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Are You in a Shame Spiral? These 4 Tips Will Help You Stop Beating Yourself Up

Your friend tells you something in confidence, and you keep it close to the vest… Until you let it slip to a mutual pal. The second the words leave your mouth, you tell yourself, I’m such a bad friend. In the grip of a shame vortex that feels more powerful than gravity, you just want to sink into the floor and disappear. “Unlike guilt, which is sparked by the belief that we did something bad, shame is the belief that we are bad,” explains psychologist June P. Tangney, PhD, co-author of Shame and Guilt ($35.73, Amazon).

While even the word shame is so “heavy” that it seems to press into this paragraph like a lead stamp, it doesn’t just rear its head after profound trip-ups. In fact, researcher Brené Brown, PhD, writes in her book, The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are ($8.99, Amazon), “People often want to believe shame is reserved for folks who have survived terrible traumas, but this is not true. Shame is something we all experience.”

Whether we’re berating ourselves for letting someone down or beating ourselves up for perceived “flaws” in our own bodies, the everyday shards of shame cut deeply, notes Tangney, who says they wound not only our self-worth, but our physical health, triggering stress chemicals linked with chronic diseases like arthritis and heart disease. And unlike guilt, which often motivates us to improve or correct our mistakes, shame burrows into our psyche, threatening to become part of us.

Fortunately, there are feel-good tactics proven to take away its power, helping you usher in courage and confidence! Read on for ways to stop beating yourself for these common reasons. 

“I hate my body.”

As you’re trying on gowns for your son’s fall wedding, your excitement gives way to insecurity, and you feel certain the wedding party will judge how you look. “This double-whammy of negative self-talk coupled with what you imagine others will think creates a distorted outlook that sends your stress levels skyrocketing,” observes psychologist Joy Jacobs, PhD.

Say these five things: The best way to fight these self-conscious thoughts? Practice gratitude for the very bodies we insult. “Start with five things your body does for you,” urges Jacobs.“You might say to yourself things like, ‘I appreciate that my body has taken care of me all my life’ or ‘I’m grateful for strong arms to hug my kids with.’” Repeating affirmations shifts us out of a shame mind-set into one of confidence-boosting self-compassion.

“I let them down.”

Your sister is going through a divorce, and you promise to visit after work for a heart-to-heart… But time gets away from you, and you forget. Feeling awful, you just want to hide. “One of our primary responses to shame is withdrawal,” says Mary Lamia, PhD, co-author of The Upside of Shame: Therapeutic Interventions Using the Positive Aspects of a “Negative” Emotion ($28.95, Amazon). “But in retreating, we sever the same bond we need to repair our sense of self.”

Share your story: “People often think the opposite of shame is pride, but it isn’t — it’s connection,” reveals Lamia, explaining that since so much of our identity is defined by our relationships, sharing how we’re feeling gives us a sense of community that short-circuits self-blame. “Don’t be ashamed of shame,” she urges. “Telling a loved one how we feel shines daylight on shame, and the bond created with that person gives us much-needed perspective.”

“I’m so stupid.”

You’re taking a night class, but, like a scarlet letter, the red “C” you get on your first exam may as well stand for “Can’t” as it leaves its mark on your self-worth. “It’s easy to internalize a setback — especially when we’re trying something new,” reveals Rick Patterson, DMin, author of Shame Unmasked: Disarming the Hidden Driver Behind Our Destructive Decisions ($16.95, Amazon). “Before we know it, we’re telling ourselves, ‘I’m not good enough.’”

Boost your “immunity”: Remind yourself that a setback doesn’t make you stupid — it makes you human. “We all carry around this ‘shame virus’ that attacks our self-esteem much the way the cold virus infects cells,” says Patterson. “That’s why it’s so important to build up immunity to it by repeating to yourself, ‘this is just my shame response talking’. As you name it, you disempower it, strengthening the muscle of ‘shame resilience’ and quieting self-doubt.”

“I’m a failure.”

In order to meet a pressing deadline, you make the difficult decision to skip your daughter’s soccer game so you can work late. But the precarious juggling act between your professional and personal lives leaves you feeling something more acute than guilt, as a wave of shame hits you, sweeping across all the facets of your identity: You tell yourself you’re not cutting it as a mother, wife, employee… The dooming domino effect goes on. Says Tangney, “Shame makes us catastrophize, leaving us feeling like we’re a failure in just about every area.”

Take a values inventory: Shame blinds us to our positive qualities, which is why Tangney recommends reminding yourself of your values: “Just jot down what matters most to you, from family to friends to faith. Writing down the things you consistently value ‘shores up’ the self, strengthening your identity, and that’s like kryptonite to shame, which seeks to undermine who you are.” Once you firm up your belief in yourself, you’ll see that the event you felt shame over was just that: one event. “It doesn’t make you intrinsically flawed,” she notes. “Shame can’t win when we let ourselves off the hook!”

This story originally appeared in our print magazine. 

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