The Downward Spiral of Shame

You aren't defined by your most shameful moments, say Patricia Rockman. Learn how to transform this most paralyzing of emotions.

Photography by Magda Hueckel/Millennium Images, UK

A few years ago I ran a six-month training on managing stress through mindfulness for social-service workers.

These men and women were on the front lines of helping the homeless and people with serious mental-health problems. Suffice it to say, their work was more stressful and intense than most.

People often think mindfulness is about peace and relaxation. While these effects can show up, should you be so lucky, it’s also about effort, turning toward that which you’d rather avoid, and, of course, practice.

During our first meeting, I attempted to use some levity in describing the deep and rigorous work ahead of us. At one point I nodded to my two co-facilitators, telling the group, “These two are really sweet and accommodating. I’m the slave driver.”

The following week, one of the participants, who happened to be a black woman, asked if she could talk to me. Then, speaking softly but firmly, she revealed, “What you said really upset and hurt me, and I spent the last week processing it with my colleagues at work.” I was startled. “What did I say?” And then I froze. “I’m the slave driver.” The words came flooding back to me, chased by a wave of heat spreading up my body to my face. I felt like throwing up.

“How could I have been so thoughtless, so unaware? And I call myself a mindfulness teacher!”’

chair in a corner
Photography by Getty Images/Jon Boyes

In the seconds that it took for the full realization and weight of my mistake to hit me, I felt myself shrink inside and had the desperate urge to hide or just turn and run out the door.

If you haven’t recognized it yet, let me introduce you to shame, the most painful, cringe-
inducing of human emotions. Guilt, humiliation, and embarrassment, close cousins of shame, are often confused with it, but they are not the same thing. When we make a mistake, feel remorse, and want to fix it, that’s guilt. When we feel put down and think it’s undeserved, that’s humiliation. When we feel foolish in front of others, that’s embarrassment.

But when shame hits, we feel naked, exposed, our shameful selves out on display for everyone to see. Instead of feeling regretful for having done something wrong, through shame’s warped lens we see ourselves as wrong, bad, even unworthy. Or as researcher and author Brené Brown explains in discussing the difference between shame and guilt: “Guilt is: I’m sorry, I made a mistake. Shame is: I’m sorry, I am a mistake.”

Shame’s reason for being

All emotions are experienced in the mind and in the body, and for good reason. Science tells us that emotions—desired or disliked—ready us to meet environmental circumstances by activating our nervous, cardiovascular, and musculoskeletal systems.

The “heat” I felt rise to my face when confronted about my careless words was the involuntary dilation of blood vessels that, from an evolutionary purpose, would provide a visual clue to others that something is awry.

Shame might also be experienced as a heaviness in the chest, a hollow sense of dread, or nausea—the body’s way of saying, Uh-oh, something’s wrong here— followed by an accelerated heart rate, sweating, avoidance of eye contact, or a desire to make yourself small, hide, or flee.

Brain imaging research reveals increased activity in the frontal (concerned with identity) and temporal (clues us into to others’ feelings) lobes and limbic system (the seat of emotion) when we experience shame. Other studies suggest that shame can trigger a systemic inflammatory response, something associated with conditions including atherosclerosis, myocardial infarction, stroke, insulin resistance/Type 2 diabetes, and cognitive decline.

The latter led psychology researchers at the University of British Columbia to warn, somewhat wanly, “long-term experiences of shame might have the potential to negatively influence health and well-being.”

As you’ve surely experienced for yourself, shame is a full-sensory assault, completely taking over how we feel, think, and act. The question is, why? Why does shame feel so threatening?

Social science indicates that shame’s primary adaptive function is to stop us from acting against social norms, making sure we behave appropriately so we don’t get ostracized or cast out. This is called social self-preservation, and it makes sense: Survival of the species is dependent upon community; we don’t survive long in isolation.

Shame also serves the more personal purpose of helping us recognize when we’ve gone against our own values, and can provide the jolt we need to set us back on track. Indeed, the reactions associated with shame are so aversive that it’s a profound relief when they leave.

Once I was able to get my bearings through the heat and confusion of my shame, I stammered a heartfelt apology to the young woman standing before me. It helped; I felt a bit of space open up. But I realized that I wasn’t done: No matter how awkward it would be, I needed to acknowledge what I had said and apologize to the entire group. Thankfully, they received this with good grace.

In the end, shame revealed to me a need to be even more mindful about how my words and actions impact others and reflect my core values. It was an unexpected—and painful—support to my life’s work and practice.

women facing away from the wind with her eyes closed
Photography by Jessica Robyn/Millennium Images, UK

The lengths of shame

The shame I felt during that training is the kind of “normal” shame all of us feel at one time or another. We blunder, flub, and barrel our way into situations that we dearly wish we could reverse. And, best-case scenario, the experience is instructive, as it was for me.

But what about more extreme experiences of shame? The ones that feel out of our control, such as when kids are repeatedly bullied at school or face denigration and abuse at home? Psychological studies have shown that when people are regularly shamed and sent messages that they’re “no good,” they come to see themselves as deeply flawed and unlovable. They internalize the shame, and may even doubt their right to exist. As psychologist and creator of Emotion-Focused Therapy Les Greenberg says, “If you’re treated like garbage, you come to believe you’re garbage.”

It’s not surprising that people with a strong and fixed shame identity often suffer from depression or anxiety. Chronic shame can also lead to eating disorders, addiction, self-denigration, and even self-harm.

Eventually those living under the perpetual cloud of shame shut down, isolate, or lash out in anger. This makes interacting with others difficult and can keep healthy relationships, just the thing that can help heal the wounds of shame, at bay.

Being with it

Whatever the extent that shame plays in our lives, from a “normal” incident to something more extreme, one thing is certain: It’s hard to face. And when shame hits, the impulse is to escape—physically, mentally, or emotionally. Tuning out, deflecting blame, pretending to shrug it off while burying the shame deep inside, or turning to some other means to defuse uncomfortable emotions are just some of the ways we attempt to dodge shame.

And these things work, in the short term. They offer immediate relief from the hot, sickening sensation of self-loathing overwhelming us in the moment. But in the long run, relying on avoidance tactics to deal with difficult feelings only means that we don’t learn what we can tolerate, come through, or manage in healthier ways.

The truth is, you can’t completely avoid shame. It arises unexpectedly and unpredictably over the normal course of living a human life. You will say something thoughtless, act impulsively, or just mess up, as we all do.

When confronted with my mindless remark, I could have left, abandoning the workshop hoping to quiet the internal cacophony of shame, embarrassment, and guilt I felt. But I would have also been out of a job, destroyed my reputation, and likely lost some friends. Instead, I chose to be with these overwhelming emotions in order to take the next steps, which in this case meant taking action to make amends. As Greenberg says, with shame “we have to feel it to heal it.” Bringing your attention to the softer feelings of sadness and need that accompany shame may allow for it to be brought into the light.

Turning toward difficulty and accepting who we are, warts and all, are essential aspects of mindfulness. But it is not simply turning toward difficulty in a benign way. When we are sick with shame we need to bring compassion to ourselves. And this may be the ultimate antidote to this most difficult of emotions.

When we can view our shame with curiosity and kindness instead of self-blame, its power is lessened. Compassion, it turns out, is a key factor in disrupting rumination, the spiral of negative thoughts associated with recurrent depression. We can say that the same holds true for shame.

The truth is that the human experience is messy and rich; the ecstatic, joyful, sad, and, yes, even shameful events have their place. And if shame is “the swampland of the soul,” as it’s been called, I would have to agree with Brené Brown, who encourages us to “walk in and find your way around.”

In the Hot Seat

How shame reveals itself in the body

  • A wave of heat rising up through your body
  • Sweating
  • Nausea or a feeling of imbalance, as if you might fall over
  • Shortening of breath
  • Narrowing of vision
  • Feeling contracted or constricted
  • Averting the gaze
  • A desire to flee, hide, or disappear
  • You might even want to lash out, to deflect the shame overwhelming you onto someone else

Is It Embarrassment or Shame?

Tripping on your way into a meeting. Realizing you’ve had something green in your teeth all day. Calling someone you’ve met many times by the wrong name. Embarrassment arises from numerous scenarios, but there’s always a common thread: You blunder in front of others, and in that moment, you fear that it makes you look bad.

It shares some physical traits with shame—heat rising to the face, increased heart rate, wanting to disappear. But unlike with shame, those sensations are fleeting. And in retrospect, at least, you can often find humor in the whole mishap. Yes, you might have been socially out of step—but not morally so. Your goof doesn’t make you a bad person. In other words, embarrassment isn’t a self-view; it’s a momentary one.

Shame, on the other hand, lingers, sinking deeply into your psyche and coloring your view of yourself. It’s not a momentary falter; it’s a mark on your character. It makes you feel alone and isolated, and is never, ever amusing. Feeling ashamed is usually tied to morals, your own and/or the moral standards of the community. When shame arises, you feel exposed, your self-perceived unworthiness revealed, to others, yes, but also undeniably to yourself.

Trait Shame versus State Shame

State Shame is the emotion that comes from appraising yourself as bad or inadequate in the moment, based on the imagined or real negative evaluations of others. State shame is when a kid does poorly on a test, and thinks, “I’m so stupid!” staring at the wrong answers, but that self-view doesn’t last or impact his or her ability to take on new learning challenges.

Trait Shame is a core view of your self across all situations, not just in one moment. It’s an ever-present, negative fixed view. People who experience it are more likely to evaluate even ambiguous events as being due to their personal flaws. Using the analogy above, trait shame might mean not even studying for the test because you believe you’re incapable of doing well.

Breathe Through It

How to work through shame using the breath

If you are feeling overwhelmed by a big emotion like shame, fear, or anger, one of the best things you can do is to breathe slowly and deliberately.

Try this

Inhale deeply for a count of 4 and out for a count of 6. Continue doing this, breathing deliberately and slowly. Prolonging the exhalation triggers the parasympathetic nervous system, which is calming and allows you to slow the cascade of thoughts and physical sensations and gain perspective.

Be an Explorer

Being curious about shame can lessen its sting

Becoming familiar with a difficult emotion means getting interested and curious about it, like you might do when visiting a new city. Take it slow, uncovering new “territory” a bit at a time instead of trying to get to know it all at once. As you do, you learn that you can sit with uncomfortable feelings, and that they will eventually pass. Over time, you develop resilience, self-knowledge, and trust in yourself—the best antidotes to the self-judgment that shame inspires.

Whether you’re experiencing feelings of shame right now or have buried shame that you’ve been avoiding, are you willing to get to know it a bit better? Remember, thoughts and feelings are larger and scarier when they’re left unexplored and kept in the shadows.

Take a comfortable meditation posture, and begin by bringing attention to your breathing. Gently bring the experience or memory you feel ashamed of to mind. Without needing to change anything, observe and take note of what thoughts, emotions, and sensations come up.

Name them as they arise. Fear. Anxiousness. Guilt. Hot. Clenching in my stomach. Don’t want to look. If the sensations are strong, breathe into them, feeling them soften and expand as you do. As best you can, bring kindness and compassion to this moment of difficulty. Remind yourself that you are safe. Remember, if you feel overwhelmed you can let go of the practice at any time, coming back to it when you feel more able.

Stay with this allowing, labeling, and breathing into the sensations that are present for as long as they hold your attention, then shift your awareness and bring a kind of spaciousness to the entire body.

In this more expansive state, ask yourself:

Can I let this be as it is?
(It’s already here, after all.)

Can I let it go? (It’s already happened.)

Does it need addressing?
Do I have to take an action?
If so, what?

Can I shift my attitude, bringing a different perspective to this experience?

Stars in night sky
Photography by Michelle McCarron/Millennium Images, UK


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About the author

Patricia Rockman

Patricia Rockman, MD, CCFP, FCFP is a family physician with a focused practice in mental health. She is the Senior Director of Education and Clinical Services at the Centre for Mindfulness Studies, Toronto. She is an associate professor at the University of Toronto, Department of Family Medicine, cross appointed to Psychiatry. She has extensive experience practicing individual psychotherapy, leading therapy groups, and training healthcare providers in mindfulness based interventions, cognitive behaviour therapy, and change management for stress reduction. She is a freelance writer, yoga teacher, and meditation practitioner.