Do you ever get stuck in the shame swamp?

Shame is a recurring theme for many of my friends and clients who have struggled with alcohol, and is something I personally have done a lot of healing around.

When I began researching the topic in depth, it was interesting for me to learn that feelings of shame are also highly correlated with addiction.

Shame is a deep feeling of inadequacy, inferiority, or self-loathing. It can make you want to hide or disappear. It can also cause a deep, desperate feeling of separation from those around you. No matter how much love you are surrounded by, you might feel completely alone.

Shame can stem from early childhood experiences, starting as early as infancy. Experiences of shame often lead us to self-beliefs such as:

  • I’m unworthy (of love)

  • I’m no good

  • I’m a failure

  • I’m unlovable

  • I don’t deserve happiness

  • I’m defective (i.e. there’s something inherently wrong with me)

  • I’m a phony (i.e. I’m just really good at pretending to be likeable/successful… somehow I’ve managed to fool everyone around me!)

It’s no surprise then that people who experience deep shame may turn to alcohol, drugs or other substances to “fill the whole” and also for connection – an attempt to fix the isolation these shameful feelings can cause.

The problem with this is that when under the influence, we might do or say things that then trigger MORE feelings of shame, which layers shame upon more shame, and leads to what I call the SHAME SPIRAL.

I’ll give you an example from one of my clients.

Dina (name changed) had deep, shameful feelings of being unwanted, and insecurities about her body. When she drank, all of this changed for her, of course. She became confident, in control, flirtatious and felt sexy. She used alcohol in all of her sexual adventures with men.

Unfortunately, on more than one occasion Dina blacked out. She wasn’t able to remember details of what happened the night before. She also suffered some traumatic events (that she remembers parts of) while drunk.

Even though she has since done a lot of work around her alcohol use, and usually practices intentional moderation, and is in a loving, long-term relationship – on the rare occasion that she drinks too much and wakes up feeling as though she may have blacked out, Dina’s deep feelings of shame are triggered. This adds another layer to the shame spiral.

So now, instead of thinking to herself “Whoops, I might have drank a glass too much last night,” her self-talk is along the lines of “I’m a disgusting mess, how does my partner even love me, I’m such a gross f**k up, I’m fundamentally flawed.”

Another client, let’s call her Carol, is currently working through a shame spiral as well. She currently holds a fairly important position in a large corporation and has been receiving acclaim for her work. The more she becomes known for her work, the more anxious she feels that her past will come back to haunt her.

You see, 12 years ago Carol was charged with Public Drunkenness, which has since ended up on her record. She has become terrified and overcome by anxiety that she will be found out, and fired from her job.

If it were merely guilt that Carol was struggling with, her self-talk might be a little more forgiving. “I was young, I made a mistake, I didn’t know how to cope with the trauma I was dealing with at the time, so I drank too much. But really, I was doing the best I could at the time.”

Instead, the shame around the issue cuts to her deepest darkest fears about herself.

“I’m a fraud and a fake, I’m defective, I’ll never be successful because there is something really wrong with me, I’m a failure, I’m no good.”

Yikes. These are really heavy thoughts that Dina and Carol have swirling around. It’s no wonder that they’d prefer to suppress these feelings in an attempt to make them go away.

Thing is, silence and secrecy just adds to the shame spiral.

If any of this has resonated with you, you might be wondering – how do I break free?

Brene Brown does a great job of laying out two simple steps in this video. If you have a couple of extra minutes, I highly recommend watching.

I’ll paraphrase.

Talk to yourself lovingly.

As hard as it might be at first, treat yourself with love, tenderness and compassion. Imagine what you might say to your most treasured friend, your little sister or niece, or your child.

“So you made a mistake. I still love you. In fact, I love you more because I know you are trying to learn from this.”

Share the story.

As hard and painful as it might be, sharing the story can take the power out of it. If it is only living inside of you, it’s like a runaway train of shame spiral. Sharing the story with a safe person will help break the spiral, and diffuse the power. The irrational fear, when spoken out loud, loses some of its charge.

Create a mantra (this is my own suggestion and one that I wrote more about here).

If you can identify and locate the worst fears, figure out that the opposite of that fear is, and focus on that.

Based on Dina’s worst fears, her mantra would be something like this: I am beautiful, I am complete, I am lovable, I am whole, I am perfect just as I am.

This, repeated over and over until she starts to believe.

For Carol: I am smart and capable, I am more than enough just has I am, my worth is not dependent on others perception of me, I am inherently valuable, I was born and still am a divine creation, I am worthy.

This, repeated over and over until she starts to believe.

With so many of us living with secret shame, it’s really important that we start sharing our stories and breaking out of the shame spiral.

If you recognize the symptoms of shame showing up in someone you know, here’s how you can be an ally:

  • Listen to their story, with an open heart

  • Be Empathetic, if you haven’t directly experienced what they are expressing, try to put yourself in their shoes

  • Never minimize their feelings or experience

  • Help them separate the behaviour(s) from the core of who they are

  • Tell them they are loved. Help create a mantry by using the affirmations above

  • Share this blog with them

As always, I invite you to reach out and share with me. If you are experiencing shame and would like to break free of the spiral, send me an email or click here to set up a time to talk.