Shame Spirals: How to Break the Pattern
Many who walk the path of recovery are surprised to find just how much underlying shame fueled their addiction. Once discovered, it can seem like a big step back just when one strives to move forward. However, it’s essential to double down on your recovery efforts in these moments. Breaking the shame spiral is one of the most important milestones to a lasting recovery.
What is a Shame Spiral?
Feelings of shame — that one is “not good enough” — are challenging enough. Unaddressed, they can compound and begin affecting other aspects of life far beyond what initially caused the initial shame.
At its worst, it can create a veritable whirlwind of toxic shame, where addiction seems like a way out. Aspects of life that previously were going well can become negatively impacted and subsumed into a growing shame complex.
As shame touches more of one’s life, it can seem like shame is spiraling into a life- and vitality-consuming issue. Shame over chronic shame may even set in. It’s a cycle that becomes very hard to break.
Emotions are a double-edged sword. Their seeming bottomless depths are what make both tears of joy and anguish possible. They seem to eventually command our full respect (if not our attention), no matter how aware or unaware we are of them. Shame is one emotion that exerts a particularly tremendous force and locks up much of our innate power, waiting to be rediscovered.
Naturally, many in recovery take a keen interest in how to get out of a shame spiral. Just as with addiction, admitting there’s something essential to resolve is itself a significant step.
While shame is as unique as the individual, there are at least some general measures that could indicate a shame spiral:
- Distancing oneself from others (especially when you don’t want to)
- Preoccupation with past failures or betrayals
- Persistent childhood feelings of abandonment, neglect, or isolation
- Periods of self-destruction
- Blaming oneself for adverse situations they were not the cause of
Can Shame Spirals Negatively Impact Mental Health?
Research shows that shame can make one more prone to other difficult emotions than they otherwise might be, such as anger, resentment, hostility, and overall irritability. Blaming and sideways (indirect) expressions of hostility are also correlated with increased feelings of shame.
Shame-proneness is heavily related to general psychological maladjustment, including an overall depressed outlook. Whether one’s causing the other is an interesting question to consider. Yet it seems clear that when shame and depression are present, whatever their cause, they can build the shame spiral’s momentum.
These related emotions are just as natural as shame, but they take on unique characteristics when experienced during a shame spiral. In distinction to guilt, shame strongly correlates with displaced aggression, including hostility directed at oneself. By contrast, those more prone to guilt but not shame are more likely to handle anger constructively (e.g., taking corrective actions).
This same research also shows that these distinctions become less clear as we get older. It doesn’t mean the shame spiral is harder to come out of — it’s a different challenge. The challenge of finding out how to get out of a shame spiral is necessarily as unique as each individual experiencing it.
How to Deal With a Shame Spiral
When it comes to shame, it’s imperative to take stock, demand less of yourself, and frame the experience in a self-supportive way. Because shame sets the stage for other complex emotional challenges, being brought face-to-face with one’s shame, without denial, is a momentous event. Rather than see it as “just another issue,” shame is a keystone emotional challenge. Resolve this one, and resolve ten others.
Shame Spiral Tip #1: Reprogram Self-Talk
Make a concerted effort to adjust your internal monologue. Do so authentically so you aren’t resistant to inputting new messages of your choice. Instead, address hostile, negative thoughts head-on as they arise and then pivot to something new.
A great place to start might be rephrasing the end of the previous section into a memorable, self-loving “mantra” of sorts. Repeated messages have been proven effective for adjusting one’s mindset and emotions. Shame thrives in a negative mindset and with negative self-talk.
Remember that if you’re even reading about shame spirals, you’re on the right track. Stick with it, and you’ll inevitably overcome them. Let every action you take in addressing shame prove that you’re making a central place in your heart for emotional sobriety. Decide daily what that looks like in your life — and continually reaffirm that you’re becoming your hero.
Shame Spiral Tip #2: Find Something Worthwhile in the Difficult Feelings
As counterintuitive as it may seem, practicing radical acceptance of the shame spiral could provide immediate benefits. Some find this dissipates the sense of struggle and regret during a shame spiral, bringing one closer to a neutral state. From there, it can seem less improbable that something good is in store for you. It becomes easier to stay with yourself and notice the sensations shame brings up, even when you thought you couldn’t.
Is it possible there’s something helpful your negative thought patterns are trying to tell you? If not, is there at least something useful the shame spiral is inadvertently positioning you towards? It could be something significant that you would only have discovered with it. This is a powerful counterintuitive mindset that could judo-flip the entire emotional process, providing a vital emotional foothold just when it’s needed most.
Refrain from excessive force, especially if it feels fake and inauthentic — but don’t be afraid to toy with the idea that shame is your ally. Ironically, many in recovery find that shame runs its course faster this way.
Shame Spiral Tip #3: Don’t Stop Until You are Proud
Because shame spirals run deep, moments, when you feel free are incredibly precious. Capitalize on these hard-won moments by harnessing them in full. Be careful not to tap into the same self-reward habits that have also driven past addictions. Of course, that’s no reason to abstain from healthy, sober, and productive motivations.
When your shame spiral seems to subside for a moment, see it as a day to build the future you want to happen. Endeavor to do things that you won’t help but feel proud of later. Stockpile enough of these days, and you’ll have a compelling historical narrative contrary to the one that drove your shame.
Learn More About Shame Spirals with Wellness Retreat Recovery
On the road to recovery, experiencing a shame spiral can seem like another of life’s slings and arrows. Learning to get out of a shame spiral may feel like the last thing you need when staying sober is job #1. However, many of our clients discover that learning to stop shame spirals makes breaking the addiction much easier. One could even see it as a necessary part of it.
What’s certain is that you don’t have to go it alone. If you’re facing shame spirals and related addiction issues, reach out, and contact Wellness Retreat Recovery Center. We’ll help you discover the internal resources you already have to enjoy ever greater freedom — free of crippling shame and the crutch of addiction alike.