Have you ever gotten caught a shame spiral? You know, that feeling of descending into the rabbit hole of shame? The moment when you just want to crawl into a hole and never be seen by the world again? Shame is among ickiest of human emotions – it’s like a mold that grows inside of you, breeding and multiplying faster than you can imagine. It can start off as a passing thought or a flicker of doubt and quickly leave you crushed in its wake.

Both small things and big things can trigger small feelings and big feelings of shame. It can be as small as giving the wrong answer in a work meeting or a class. Or it can be as big as feeling like you failed at a major project or challenge. Maybe you took a risk and made yourself vulnerable, and it didn’t turn out the way you hoped.

Shame, while it may be ugly, is also human. And there are actually things you can do to stop the spiral before it starts, or keep your spiral from getting too far out of control.

Turn on your shame alarm. Recognizing what shame feels like and how it manifests itself is an important first step. Maybe it feels like a flush in your chest, or it triggers a familiar wave of self-doubt. Shame might make you blush or want to slap yourself on the forehead. You might find yourself defensive like a cornered animal. You might be overwhelmed by feelings of self-hatred or even self-harm.

Whatever it is, learn to recognize it and label it what it is: shame. That way, you can have a shame plan, just like you would have for any other emergency, like a fire or evacuation.

STOP, and back away from the shame. The earlier you recognize shame, the better chance you have to prevent yourself from going down the rabbit hole.  Going down the rabbit hole is so tempting, and it’s exactly what the shame monster wants you to do. The shame monster wants nothing more than to force you deep its ugly icky-ness until you can no longer see the light of your self. So at the first sign of shame, stop, and back away from further shame triggers. For example, let’s say you are ashamed that you didn’t get into your first choice graduate school. That moment is probably not the best time to surf Facebook and see all of the self-congratulatory messages of people who are off to the school of their dreams. Or if you are feeling ashamed about your weight, it’s probably not the best time to get on the scale or lose yourself in magazines or websites that worship the thin, instead of the perfectly imperfect. Just stop. Back up. And activate your shame plan.

Shine some light on that ugly shame monster. Shame breeds on silence, so the best way to break the shame spiral is to name the shame. You can shame doesn’t want you to do it because of the way your stomach drops at the mere thought of sharing it with someone else. Shame tells you that the ugliness inside you is real. Your friends and family know that you are just a loving, caring human who maybe made a mistake or didn’t live up to perfect.

Talk over the shame. Shame has a voice. My shame’s voice likes to say things like, “I knew it – you are just a fraud. You don’t deserve to be here. Nobody likes you – they are just pretending.” Other shame voices might harp on how lazy or slow or stupid you are.  When the shame voice gets going, it can seem awfully loud. Especially if there aren’t any other voices providing a counter point. In moments of self-confidence, listen to what you believe about yourself – maybe even write it down. When the shame arises, get that voice talking again – the one who knows you mean well, do well, and live well.

This too shall pass. If all else fails, immerse yourself in something positive until the feeling of shame subsides. That’s the amazing thing about feelings – they are never permanent. Think about it as flooding your psyche with something good – a flush of shame reducer. For me, it’s exercise. For you, maybe it’s music or meditation. Or even a good movie or TV show. You can take a break from shame, and maybe it will get tired of bothering you.

Obviously, if shame is making you feel like harming yourself physically or you can’t seem to shake it, please seek professional help. It can take time, support, and therapy to break the shame monsters for good.  But the next time you feel the shame spiral coming on, remember that you are not alone and there are some tools you can use to fight it off!

What are your shame monsters?  How do you ward them off?

Here’s howI imagine my shame monster:

shame monster