How to reverse a shame spiral

Waking up with a hangover feels miserable. The physical effects were usually the least of my worries. What was really painful was the emotional toll it took on me.

  • I can’t believe I did that … again.
  • What was I thinking?
  • Ugh… did I really say that?
  • Why do I keep doing this?
  • Am I ever going to figure this out?

The thoughts that ran through my head, and the shame and embarrassment that accompanied them, felt worse than the physical repercussions.

I was in a shame spiral.

The more I thought these things, the more they repeated. The more they repeated, the worse I felt. Besides, how could I stop thinking these thoughts? They were true.

This is probably where you get stuck too. The truth of what you did, the truth that you screwed up again… that’s what really hurts.

Here’s the thing: just because a thought is true, doesn’t make it helpful. Yes, I had too much to drink. Yes, I did something I wish I hadn’t. And yes, I didn’t understand why I kept repeating a behavior I knew wasn't serving me. But thinking these thoughts didn’t get me any closer to changing a part of my life that wasn't working.

Just because a thought is true, doesn’t make it helpful.

I’m not suggesting that you pull the wool over your eyes and pretend that your actions don’t have negative consequences. What I’m suggesting is that when you feel ashamed or embarrassed or humiliated you’re much less likely to figure out way forward. After a raucous night, feeling ashamed or embarrassed or humiliated always made me want to hide under the covers and wonder why my life was so screwed up, but hiding under the covers wasn’t getting me any closer to solving this problem.

Instead of focusing on what happened last night, maybe you can shift your focus to how you want to feel this morning? If you can’t go back and in time and undo last night’s behavior, then why not try to control how you want to think and feel about what to do next?

Instead of focusing on what happened last night, maybe you can shift your focus to how you want to feel this morning?

For me, that meant believing that I would someday be able to look back at this part of my life knowing that my drinking was no longer an issue. I wanted to feel hopeful. It’s a tall order, but when you’re caught in a shame spiral, the only way out is to start thinking something new.

I found this hope by reminding myself over and over again that other women had been in my shoes and devised a way out. That was it. I didn’t need to stop beating myself up for what I did last night (and let’s be honest, at that point in my life I didn’t have the first clue how to be kind to myself in moments like these). What I needed to do was to interrupt the barrage of thoughts that were fueling the shame spiral and keeping me stuck, and start to think something different.

The thought that will motivate you, will likely be something different. But it’s there for you to find. You just need to start looking.