Shame is a vicious circle

The tiniest seed of self-doubt – the smallest implication that you might be flawed – can grow and grow into a whole neurosis over time that could ruin your life. With incredibly destructive consequences.

Feelings of shame have  a powerful knack of creating situations where the feeling of shame is increased.

Have you ever had a Skype conversation with someone?

The software has a built in noise canceler so that sound from your speaker doesn’t go back through your mic.

But every now and then, the tiniest noise from your speaker goes back through your mic, out of their speaker and back through their mic, and so on, building into that loud annoying feedback whirrrr that might have you switching off your speakers or yanking your headset out.

This escalating sound is caused by feedback, the sound feeding back into a loop, ever growing in amplitude until its deafening.

Well in a way, that’s how I see shame working – creating this ever rolling snowball of scary feelings.

The effects of shame, add to the shame.

The feelings of fear (fearing being broken, fear of not being accepted, fear of not belonging) build up and up, leading to behaviours which add to the fear, which worsen the behaviours…

…until cause and effect become a perfect vicious circle.

Here are some examples of how it happens in real life.

Not feeling good enough creates a life of not feeling good enough

After University, Henry moves into his own flat. Because he’s on his own a lot, he starts to imagine that everyone else is having fun. This moment develops a feeling of shame, that he’s gone wrong somewhere because he’s alone when everyone else must be out having a good time.

He starts going on Facebook more to feel “involved”, and sees pictures of friends elsewhere in the country in bars, doing activities, and going on work social events.

The growing feelings of shame now influence how he looks at it.

Rather than joining in or posting something, he quietly compares himself, and starts to convince himself that his life isn’t as good – he didn’t get as good a job as everyone else, he isn’t as happy. He doesn’t post or comment on anything because he doesn’t want people to look at him and realise how stuck he feels, how worse off he is.

Because he fears that his friends would feel sorry for him, or think he’s not good enough, Henry’s shame starts to push them away as a way of removing the threat.

The shame hides itself by giving Henry’s conscious mind “excuses” for pushing them away. “They’re superficial idiots! I don’t have time for this! They not real friends, its not like they ever pick up the phone is it?”

He starts to delete them, convincing himself that they aren’t real friends.

Months later it dawns on Henry that he hasn’t been out socialising for what feels like ages.

A friend texts to ask to ask if he wants to come out with a group. Henry’s feelings of shame are now much worse, and he’s nervous that he wouldn’t fit in properly. What if they ask him questions about his life? What if he can’t conceal his depression and anger?

He makes polite excuses and declines. He tells himself that they probably didn’t want him to go anyway, as they only texted rather than called.

Soon, Henry’s social world has shrunk down so small that he can’t even figure out exactly how it happened. All he knows is that he hates himself these days, keeps himself to himself, and finds it hard to make eye contact with people. He can’t have them finding out about his secret – a world of scary feelings.

Fortunately, a neighbour encourages him to take up a local volunteering position with a mentoring charity.

He enjoys it, meets some new people, and gets some good approval and recognition from people he comes into contact with.

He gets invited to a works social event, and learns that he’s normal, like everyone else. This revelation reduces his feelings of shame, and soon he’s the one organising the works events.

The positive cycle of doing things that reduce the shame, eventually outweighs the negative one.

One day Henry meets one of his old Facebook friends, George. His lack of shame makes Henry now a great listener, with an attractive empathy. He quickly learns that George has actually been depressed for years, despite the facade he put out there. He regrets not keeping in touch, soon they’re close friends again. One positive cycle begins to influence another.

Not deserving of happiness, and makes sure of it

Kelly’s parents went into a rough, argumentative time of hostility, with her dad being verbally abusive and threatening, before divorcing when she was 8.

It shocked Kelly’s world, and made her feel that being happy and comfortable soon leads to loss and abandonment.

She obviously loves her mom very much, and so learns from her what should be expected from life.

Kelly grows up and manages to unconsciously attract a string of relationships where she’s treated with contempt and looked down upon. She doesn’t feel good enough to enjoy a happy, loving relationship. Her dad obviously didn’t love her enough to stay with the family, so she must be broken in some way.

One day a nice, decent and caring guy asks her on a date, and a relationship develops.

Deep down, she becomes petrified that she doesn’t deserve him, isn’t good enough, and one day he’ll find out this dirty secret and abandon her just like her dad did. Except none of this enters her conscious awareness, its all happen deep within and controlling her emotions and behaviours.

She starts taking things the wrong way.

He doesn’t reply to a text for twenty minutes, and she surmises that he must be seeing another woman.

She gets into a fierce argument with him, which eventually subsides. Fortunately he lets it go, but Kelly is now feeling embarrassed, stupid, broken, and even more undeserving of him.

Believing that he surely won’t like her anymore, she calls him less, and acts abruptly on the phone.

He thinks she’s not interested anymore, so also calls less.

She then gets incredibly angry, asking him why he doesn’t love her anymore, and that he must be seeing someone else, just as she thought.

When he tries to explain that she’s been really aloof recently, and abrupt on the phone, she’s completely blind to it. She only remembers the times that she sent sweet text messages to him. She reminds him of a sweet poem she sent a month ago, although she believes it was only two weeks. Her shame is still hiding.

All she feels is confused, hurt and disappointed. She has absolutely no idea how she’s unconsciously creating the situation and feel worse and worse all the time.

He says he needs some time alone to think things over.

Kelly believes this must mean he’s cheating on her. She goes out with friends to make him jealous, and, angry that he cheated on her, kisses some random guy on the dancefloor. She’s seen by one of his friends.

He calls her the next day to leave her for good, letting it be known that he knows what happened.

She tells her friends that she only “talked” to some guy, nothing happened, and that she left her boyfriend because he cheated on her.

Years later, after friends point out to her that this pattern repeats itself, Kelly starts to realise that there’s an enemy within. She sees a counselor and is asked to say “I accept myself as a lovable person”. She can’t finish the sentence and breaks down instead.

Its the beginning of an important, life-changing process whereby she starts to let go of feelings of shame, and learn to accept herself again.

Fear of saying the wrong thing creates worse problems

Stuttering is a good example of a symptom which comes from a vicious circle of shame.

A young boy is told to be quiet, kids should be seen and not heard. He’s shouted at for talking in class.

Soon he develops the belief that he doesn’t deserve to be heard, to express himself. When he tries, he unconsciously trips up because of fear, and stutters and stammers. School friends laugh, which increases his fears and feelings of shame.

The stammer gets worse, because now he’s expecting it too.


Vicious circles can start small

These examples are pretty major life situations, but the vicious cycles can be much smaller.

Feelings of shame -> eating junk food -> put on more weight -> feel worse about self -> eat more junk food.

Feel ignorant about world events -> stop learning & reading about it, because don’t feel worthy of it -> feel more ignorant

Feel undeserving of nice things -> surround self with clutter, hoarding, poor quality clothes -> feel more undeserving of nice things


Remember though, that its not just one vicious circle of behaviour going on with a person.

There may be many.

Trying to find the various consequences of feelings of shame, and understand where they may also overlap as shame triggers, is an important part of building shame resilience.

It allows you to control the circles, slow them down, and create new positive ones – like with Henry and Kelly.

Do you know your vicious circles of shame?

If you recognise any of your own patterns, feel free to share them here. Remember, they could be very small – but get bigger over time.

If you don’t feel that you’re in touch with your shame mechanisms just yet, then that’s fine too. I hope you enjoy exploring the site.

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