The Dreaded Shame Spiral

By Ken Wells - 10/27/2020


Series One: Blog Fifty-Seven

“There is a danger. Don’t fall in love with yourselves. We have a nice time here. But remember, carnivals come cheap. What matters is the day after when we will have to return to normal lives. Will there be any changes then?”  — Slavoj Zizek, speaking at Zucotti Park

What Zizek said to Occupy Wall Street activists that day in New York City at Zucotti Park, at times I have wondered the same after walking away from a dynamic 12 step meeting or having led a powerful men’s weekend. Will there be any changes when we have returned to normal? When it is all said and done, after all the trainings, talk therapy and experiential processing around toxic shame, will there be any change where the rubber meets the road when faced with a dreaded shame spiral? 

On June 11, 1963, Vietnamese Buddhist monk Quang Duc sat quietly in the lotus position in the middle of Phan Đình Phùng Boulevard and Lê Văn Duyệt Street a few blocks southwest of the Presidential Palace in Saigon, Vietnam (now Ho Chi Minh City) poured gasoline on his body and torched himself in protest. The image of this monk consumed in flames is often the image that I think of when someone talks about being consumed with shame. In the moment, every thought, feeling, bodily action is devoured in the experience of shame. It is overwhelming, painful, and devastating. We identify these phenomena as a shame spiral. It is one of the most acutely difficult life experiences to endure and work through. A shame spiral can be triggered by another person’s behavior, a flashback generated by one of the five senses—even an embodied memory. It leaves one feeling helplessly paralyzed and dominated with vulnerability, racing thoughts, and compulsion. Like a migraine that pierces and monopolizes all priorities so that one can only go lay down in a dark room, shame spirals acutely choke the viability to function for the inflicted victim.  Knowing what to do when faced with the devastation of a shame spiral is an important skillset for every recovering act or family member. The following considerations may be helpful:

Create a solid recovery foundation with the following components:

A. Grounding skills:

Cultivating and practicing everyday grounding skills is critical to establish life balance for addict and non-addict alike. These include regular rituals that center: regular quiet time reflection/reading sacred literature/meditation/prayers/chanting mantras/drumming/deep breathing/meditative walks on the beach, mountains, woods/sitting underneath a tree barefoot gathering energy from the earth, etc. Centering skills must be practiced in order to be called upon in emergency. Eventually, they will become a lifestyle which you can immediately rely upon in an emergency crisis such as a shame spiral. Many people read about various possible grounding skill techniques but fewer cultivate a regular practice of centering. Most people live life in a hurry and fail to do the necessary footwork required in order to rely upon their own centering power when under siege of a shame spiral. After all the inspiration received from a motivational recovery training or experiential modality, ultimately, you must train yourself through regular practice in order for acquired grounding skills to be effective when you need it. 

B. Affirmations:

We all have been told that affirmations are important. Yet, many of us fail to embrace the transformation that can come from internalizing affirmations. There are many approaches to incorporating affirmations into your heart of experience. None of them will avoid the art of practice. Over and again, an affirmation must be embraced before it becomes an integral part of the fabric of your being. Telling myself one of my affirmations “this is my day and I am not going to let anyone or anything take away this day of expression, love and celebration-not another person, experience or thought- I will have a beautiful wonderful day” requires an ongoing focus and soaking of this reality for it to impact the way I live my life. Affirmations call for regular practice and application. Practicing affirmations can feel like an arduous incidental task. Yet, for those who choose to do so, create a bank of strength that can be drawn when faced with a shame spiral. 

C. Practice ignoring the critical voice within:

There is no special hocus pocus to learn. Ignoring the negative critical voice simply requires practice. It is not necessary that you rid yourself of the negative belief that threatens to dominate your world view. It is only required that you learn to ignore which will render the mistaken belief that is housed in shame inoperative. This requires conditioning. Think of it this way, a kid playing basketball is under pressure to make a one and one free throw opportunity at the end of a game with his team down by one. He must make both for his team to win. In a visitor’s gym, fans are screaming for him to miss. How does he handle the pressure? Well, he draws from the many hours of practice before. In the summer, in a lonely gym, he practices hours shooting free throws. Then, he runs the bleacher steps until he can hardly stand up and then practices more free throws. Later, he has his teammates hammer him physically while trying to shoot and then he shoots more free throws. Then, he has them yelling at him and trying to distract him while practicing more free throws. Then, when the game is on the line, he relies upon his well practiced free throw ritual, takes a deep breath and drains both shots. Or, if he misses either one, he walks away defeated but knows exactly where he lost his focus so he can bring himself back for the next shot. 

That’s what you do when dealing with the overwhelming power of a shame spiral. It is all contingent upon your willingness to do the work prior in your life experience. Daily, you practice ignoring the harping critical voice that harangues and screams mistaken beliefs in your head. You train, practice and condition yourself to ignore and embrace a positive affirmation like “what you think about will expand-it’s the very property of thoughts. If you think about what is missing, then that is what expands-and if you focus on what you have that is what expands”. Conditioning yourself with positive affirmed thought will train yourself to ignore the mistaken belief that threatens to dominate and transform your action in fulfilling the destiny you envision for yourself. Practice not only realizes empowered living in the face of a shame spiral but when you don’t ignore and allow the critical voice to dominate, practice provides a pathway to bring yourself back and re-center your focus toward the positive action in self-care. I don’t know of a shortcut. This requires the blue collar work of practice and conditioning. Yet, those who do the work, literally transform their behavior from being dominated by shame to managing the spiral and avoiding hurtful behaviors while promoting positive connection with others. To craft this skill, you must be willing to practice and fail forward. 

Finally, managing shame spirals implores that you reach out to a supportive community. For most, this is work in and of itself. Yet, there is no substitute. You can grit your teeth and make it through a shame spiral. It works for some but not all the time, is harrowing and painfully exhausting. This is common for many. Yet personal growth is stymied with this approach. It is necessary to reach out. AA founder Bill Wilson stated about seeking out another alcoholic with Dr. Bob Smith, “I knew I needed this alcoholic as much as he needed me”. This need for mutuality comes from common shared flaws and weakness. It creates a powerful oneness. This power is nurtured when you reach out to someone and share your common experience of a shame spiral.

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