It always begins in the same way – and by that, I mean that I am doing something perfectly normal and routine, and the guilt hits me out of nowhere. The shame, the anxiety, the horror, the reliving and reimagining over and over again of a situation or event…and it comes out of nowhere.
Today’s example is perfect. I was hiking with one of my kids, and I was very aware of how steep the drop was on the other side of the narrow path. I felt safe, and we were both going slow and steady to ensure we did not fall. But in my head, I was thinking ahead to what would happen if I did fall. That thought turned into a guilt trip about taking my child out where she could be hurt, which spiraled into how many bad decisions I have made in my entire life, which spiraled into thinking of my many bad decisions in my life, etc. Before I could even realize it, I was internally chastising myself for most of my life decisions and wondering how people could even look at me without seeing what a terrible person I am.
This is a shame spiral, and I can find myself deep in one in less than 30 seconds. A rare and undesirable talent. It can be defined in multiple ways. but the best way I can describe it is a continuous cycle of guilt and self-judgment. Instead of looking at oneself, acknowledging flaws and failures, and moving on, a person in a shame spiral cannot move on. There is some part of your brain and your conscience that will not break free of the negative thoughts and guilt. In short, a shame spiral just sucks.
I joke that guilt is ingrained into my mind. I was raised Catholic and always felt very badly about mistakes or sins. I can remember being relieved that I was able to attend confession so that I could unburden my mind with things I had done wrong; however, I found that this was not always an effective way to alleviate my guilt. But I cannot blame religion entirely for this pattern of behavior. Excessive guilt and shame have been in my mind for as long as I can remember. I’m the person who feels badly if I cut someone off in traffic 3 days ago – that’s how burdened I often feel.
There is an older article from the Huffington Post called “The Shame Spiral.” When I read it, it was like I was the author. She described her feelings of inadequacy, shame, fear, and sadness so clearly. Jill Di Donato, the author, explained her theory on the frequency of the shame spiral: “We live in a culture where at every turn — from our religious beliefs to our peers’ admonishments — judgment is de rigueur. But the difference between shame and guilt is that shame is an internalized feeling of guilt.”
This hits the bullseye. We feel judgment everywhere and in everything, especially as women. We are the best mothers or the worst mothers; we are too fat or too thin; we are weird and different or we are not original enough; we are too perfect or we make too many mistakes. It is not so much that we cannot admit our mistakes but that we are too ashamed to address them. I often feel like there is never a happy medium or a place of acceptance, but I am learning that this view is MY view and entirely inaccurate.
Why am I telling you this? After all, one of my issues is feeling as if everyone knows my flaws and mistakes. I write about this because the best way to combat a shame spiral is to self-talk. You have to literally tell yourself that everything is okay, in the most basic sense. It is about telling yourself that you have flaws, that you have mistakes, and that everyone has these same things. Everyone screws up at work. Everyone yells at their kids or spouses. Everyone is a bad friend sometimes. Everyone has a story of when they drank too much, when they chose something risky, when they hurt someone, etc. Instead of dwelling on these things, you have to accept that this is life, that you are normal, and that no one is judging you as harshly as you are of yourself. It’s about taking back the control in your mind.
So if you are like me and have a talent for the quick shame spiral – I feel you. It sucks. The feelings, anxiety, and memories can make you want to crawl in bed and hide from the world. However, I hope that you are also trying to stop these moments. It’s easier said than done, and I’m living proof of that. I still try though. I take the advice of therapists and books, I tell myself that I am not a bad person, and I try to remember that no one is perfect.
I’m not a success story yet, but I’m working on it.