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The Shame Cycle: What It Is and How to Step Off of It!

Picture of dogs, Raleigh Psychotherapy, counseling, shame, Katherine Broadway

Sue had a bad day. She missed an important deadline at work on a project that was important to her job. This came at the same time as she was being considered for a promotion. She had interviewed for a position that would push her to the next level of management. Sue had worked for two years to prepare herself for this promotion, and the time had finally come.

Because of the mistake she made, Sue was taken out of the running for the position. She was so depressed and ashamed that she went home and had a drink. In the past, that had helped relieve stress. Instead of feeling better, she sat in her dark house alone brooding on how stupid she was. Her harsh inner critic was having a field day, giving her negative messages. She continued to spiral down deeper into depression and self incrimination.

Then the loneliness hit. She decided to call her ex-boyfriend. He was always good for a laugh. Laughs turned into a night, and the next morning she awoke with a

headache and a heartache. In a cold sweat and with a racing heart, she grabbed her belongs and ran home. What had she done? Why was she so stupid to see her ex again? She knew better than to drink more than one drink. Now she felt sick and needed to head for work. Instead, she wanted to go to bed and hide under the covers. Everyone at work would smell the alcohol and see how hungover she looked.

Why did she make contact with the one person that was guaranteed to

make her feel worse when she was feeling alone, isolated and like a

loser? Her harsh inner critic told her she had proven she was a loser, and she listened to the messages and acted accordingly. Sue felt more shame than when she messed up her project.

Sue is caught in a shame cycle.

The shame cycle works like this: First, there is a real or perceived mistake or other event that is labeled “wrong”. With the help of the harsh inner critic and negative messages, there is shame, regret and unrelenting guilt. This fuels the verbal abuse you heap on yourself, amplifying the feelings.

Next comes dwelling on what happened. This is the pivotal moment in the cycle when you enter the point of no return. The scene is replayed many times in your mind, and with each telling it gets worse and the feelings increase in intensity. This, in turn, leads to inertia, where you are feeling too ashamed to take action. In this part of the shame cycle, your thinking gets impaired. Instead of making a plan to get help and work to make the situation better, the brooding begins in earnest.

When the feelings get bad enough, you are reduced to the level of survival and you return to the familiar ways you survived in the past. Although they have worked before, old methods of coping and surviving are usually self destructive in your current life. These old behaviors push you deeper into shame and intolerable feelings. They led back to the beginning of the shame cycle: self blame, guilt, critical voices and shame.

The Shame Cycle As a Life Style

The shame cycle is not restricted to individual situations. It also can become a way of viewing your life. Alex was a smart kid who liked to play. He learned early on in life that, with minimal effort, he could do what was necessary to please his parents. In school, he discovered that he could make good grades with little work.

All went well in his life until he got involved with a heavy party crowd in college. When it became time to write his graduation thesis, it took more effort than he wanted to put forth. He drifted away from school without earning a degree. He then drifted from job to job, just as he got successful he would either leave the job or sabotage himself and need to leave.

After several years of this pattern, he began to notice his peers had families, children and stable lives while he continued to drift. He decided he wanted to change his life and become stable and successful. Unfortunately, his old patterns were not so easy to change. Even as an adult, when he would think of the future he was filled with fear and shame. His thinking was compromised and he found it difficult to create a plan for his life. Alex was caught in a life of shame.

Being caught in a shame cycle leads to isolation rather than connection. When shame hits, the tendency is to go into survival mode: flight, fight, or freeze. Survival behaviors are meant to push people away rather than to bring them close. What we need when we are feeling shame is connection with ourselves and others. Next week, I will talk about one of the ways to overcome the shame cycle: compassion.

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