Have you ever experienced a shame spiral? Have you ever said or done something that just made you feel sick to your stomach and you ruminate on it for days? Or even weeks?
One time I had a new remote job and at our first zoom meeting, the group planned when the monthly meetings would regularly be held. It was sort of said with a question mark, so I guess I expected an email confirmation about the date and time to come later. But it didn’t. And I didn’t put the next one on my calendar.
So the next meeting–only my second with this company–I totally didn’t show. To make matters worse, I was literally just sitting at my desk doing nothing. I could have just clicked and been in the meeting in seconds. But next thing I know, I’m getting a message “for those who missed the meeting…”
I immediately felt sick to my stomach, like I was literally going to barf. OH NO!
“They are going to think I am a flake! They don’t even know me that well and this is going to be their first impression of me! This is not like me at all so now I’m going to have to overcome this! I should have known! Why didn’t I put it in my calendar?! I am more organized than this! This never happens! UGH!”
When I would think these thoughts, I would feel so sick to my stomach. I would feel anxious and shameful. I know what shame feels like for me because it is a giant pit in my stomach that literally feels ill. It makes me want to hide but at the same time overcompensate and apologize profusely. Which sometimes I do. I definitely messaged them and explained my absence, but that didn’t make the shame go away.
I also know that for the first day when something like this happens, I think these thoughts a lot and so I feel shame a lot. It comes in waves. The thoughts will pop into my head again…”I can’t believe I did that! They are going to hate me!” and a wave of shame would hit. Pit in my stomach. Barfy. Kinda want to cry. Shame is always big the first day for me.
For the second day, these thoughts come a little less, but the waves still come every time I think about it. Everytime the wave comes, I just say to myself, “There’s shame again. That’s because I’m thinking about yesterday.” I breathe deep and focus on the pit in my stomach, trying to relax and breathe into the pit. It passes in about 90 seconds, but I know it will probably be back.
Then, on day three, I might still think about the event, but the shame is much less intense when I think about it. It sounds in my head more like, “yeah…that wasn’t me at my best. That’s not like me. Wish I hadn’t done that, but I did. Can’t win them all. That was just me being a human. Not the end of the world, but I’ll definitely be more careful about that.” Less shame, less intensity, and less drama. More periods at the ends of my thoughts instead of exclamation points!
I always know that for me, shame takes about 3 days to settle down. Maybe I’ll get better at it, but when I expect that I will feel waves of shame like I described, then I don’t panic when it comes back. I never think that I will “never live it down” or that I will “never forgive myself” or any of that nonsense. I never think “Why am I still thinking about this?! Why can’t I just let it go and not care what people think of me?!” I just relax and expect I’m going to feel shame on and off for about 3 days. It’s fine. I can handle it. I don’t love it, but I can do it.
This is what I call a shame spiral.
I’ve felt it when I said something unintentionally offensive and watched someone’s expression fall. Oof! Open mouth, insert foot!
I’ve felt it when I underprepared a presentation and it flopped. That’s on me. My fault. Blech!
I’ve felt it when I did something that was knowingly selfish and felt justified at the time, but immediately afterwards knew I was not being in integrity with me and couldn’t take it back.
As a dancer, I’ve felt it after a tough coaching session or after a disappointing competition result.
I’ve felt it as I watched other dancers and suddenly felt like I don’t measure up.
As terrible as shame feels, it is just an emotion. It’s just a feeling. It’s caused by my thoughts about my actions, and as long as I indulge and rehearse those thoughts, shame will keep coming. As I rehearse those thoughts less and less, it dissipates and passes in a short amount of time.
Nothing has gone wrong when I feel shame. This is a normal human emotion that we feel when we think we have screwed up. That’s what we should feel when we aren’t being our best self. We can handle the shame. And when it starts to pass, we will feel other emotions that call us to be better next time. Ones like humility, accountability, determination, and courage. And it’s hard to get to these when we try to skip shame. The only way out of shame is through. But we can handle that because getting to the other side is so worth it.