shame they're experiencing and why it might feel protective, we won't be getting to the root of the issue.
How might shame be protective, you ask? Consider the individual who grew up with an angry parent who could "blow" at any moment. If one were raised in such a context, it might not have been the best idea for them to be assertive as it could have led to escalation. In this way, the individual might have learned that shutting down and making themselves the problem (as is the case with shame) would have been the lesser of two evils. In other words, shame protected them.
I've learned as well that shame can be a coping strategy for people who struggle with control. I see this among people struggling with infertility a lot: in these cases, it can actually be more comforting for them to believe there's something wrong with them as it gives the illusion that they are then responsible for finding the solution. In these cases, some people find it harder to think, "Actually, maybe this issue is completely outside of my control."
4. Let your body help you.
Whenever I think of shame, I think of a dog with its leg curled between its legs. There's a similar sort of body language that overtakes someone when they feel toxic shame in my office: their shoulders are rounded, their spine is collapsed, and their gaze is down.
In these moments, there are actually changes that occur in the brain that affect your ability to think clearly. Unlike guilt, shame triggers a particular stress response that completely hijacks the prefrontal cortex, which is the part of the brain that controls more logical, helpful thinking. Indeed, I once learned in a lecture that we can't take in any new information when we are in a state of toxic shame. To add salt to the wounds, toxic shame activates circuits in the brain that are in charge of helping us hide from physical danger—the responses that cause us to run and hide (3).
If we don't have a way to communicate safety to our body, it can be very challenging to "think our way out" of shame.
My supervisor always says that the way out of shame is to "uncurl your tail." This is about uncurling your spine, sitting up straight, taking an invigorating breath in and out, and keeping your chin parallel to the floor.
Now, of course this isn't going to make the shame go away instantly. However, it is much harder for shame to continue spiralling when your posture is now sending a more positive message to your brain and nervous system.
5. Follow the anti-shaming roadmap.
Here are some steps I invite people to take when they experience shame:
As the expression goes: name it to tame it. Identify in your head (or out loud!) if you are experiencing guilt, healthy shame, or toxic shame. When we accurately name our emotions, we immediately gain some distance from them and are able to make more intentional next steps.
Acknowledge and accept the shame rather than beating yourself up for feeling ashamed, which just creates a vicious cycle! Remember, accepting an emotion doesn't mean you like it, it just means that you aren't making things worse for yourself by fighting it. See what happens in your body when you simply acknowledge the shame and allow it to be there momentarily.
Try your best to step back into guilt instead by checking the facts and asking what part of the situation you can take ownership for in a healthy way versus what parts you're feeling overly responsible for.
Express how you feel to safe person and vocalize your needs.
Visualize the most compassionate person in your life (or some imaginary entity if need be) and consider what they might say to you. You can take it one step further and imagine them giving you a huge, loving hug.
Remember that this feeling is temporary and that shame is an unreliable narrator.
Take care of yourself in the moment through distraction or self-care.
6. Practice self-compassion.
Self-compassion is one of the all-time best tools during a shame spiral in my opinion. Plus, when we feel compassion from others (or ourselves), our brain releases oxytocin, a hormone associated with feelings of empathy and trust. You know when you get a really good hug from a friend? It feels good because your body just got a rush of oxytocin.
Here are some good phrases/questions to keep in your back pocket to call upon during a shame spiral:
What would I say to a loved one if they were in this situation?
How many people have also been through this type of experience? (This reminds you that you aren't alone and aren't as bad as you think you are!)
How might this shame have helped me in the past? How might it be trying to help me now? Are there less hurtful ways of helping myself right now?
What do I need in this moment to feel connection? (Remember, you do not just have to rely on -people for connection; you can rely on music, art, nature, pets, fictional characters... the sky is the limit!)
The Bottom Line
Like any other emotion, guilt and shame are there to communicate something to us. Specifically, they tell us that we did something that wasn't aligned with our values. Left unchecked, however, these emotions can transform into toxic shame when we start believing that we are inherently flawed human beings as a result of not living up to an expectation we have of ourselves.
To step out of a shame spiral, the first step is to gain awareness about what shame is, what it looks like, and what triggers your own feelings of shame. From there, experiment with some of the aforementioned strategies to see what helps you in the moment. Imagine "uncurling your tail" and change your posture into one that feels more lifted and empowering. Identify that what you're experiencing is toxic shame and remind yourself that it will pass. Practice self-compassion by reminding yourself that someone out there is going through the exact same thing that you are in the moment and do whatever you can to feel a sense of connection to someone or something else. And when all else fails, ask yourself what you need to do in the moment to take care of yourself, whether that involves doing a self-care activity like reading a book or distracting yourself with funny TikToks temporarily.
For now, I'll leave you with a wonderful Brené Brown quote: "If we can share our story with someone who responds with empathy and understanding, shame can't survive."
If you or someone you know is struggling with shame, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org for individual, couples, or family therapy in person at our Markham or Vaughan offices or virtually via Zoom.