As an aspiring daily meditator, I’ve been instructed by many a spiritual sage to think of my emotions as clouds drifting across my internal landscape. The idea here is that clouds come and go, so clinging to any one cloud is an exercise in futility.
I like this metaphor. It overlaps quite nicely with the cloud-classification skills I learned in third grade and haven’t since put to use.
The more time I spend on the cushion, the more I realize that some of my emotions are cirrus clouds: feathery wisps of humor, annoyance, or connection that drift away as quickly as they came.
Others are cumulus clouds: hearty puffs of joy, nostalgia, or anger that make themselves known by casting shadows on the ground.
In my experience, only one emotion is a cumulonimbus cloud: an angry, heaping, blackened pile that trudges sluggishly across the sky. That emotion is shame.
Shame plants himself down in front of the sun with no intentions of leaving. He makes a god-awful racket with ceaseless thunderstorms and doesn’t move until he’s good and ready.
Recently, I found myself in the thick of a shame spiral. I had made a series of oversights that were impacting my very new, and as such, very delicate, romantic relationship.
The mistakes I’d made were honest, but I should have known better, and this became the mantra that fueled hours of self-blame and judgment. My mental movie was like a 1500s tragicomedy, and I was the snarling, callous villain.
I was feeling like sh*t, and I certainly wasn’t making it any better for myself, but I couldn’t seem to stop. I couldn’t focus on my work, my social life, or even the simple task of taking out my recycling.
As a person in recovery, I knew that a shame spiral was my one-way ticket to a first drink. So I rang up a trusted mentor for guidance. Over steaming coffee in the hidden back booth of a nondescript coffeehouse, I bemoaned my vivid ruminations.
Research professor and best-selling author Brené Brown is all over the shame game. She makes clear that guilt is the feeling that you’ve done something bad, while shame is the feeling that you are bad, and as such, “unworthy of love and belonging.”
As a recovering perfectionist, I get hit with red-hot shame when I do something “wrong.” (As my mom loves to remind me, I sobbed inconsolably when I got an A- instead of an A on my fifth grade report card.)
As a recovering codependent person, I get hit with extra shame when I do something “wrong” in the context of relationships. Here cometh the fear of abandonment and the cold sweat of unworthiness!
Because shame is the feeling that we are intrinsically bad, it’s particularly conducive to spirals—cycles of self-fueling negative energy that perpetuate ad infinitum.
I know I’m in a shame spiral when I seek reassurance from my friends compulsively; don’t want to leave the house or interact with anyone; don’t feel the need to wear decent clothes, do my dishes, or other acts of self-care; and feel totally uninspired to do the things that generally give me joy.
In reality, these actions are ways of subconsciously punishing myself. We accept the behavior we think we deserve, and when I’m in a shame spiral, I don’t feel like I deserve much of anything.
So anyway, back to my conversation with my mentor. I was talking a mile a minute, running my hands through my frizzy (unwashed) hair, and articulating, in great detail, all the ways I’d done my partner wrong.
It was not a pretty scene. But, as mentors are wont to do, she listened without judgment. When I’d conveyed the whole story, visibly deflated like a sad balloon, I turned to my mentor with wide eyes.
“How can I fix this?” I asked her.
She paused, digesting, and replied firmly, “Call someone and ask how they’re doing. Go to the food bank. Volunteer. Be of service somehow.”
Her suggestion seemed so out-of-left-field that it stopped me in my tracks.
Call someone and ask how they’re doing? I thought. But that has absolutely nothing to do with my problem or me! (Shame is a very self-referential emotion.)
I wanted to ruminate, stew, fix! I wanted to call my best friends just one more time and unpack this whole thing, top to bottom. Also, if my intentions for service were self-serving, was it even service anymore? Shouldn’t I only “serve” if I’m really jonesing for some Good Samaritanism?
I relayed all of this to her. She listened patiently; she’d heard it all before.
“Hailey, you need to get out of yourself,” she said. “You are driving yourself crazy, cooped up in your mind this way. Give yourself a break.”
So I did. And it worked. Here’s why:
1. Shame traps us in our thoughts; service puts us into action.
In an appearance on Oprah, Brené Brown offers three ways to stop a shame spiral:
1. Talk to yourself the way you’d talk to someone you love when they feel unworthy
2. Reach out to someone you trust
3. Tell your story
Brené Brown is an absolute sage, and her research on shame and vulnerability has profoundly changed my life. But when I’m in my darkest shame spirals, these three tactics aren’t quite enough for me.
Because my shame is so self-referential and all-consuming, I cannot think or talk myself out of a shame spiral.
Every thought—no matter how brilliantly it rationalizes my actions or how warmly it reassures me of my own goodness—is coated with the persistent, underlying certitude that I am bad.
My shame is like an advanced-stage, resilient bacteria; the first course of antibiotics doesn’t make a dent. I need to prove to myself, with not only my words but my actions, that there is more to me than what I’m so ashamed of. Service is an easy road out of my frazzled mind and into the world around me.
2. Shame isolates; service connects.
When I’m ashamed, the idea of being social sounds like torture. I’m normally quite extroverted, but when I’m spiraling, I don’t want to hang out with my closest friends, let alone strangers. In the thick of a spiral, it’s not unusual for me for cancel plans, be unresponsive to friends’ messages, and go dark on social media
Isolation enables my shame to fester. It keeps the scope of my world small. Service, on the other hand, does the opposite.
Service is intrinsically connective. First, I’m connected, in real time, with the person I’m serving. The newcomer to the 12-Step program I call to check-in on; the man whose bowl I fill with soup; the kid I read aloud to.
Second, I’m connected to my community. Few acts of service exist in a vacuum; typically, I’m at least peripherally involved with a community organization, a church, or a grassroots group of do-gooders determined to make the world a better place. And though the unbridled optimism and rah-rah mentality of service groups can get on my nerves, there’s something heartwarming about being part of something bigger than myself.
Finally, there’s that Universal connectedness; the sensation of being human, of being one of seven billion people dancing their way through this complicated and confusing thing called life. When I’m in service, I’m helping other people, with other problems, who have baggage of their own. With this perspective in hand, ruminating about my shame suddenly feels far less important.
3. Shame exhausts; service awakens.
Self-flagellation takes a lot of emotional energy. It’s exhausting to rewind, fast-forward, and rewind the movie reel of your mistakes. Because it’s our human tendency to defend against threat, a part of us—no matter how small—will fight against the shame. This is the part that will rationalize our behavior, craft a narrative for our actions, and pepper us with positive self-talk.
These two forces—“I am good!” vs. “I am bad!”—are at odds with each other. The result is an internal Civil War – one that rages as we try to fall asleep, as we stare at the tile wall in the shower, as we drink our coffee on the patio. It can become the soundtrack to our days.
Service provides a respite from this turmoil. By getting us out of own minds and into the world around us, gives the shame soundtrack a much-needed pause. In that silence, we can gain new perspective and peace.
4. Shame breeds shame; service breeds hope.
Shame is self-perpetuating; it cycles ‘round and ‘round the same tired litany of self-criticisms and judgments. In such a state, there is little room for anything novel to enter our consciousness. If we respond to our shame by self-isolating and hibernating, we just make the echo chamber smaller. Shame breeds shame.
Service, on the other hand, connects us with the newness of others people’s stories and challenges.
Studies have shown that novelty makes us happier whether we’re shame-spiraling or not. Gretchen Rubin, author of The Happiness Project, writes, “Often we’re happier, we feel more energetic, more productive, more creative when we try something new, when we challenge ourselves a little bit, when we kind of go out of that comfort zone. That atmosphere of growth can really boost our happiness.”
Service gets us out of our own way and offers a new palette of emotions and values to choose from: togetherness, community, connection, service, altruism, and more. It put our personal challenges into perspective and simultaneously offers us tangible, actionable proof of our own goodness that stands in contrast to our negative self-judgments.
It was hard for me to realize that my darkest shame spirals were also my most intensely self-indulgent moments. Even though I may have felt totally miserable, at the end of the day, it was still all about me: my wrongness, my badness, my words, my actions, my self-perceptions.
When I mustered up the will to be of service, I was astounded by the serenity that came from acquiescing my role as the star of the show.
Becoming a vessel for acts of goodwill opened my eyes to a greater, simpler reality, one I didn’t need to control or micromanage. From that vantage point, I was able to look back on my actions from a distance, and with that distance came the self-compassion, acceptance, and self-forgiveness I’d been hoping for all along.