Recently, I had ‘one of those days.’ I was sick, I took a nasty fall when going to the grocery store, and I got a nasty email from a jerk at an insurance company. I noticed that it was easy to go down the rabbit hole of beating myself up—for the illness, for not having been more careful in how I worded my email to insurance. And then I realized—I was in the shame cycle, and none of the experiences I was having were my fault.
As women, we are so hard on ourselves. When we feel sick, we think about what we did to cause it. It was all that travel, late night working, or over extending ourselves with our spouse or kids. When things dip at work, we question what we are doing to cause the slump or put the responsibility on ourselves to fix things as quickly as possible. When a relationship ends, it’s because we haven’t healed our abandonment issues or we didn’t lose that extra weight. We shouldn’t be drinking or snacking, we should be making more money, we are f*cking up our kids, and to top it all off, we were rude to that telemarketer on the phone.
The inner dialogue that plagues so many of us is relentless and often times subtle. And what’s worse, many of us are so self-aware that we know we are beating ourselves up, and then we beat ourselves up for not being kinder to ourselves and more loving. We are trapped in an endless cycle of not feeling good enough, feeling bad about ourselves for not feeling confident, and then we feel even more shame.
With all of this shame, we may then decide to go for that extra drink (because why not?), eat until we are uncomfortably full, scroll Instagram for another hour, binge shop, or yell at our spouse. Sometimes things like eating, drinking, shopping and Instagram can be worthy comforts, but we all know when they have become a ‘false refuge’ (something Tara Brach refers to as giving us a false sense of comfort or stability). Seeking out false refuges can be appropriate at times, but at others they may lead us to feel even more shame, and the shame cycle repeats itself.
Does any of this sound familiar to you? Therapy can help you get out of your head and develop more self-compassion and self-love, and it can also help with healing trauma that may be fueling the unworthy beliefs that start the whole cycle. Talking with a therapist allows you to externalize these thoughts, notice where they are coming from, and see if you want to give them power. Get in touch with me to schedule a free 20 minute phone consultation.
How do we begin to stop a cycle that may have been there since we were kids? Our thoughts may be so incessant and quiet that they feel like constant background noise. Here are some tips to overcome the toxic shame cycle.
- Notice and name what’s happening. You may notice tightness in chest or a sinking feeling in your legs. Say the negative thoughts out loud rather than holding them in in your body. You don’t need to argue with the thoughts, but write them all down and then read them aloud to yourself. What does it feel like in your body when you say these thoughts out loud? Does the core of you believe these thoughts to be true? Whose voice does it sound like? How do you feel towards this voice and where do you feel it in your body?
- Forgive yourself for being in the shame cycle. We make shame worse when we beat ourselves up for beating ourselves up. Everyone feels shame and gets sucked in to the shame cycle. You are here, struggling with this, because you are a human being. Sometimes the shopping, binge eating, drinking, etc. is actually protecting you from something that is too big to feel right now, or maybe it protected you in the past and doesn’t realize you are safe and don’t need it as much now. Remember that all change comes from being gentle with ourselves, not from forcing or shaming a part to go away. Be patient and loving with this part of you the way you would be with a small child. It is doing the best it can and is trying to help you.
- Start to investigate, with loving support, the function of this critical voice. What is this voice afraid would happen if it weren’t keeping you ‘on your toes?’ When did it start doing the work of trying to protect you in this way and why did it have to start doing so? What is it wanting for you? Ask it these questions with an open heart and don’t rush or force an answer. Think about how this voice may have helped you over the course of your life (i.e. kept you achieving in school, kept you on your toes with your parents, or helped you be ‘liked’). Did criticizing yourself keep you safe from the criticism of other kids, parents, or did it help you develop into the kind of person who ‘fit in’? Let this part know that all answers are welcome and that you want to hear its story.
- Do not tell this voice it needs to go away. Honor it and let it know you are grateful for it, it has been like a soldier at its post. Also ask this part how it’s doing and if it wants to be able to relax. What would it need in order to feel like it could relax? Would it need to know that you’re a competent adult? Does it need reassurance from you that you are safe and lovable? Does it need to be able to tell you all its fears and be acknowledged by you? Reassure this part that you are here for it and you want to be a loving parent towards it now. Let it know that you are sorry it didn’t get its needs met as a child, but that you are here for it now.
- Find a ‘true refuge’ to get your needs met. When we engage in things like binge drinking, Neflix disassociating, standing in front of the fridge eating until we’re numb, or focusing heavily on restricting our calories, we may be trying to fulfill a larger need. Oftentimes, we may be yearning for love and connection, for fun or play, or for rest. Find out what the larger need is that you are trying to get met, and then find something that will actually fulfill that need. Maybe you are needing love and reassurance and kindness from yourself. Maybe you are needing a nap or a day of being in nature or reading at the beach. Maybe you are needing intimacy and deep connection with your friends and family. Rather than beating yourself up for the time wasted on your phone, recognize that your body may be exhausted and trying to give you a break. Like a loving parent redirecting a child, allow yourself to do the things that will actually nourish and fulfill you.
Doing this work to investigate and care for the parts of ourselves that we want to push away is the beginning to healing our most wounded vulnerable selves. Even though self-criticism is painful, it can be a gateway towards greater self-intimacy and understanding. Shame and pain are the ways we ‘wake up,’ rather than things we need to just get over and push away. All of your parts are welcome, and all of your parts deserve care.
Emma Kobil is a licensed professional counselor practicing online in Colorado and Florida. Her philosophically informed therapeutic approach focuses on helping creative and perfectionist women practice self compassion. Learn more about Emma, or schedule an appointment, at mindfulcounselingdenver.com.