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How Can We Overcome The Shame-Blame Cycle?

Updated: Apr 17

If you've seen the Showtime series Shameless with William H. Macy, you know that his character, Frank, is a man who carries very little concern for how he shows up in life. He certainly does not take blame for his experiences, or the resulting mess that ensues from any of his choices. He is, indeed, shameless.

Dysfunctional TV series excluded, many of us carry the burden of shame throughout our lives. We can walk around feeling we are to blame for just existing, for the things that have happened to us. We just feel bad or wrong.

“Shame is the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging.” ~Brené Brown

Typically shame develops earlier in life when we may have experienced a trauma or abuse (physically or sexually), been blamed by a parent, or embarrassed publicly by a parent or a teacher. Where our behavior wasn't just corrected or redirected, but where we ended up feeling we were inherently wrong for what we did.

A history of being shamed generates low self-esteem, anxiety, irrational guilt, perfectionism, and codependency, and it limits our ability to enjoy successful work or relationships.

We tend to link guilt and shame, but researchers say there is a distinct difference. The way I have heard it described is that guilt is useful. We feel bad about something that we did that went against our morals or values; we feel remorse, we course-correct.

Shame or more accurately, "toxic shame" is described as not useful, as it tells us we aren't deserving, we are intrinsically flawed and have no worth.

Guilt is: "I did something bad". Shame is: "I am bad".

Side note: some researchers delineate between shame and toxic shame because there is a cultural and religious component to shame that some believe provides benefit to the communal moral compass. Shame in small doses can motivate us to do better and be better. In toxic shame, however, the belief becomes--"it's me, not them". I refer to toxic shame here. The kind that impacts us at our core.

Toxic shame can cause real damage to our psychological well being. Often, people who carry a large dose of toxic shame can develop: aggression, depression, eating disorders, PTSD and addictions. These result from the need to escape the pain of blaming themselves.

As you know, often that leads to behaving in ways that create more shame, proliferating what we call a 'shame-spiral'. This is partly why it can be so hard for addicts to enter sustaining recovery.

Toxic shame makes people want to hide, isolate, not be 'seen', because they simply don't deserve to take up oxygen on this earth.

Can we go a little deeper on this? With toxic shame we can experience four different reaction scripts (Boone, Steele and Van Der Hart): Attacking the Self, Attacking Others, Withdrawing from Others, Avoiding Our Inner Experience.

Shame Reactions:

Attacking the Self

We believe we are worthless and our core language about ourselves supports it.

"I'm stupid." "I'm such a loser". 'I can't do anything right". "I don't deserve to live" may be some of the things we say to ourselves.

Attacking Others

You don't feel bad toward yourself, but everyone else sure is to blame. You may verbally or physically attack others to make yourself feel superior. You may have no sense of your own shame.

Withdrawal From Others (Isolation)

You do anything to avoid being shamed more. You may avoid social situations and new experiences because the fear of being shamed or failing is so great.

Avoidance of Inner Experience

You may deny you have any feelings of negativity toward yourself, maybe you joke around a lot when the conversation turns reflective, deny certain feelings, or anything else to avoid a painful internal experience.

Not all is lost! We can heal from shame!

The Antidote to Overcome Shame?

As with everything behavior-related, we need to first notice our internal experience.

What triggers us to feel shame or want to escape through addiction? Was it the comment our mother made about our weight that she has been making in various creative and undermining ways for decades?

  • Just notice how your body feels, the emotions that arise, the thoughts you have about yourself in that moment. Take a breath, write it down and then...give yourself some compassion. Yes, some love.

  • Remind yourself that you are a human being having a human experience and that means you are flawed, you will make mistakes, you are never perfect. Then remind yourself you are mostly loving and kind, your intentions are often good, and you never set out to hurt anyone on purpose.

  • Remember that other people's behavior is ALWAYS about them and rarely has anything to do with us. Your mom's criticism is probably more about her own low self-esteem or shame projections around what she thinks of her own body than about you being a horrible fatty.

  • Listen to some guided meditations on self-esteem or self-compassion (I love Insight Timer).

  • Read the works of Kristin Neff, Brené Brown, Tara Brach and John Bradshaw. They all have solid research and techniques to guide your healing from their books, YouTube lectures and podcasts. Brené Brown talks about how vulnerability is the antidote to shame. We have to allow ourselves to be seen authentically, to be vulnerable enough to allow for connection (I'll the right people). The lack of that connection, the desire to isolate and withdraw in shame, keeps us in shame. Find ways to have more positive experiences--volunteer, mentor, be giving, find people who are non-judgemental to spend time with, get a pet.

"If we can share our story with someone who responds with empathy and understanding, shame can't survive." ~ Brené Brown


I suggest connection first begins with ourselves.

You'd never talk to a friend or child the way you talk to yourself, would you? Well, you are never to believe you are not good enough. Do you hear me? I mean it!

Being an adult can mean we regret what we didn't get from our parents, from our childhood.

The good news is that we are capable of reparenting ourselves. We can give ourselves the support, care and compassion we need now to overcome shame. Make a commitment to it every day.

You do deserve it. Yes,...You.

“Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it.” ~ Rumi

Love yourself. Be kind to yourself. Be Mr. Rogers to yourself. Only you are up for the task. And what you will realize is that even though you are messy and flawed, because you were vulnerable, because you fought to believe you are okay as you are, because you let others come to that conclusion too; you simply cannot be shameful...

If you want to learn more about overcoming shame or how your experiences have shaped your behavior, reach out to me today.

inner wrists showing tattoos of words saying "compassion" and "courage"


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