A family member you haven’t seen in a while leaves a comment on a photo you uploaded to Facebook, saying that they miss you. Do you: a) send them a message to find a date you can get together; or b) feel guilty that you haven’t seen them, declare yourself a selfish and thoughtless person, dwell on this all day, and replay the interaction over and over in your mind late into the night?

If the second option sounds familiar, you may have been experiencing a shame spiral. First coined by clinical psychologist Gershen Kaufman in his 1992 book Shame: The Power of Caring, shame spirals are triggered by an unsettling event. This could be something small, such as rejection from a friend or an off-hand comment from a colleague, up to, and including, cases of severe trauma. In response to this event, the focus turns inward as the initial event is played over and over again in our minds. We start to spiral, and the more shame we feel, the more things we find to be ashamed of.

spiral staircase

Most of us will be able to relate to the experience of lying in bed at night, and inadvertently recalling every little embarrassing or awkward thing we have ever done. It’s frustrating, uncomfortable and, sometimes, painful. And once we start, it can be hard to stop. So why do we do it?

“The questions implies that there is a conscious choice involved in the experience of shame,” says Lucas Teague, counsellor and psychotherapist with more than a decade of experience behind him. “Shame is often symptomatic of something that has been ignored in the person’s life. It has a particular quality, which means it becomes far more difficult to relate to directly. The etymological meaning of the word shame, is ‘to hide’ or ‘cover up’.”

For this reason, shame is a difficult emotion for us to communicate. It often comes out looking like something else, such as guilt, anger, or sadness.

Shame hurts us so much because it’s often tied to our sense of identity. When we shame ourselves, we’re making the judgement that we’re not good enough, or are not living up to expectations.

For Lucas, our modern lifestyles could be in part to blame for compounding our experiences of shame. “We seem to be leading more insular lives,” he says. “That, along with our obsession with celebrities, who on the one hand present lives that can seem unattainable and yet, at the same time, possible through reality shows and social media. As such, our own lives can leave us with a sense of emptiness.”

woman smiling

Sometimes, the best way to deal with our shame is to address it head on. Why do you shame yourself when you eat a certain food, have an awkward encounter with a stranger, or are late getting home from work?

To answer these questions, Lucas recommends mindfulness: “This means taking an interest in what we are thinking and feeling just as it is, without identifying it as something which has to be a reflection of who you are, or how you see yourself.”

“It’s worth remembering that shame is often a symptom of something a person has not been addressing in their life,” adds Lucas. As such, if we, or someone close to us, find ourselves caught in shame spirals, the best way to help is to keep on asking questions. Question why that one thing made you feel that way, why it had such an effect, why it matters to you. “Questions can invite a deeper exploration of some of the themes which underlie the experience of shame,” Lucas says, “and help to support a different direction in our lives.”

Of course, while shame is an unpleasant feeling, it’s also a very normal emotion. The point at which it becomes unhealthy is when it starts to effect the rest of our lives, preventing us from getting on with our days, and trapping us in a spiral of self-deprecating thoughts. Next time you find yourself in a shame spiral, check yourself. Let yourself off the hook, and remember that we all mess up from time to time – it’s what makes us human.