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Speak to an accredited and experienced therapist to help pull you out of a shame spiral and teach you how to avoid them in the future. Simply click here to connect with one via BetterHelp.com.
Almost everyone on the planet has said or done things that they feel shame about later.
This is a normal part of life, and it is actually an invaluable learning experience, albeit an uncomfortable one.
Most people can experience a shame-inducing event, wince a little about it afterward, and move on. They’ll remember the lesson they learned, but they won’t feel damaged or hampered by it at a later date.
In contrast, some people get absolutely devastated by these experiences. Instead of learning and growing, they fall down a “shame spiral,” which can be difficult to free themselves from.
Furthermore, these shame spirals don’t just happen shortly after the fact: they can come up repeatedly over the course of several months, or even years.
Depending on their severity, they can range from annoying and disruptive to absolutely debilitating.
What is a shame spiral?
Have you ever watched a cartoon in which one of the characters falls down a rabbit hole (or similar)? If so, then you’ve probably noticed that they’ve passed several sedimentary layers as they’ve fallen. In these cartoons, they pass by things like ruins, ancient artefacts, dinosaur bones, and such, signifying the different levels they’re dropping past.
A shame spiral is similar, only it’s different emotions and layers of self-loathing as one falls further and further down. Furthermore, those thoughts and feelings will get larger, broader, and wider-reaching the further you sink.
Everything else that might be going on at the moment will cease to exist as all your attention gets focused on reliving the incident that occurred. This can be rather like someone with PTSD who’s having flashbacks. One minute they might be sitting on their couch in the living room, binge-watching a show and eating chips, and the next, every cell in their being is transported back to the awful thing that they experienced.
They’re not just remembering The Thing: they’re reliving it. In the moment, they’ll feel the same emotions they felt at the time. Afterward, not only will they have to deal with the aftermath of that kind of emotional storm—they’ll also contend with feeling guilt, shame, and self-loathing for both whatever occurred and their inability to control their own emotions.
It’s an awful loop to get stuck in, but you CAN get yourself back out of it.
The key is to be able to recognize when you’re spiraling, and then take appropriate actions in order to stop the spiral from continuing (as we’ll get into a bit further on).
How do you know if you’re in a shame spiral?
Although the signs and symptoms will be different for each individual, the patterns that unfold will be fairly similar regardless of who’s experiencing them. So while you might not have all the signs listed below, if you can recognize at least a few of them, there’s a good chance you’re contending with a shame spiral.
As an example, let’s say that you said or did something that was incredibly out of character for you—possibly while inebriated. Depending on your mental state at the time, plus exactly what it was that transpired, you may be hit with an instant wave of horror at the situation. Alternatively, you might only remember it later once you’ve sobered up a bit and found your phone blown up with texts about the incident.
From there, emotions and reactions such as the following are likely to ensue:
1. Self-loathing thoughts (and/or actions).
These might include thinking things like “I made a terrible mistake,” and “I’m a horrible person for doing that.” You might be horrified by what you’ve said or done and have difficulty believing that you were capable of doing that at all.
Furthermore, you’ll keep rolling the experience around in your head, over and over again.
Every single time you do so, you’ll be reminded of everything that transpired, as well as how you felt about it as it was happening.
From here, you may start being immensely cruel to yourself. You might call yourself all manner of names, lashing out abuse that you would never aim at anyone else.
Depending on your personal leanings and history, you might even engage in some form of self-harm. This kind of harm isn’t limited to burning or cutting, but can also involve denying yourself things that you love (or even need, like food or water) as a means of punishing yourself for perceived transgressions.
These kinds of thoughts and behaviors may expand into:
You might not be able to face the person—or people—who witnessed your shame, and thus you’ll avoid them (or the location where it happened) at all costs. This could be because you’ve said/done something that has undoubtedly offended or hurt someone, or because what’s happened was so embarrassing that you can’t bear to be reminded of it.
If another person was involved, you might block them and their friends on social media so as to avoid confrontation or repercussions. Similarly, if the shameful event occurred at a favorite cafe or club, you might never go there again.
You might even refuse to talk about it at all, and if your friends or family members bring up the topic, you’ll change the subject and make it abundantly clear that you are not going to talk about it.
If they don’t respect that boundary, then you may create distance from them as well. Basically, whatever it takes for you to avoid having to deal with either the aftermath or the memory.
This is the feeling that you need to run away: both from your own emotions and the circumstances around what unfolded.
Your chosen method of escapism will depend on how much The Thing has affected you. If it was mild, you might simply disassociate from present reality for a little while. You might take a few days off work or school, hole up in your flat, binge-watch several seasons of your favorite show, and eat far too much comfort food for your own good.
If it was a pretty significant screw up, then you might be inclined to go to extreme measures to avoid anyone who might have witnessed or heard about The Thing. This goes beyond just blocking them on social media or avoiding those circles for a while.
For example, if the event occurred at work or school, you might quit outright, without giving any notice or picking up any of your stuff. You might basically just ghost everyone you know in order to escape the possibility of having to relive any of that.
Hell, depending on the severity, you might change your name and appearance, then pack up and move to a different city or country as a means of avoiding any witnesses to your shame forever. This is an extreme situation of course, but the law of averages says that it’s been done by at least one person before. In fact, it’s probably happened more often than we think.
If you’re feeling intense self-loathing over The Thing that happened, then you undoubtedly assume everyone else you know has heard about it and despises you as well. If you haven’t packed your bags and moved across the continent, you might isolate yourself in your home and refuse to see or speak to anyone.
The primary reason for this might be that you can’t bear the thought of facing anyone, or that you don’t want to feel waves of shame and hurt by being reminded of what occurred. Alternatively, you may assume that you’re a burden or a nightmare to deal with. As such, you might feel like you’re somehow sparing your social circle from having to contend with the dumpster fire that is you.
Finally, you might not trust yourself to say or do anything ever again because you think you’ll just end up humiliating yourself (and possibly others). This is rather like someone who doesn’t want to drink anymore refusing to go into any place that could potentially, possibly, maybe have alcohol anywhere on the premises. Rather than trusting themselves to make the right choices, they prefer to shy away from any possible exposure.
While that’s understandable, it’s not a good long-term option. It’s rather like someone who’s gone through something traumatic and then insists that they don’t have exposure to anything that might trigger them. Instead of developing coping mechanisms, they just wallow in victimhood and expect the world to shield them from their own feelings.
5. Paralyzing depression.
At this point, you might feel like just crawling into a hole and never coming out again. You’ve convinced yourself that you’re horrible and worthless and your presence in other people’s lives would only be detrimental to them.
Due to self-isolating, escapism, and overall self-loathing, you might end up falling into a rather severe depression. All depression can be harrowing to contend with, but when it’s really bad, you might simply end up lying in bed for days (or weeks), incapable of drumming up the energy to do much of anything.
The things you used to enjoy won’t bring you any comfort anymore, and things you were passionate about no longer interest you. If you feel anything at all, it’ll likely be sadness and despondency. You may even stop taking care of basic needs like personal hygiene. You’ll just spend your days obsessing over The Thing that happened, locked in a perpetually spinning tornado that won’t free you from its grasp.
Keep in mind that shame spirals aren’t solely limited to humiliating things you might have done. They might also swirl around things that you experienced in the past, which made you feel shame for one reason or another.
These could include (but are not limited to) things like witnessing cruelty or injustice and not taking action, or being the victim of abuse or other trauma. For the former, you might beat yourself up over not taking action and “doing the right thing,” even if you could have ended up seriously harmed by doing so.
As for the latter, many people feel shame and self-loathing if they’ve experienced abuse of various kinds, but especially so if it was sexual. They might feel that they were somehow responsible, or didn’t do enough to stop it.
If they haven’t been able to heal from these experiences—either alone, or with the help of counselling—then they might endure spirals on a regular basis. This is especially true if they have exposure to things, situations, or even people who trigger old, hurtful memories.
How can a person escape a shame spiral?
It is a good idea to seek professional help from one of the therapists at BetterHelp.com as professional therapy can be highly effective in helping you to escape a shame spiral and feel better about yourself.
When and if you feel like you’re spinning down a new shame spiral, there are some actions you can take to escape it.
Step 1: Practice self-compassion and forgiveness.
When these spirals start, you’re likely hitting yourself with some seriously vicious negative self-talk. You’re undoubtedly calling yourself all kinds of awful names, slinging insults in your own direction, and implying that you’re worthless, unlovable, and deserve whatever horrible reactions other people have toward you.
Now, ask yourself if you’d tolerate someone saying those things to your best friend, your partner, or your child. If the answer is “no,” then recognize that you need to be a LOT kinder to yourself right now.
Similarly, if someone you love was being horrible toward themselves over something they felt shame about, would you join in to insult them, cut them down, tell them that they were worthless, and suggest that they hide themselves away from the world for the rest of eternity?
Or would you show them compassion and understanding? Maybe hug them, make them a cup of tea, and remind them that they’re kind, loving, worthy people who just happened to mess up? You’d probably start by saying it’s okay, you understand that they’re hurting and feel like crap, but shameful experiences are normal and just a part of life.
We’re usually far harsher and more critical toward ourselves than we are toward others. Maybe it’s because we hold ourselves to certain standards of behavior and are thus disappointed in ourselves when we mess up.
Turn that kind voice toward yourself, and take note of the things that either you like about yourself or that others like about you. Like how you’re always eager to help anyone who’s hurting, or how you always make sure to check in to see how people are doing when they’re going through a rough time.
Think about all the times that people have praised or thanked you for the things you’ve done, and focus on those rather than the perceived misstep.
Step 2: Jump the groove.
These spirals spin in very formulaic directions, as you’ve probably noticed. Furthermore, they follow very specific routes. This is why it’s so easy for people to get stuck in them: they’re like ugly roundabouts that you find yourself driving around without any break in traffic to veer away. Or a needle caught in the groove of a broken record that keeps playing the same bit of a song over and over again without surcease.
It’s up to you to create a gap from which to exit said spiral, and you can do so in a number of different ways. The best thing you can do is determine how to distract or jolt yourself before you circle too far down that drain.
The technique you use is up to you. Some people like to wear an elastic band on their wrist that they snap to shock themselves back into the present moment when they feel themselves spiraling. This is similar to taking a brief cold shower, doing a bunch of pull-ups, or something else that requires physical effort.
Alternatively, you can shift your focus to something else that requires all your concentration. Word puzzles are good, as are creative activities such as cooking or baking that need precise measurement and timing. Since all your focus is on the process in front of you, you’ll be less likely to keep focusing inward on your swimming thoughts and emotions. If you do, you’ll ruin that gorgeous creme brulé or burn the house down.
Step 3. Be of service to others.
This expands upon the section mentioned above, but is a more active choice that just happens to be of immense benefit to others in the process.
When a person is caught in a shame spiral, they’re completely fixated on themselves. Their current solipsism revolves around how shameful they feel, how much that hurts, how they’re perceived by others, and so on. Literally ALL about them.
And what is one of the best ways to break free from obsessing about something that’s all about you? Focus on other people instead. In fact, focus on people who are going through significantly worse situations than you right now, and help THEM.
Contact your local homeless shelter and ask how you can help out. They often need assistance in the kitchen to cook, serve food, or help create care packages to deliver to those who are sleeping on the street.
Alternatively, if you’re part of a faith community, talk to your priest, rabbi, or mullah and ask how you can best be of service to others in need. They can likely direct you toward some members of your community who are going through a great deal of difficulty and could use some help. Maybe you can assist with delivering meals to the elderly or spend time reading to those in hospice care.
When you do things to help other people, you shift the focus away from your ruminating and navel gazing, and turn your energy outward instead. Few things help to shock people out of their pity parties as much as helping those who are in a really bad place.
Step 4: Avoid isolating yourself (especially from people who care about you).
You may feel like crawling into a hole and never coming out again, but that isn’t a reasonable response. Nor a healthy one. In fact, isolating yourself from others is a surefire way to keep sliding down that spiral.
Furthermore, people who don’t get regular social interaction are prone to all kinds of emotional pain and suffering, ranging from depression and anxiety to paranoia, insomnia, psychosis, and even immune system dysfunction.
Your people love you, so let them be there for you when you need them, okay?
Remember how we touched upon how you’d react if someone you loved was slipping down into a shame spiral? I’m guessing that those closest to you would behave similarly. Since you’re the one who’s spinning round right now, consider letting them be your rock for a little while.
There’s an added bonus here, and that’s getting clear perspective from people you trust. Let’s say you ask your best friend if you can talk to them about this thing that occurred and let them know that you want their opinion about it all. Tell them how you’re feeling about it (the shame, humiliation, self-loathing, and so on), and ask them if they think that things are as bad as you feel they are. And ask them to be completely honest about it.
Knowing things for certain is a lot more comforting than getting worked up about them in your own head. This is kind of like agonizing about a lump you find in your body, freaking out and assuming it’s some kind of deathly cancer, and spiraling about all the horrible things you’re going to experience as a result of it, and then finding out that it’s an infected hair follicle.
You might have worked yourself into a lather about the “what ifs” and assumptions, all of which dissipated immediately as soon as you found out the truth.
The same can happen with a shame spiral. You might keep swirling around memories about what happened, feeling utterly humiliated and never wanting to venture into public again, but your friend will tell you that nobody actually cares about it. Or that your friend group might rib you about it a little bit, but if you laugh about it along with them, it’ll pass quickly. Knowing that can defuse the bombs going off inside your head pretty quickly.
Step 5: Journal about your experience.
Feel your feelings, and write them out. Although you might be averse to thinking about The Thing intensely enough to write about it, doing so can be immensely helpful for exorcizing lingering distressing feelings.
This is because you’re taking something that’s internalized and bringing it out into the open—essentially making it tangible rather than simply skittering around inside your skull.
When you’re doing this, be detailed about the event that occurred. Include what kind of headspace you were in at the time, as well as contributing factors that were present. It’s easy to remember awful details that took place, but while doing so, we often forget what was going on with us while it happened.
A person who’s acting out badly because they’re hurting or traumatized will look back at what they did and feel horrified by their behavior, forgetting just how broken they felt in that moment. Furthermore, they’d likely forgive those actions in someone else they cared about, but will admonish and hate themselves for it.
This is why it’s so important to write all of this out. When you write down that you said X thing to that person, remember why you said it. What triggered that response? How was that person behaving toward you? How was your state of mind? Who else was with you?
More often than not, doing this can give you some much-needed clarity and perspective on what ensued. You might realize that the factors that contributed to the thing that occurred were beyond your influence, and that although you might feel shame about what happened, there was nothing you could do to prevent it from happening.
Coming to terms with that can be immensely healing, as well as helpful as far as getting out of this spiral goes.
Step 6: Get help from a therapist.
Sometimes, talking the experience through with someone who isn’t a friend or family member is the best way to work through it. This person is trained to help others deal with painful or otherwise uncomfortable thoughts and emotions without being judgmental or condemning. Like any other healthcare practitioner, they focus on offering help without judgement.
As a result, you can talk to them about difficult or potentially embarrassing things without worrying that opening up will somehow come back to haunt you (unlike talking to friends or family about it, who may end up throwing this stuff back in your face when they’re upset with you at a later date).
Furthermore, they have a wide range of coping and healing strategies that may help free you from this spiral. For example, they can suggest techniques for you to use when you feel like you’re sliding down into the same behaviors so you can stop the shame slide before it starts to spiral.
Finally, it’s one thing to have someone you love tell you that everything is okay and that you have nothing to be ashamed of, and it’s another to have a professional who’s telling you the same thing. This is kind of like the difference between your mom telling you that you did a great job on your school project and your professor calling you aside to tell you that they’re impressed with your work.
We assume that those we love are just placating us to make us feel better. Professional therapists don’t have that inclination: they can be honest and unbiased toward us, and thus have a weightier impact on our healing journeys.
BetterHelp.com is a website where you can connect with a therapist via phone, video, or instant message.
While you may try to work through this yourself, it may be a bigger issue than self-help can address. And if it is affecting your mental well-being, relationships, or life in general, it is a significant thing that needs to be resolved.
Too many people try to muddle through and do their best to overcome issues that they never really get to grips with. If it’s at all possible in your circumstances, therapy is 100% the best way forward.
Click here if you’d like to learn more about the service BetterHelp.com provide and the process of getting started.
How can you avoid getting into a shame spiral again in the future?
To err is human, so it’s entirely possible that you’ll end up saying or doing something in the future that you’ll end up feeling embarrassed about. That’s perfectly normal; even expected.
Of course, if you have previous experiences with spiraling after a shameful event, then you need to be aware of that kind of leaning so as not to repeat it.
If you’ve managed to find a great therapist whom you like and trust, then consider working with them to create an individual coping plan for when and if a situation like this arises again in the future.
That isn’t meant to cause you any anxiety, either: it’s more like having an action plan for getting out of the house in case of a fire. There’s a low chance that it’ll ever happen, but knowing what to do when and if it occurs is a really good idea.
Should you find yourself starting to spiral, your best bet is to try and nip it in the bud.
Start by acknowledging that you either made a mistake or experienced something embarrassing, and then step away from that feeling. Chalk it up to life experience, try to find the humor in it (if there is any), and then distract yourself or otherwise immerse in something more important or engaging so you don’t end up obsessing and wallowing.
There’s so much going on in the world all the time that you could be focusing on instead of whatever’s circling around in your mind. Get involved in something bigger than yourself. Find a cause and throw yourself into service toward others. Make some real change happen in your community, or dive into a project that means a lot to you.
Remember that all the events you read about in history were Really Big Deals at the time but are now mere paragraphs in books. Our life experiences are much the same. They occur, they leave an impact, and then they’re left behind as footnotes as we move forward in our own stories.
You may also like:
- Toxic Shame: Causes, Signs, And How To Overcome It
- The Underlying Causes Of Shame (+ Why It’s Not All Bad)
- How To Deal With Shame: The Process For Overcoming It
- If You Feel Shame Over Any Of These 10 Things, It’s Time To Think Again
- Fett AJ, Hanssen E, Eemers M, Peters E, Shergill SS. Social isolation and psychosis: an investigation of social interactions and paranoia in daily life. Eur Arch Psychiatry Clin Neurosci 2022 Feb;272(1):119–127. doi: 10.1007/s00406-021-01278-4. Epub 2021 Jun 15. PMID: 34129115; PMCID: PMC8803722.
- Taylor HO, Taylor RJ, Nguyen AW, Chatters L. Social isolation, depression, and psychological distress among older adults. J Aging Health 2018 Feb;30(2):229–246. doi: 10.1177/0898264316673511. Epub 2016 Oct 17. PMID: 28553785; PMCID: PMC5449253.