Freedom from Shame Loops

Shame is an alarm system meant to let you know that something you have done doesn't fit with your values and who you know yourself to be.  When an alarm on your phone rings in the morning, you wake up and shut it off and go about your day.  Shame is meant to do the same thing.  Unfortunately it doesn't always work that way.

When shame rings to wake you up and you don't know how to shut off the alarm, you get caught in shame loops.  A shame loop usually includes some or all of the following:

  • You go over the trigger event again and again in your mind.

  • You have a consistent sense of heaviness, fogginess, or feel like you are being consumed by a tidal wave.

  • You argue with yourself about what you could have or should have done.

  • You argue with yourself about who was more "wrong", you or the other people involved.

  • You keep trying to reframe what you did to make it more okay.

  • You have the impulse to hide.  This might mean being quiet, taking time off work, or engaging in anything that distracts or numbs you out.

  • You begin to generalize by questioning and criticizing everything you do.

A shame loop is a painful place to be.  You need the relief that comes from hearing the shame alarm and knowing how to turn it off.  Of course, turning off the shame alarm requires a bit more than hitting a button on your phone.

The first thing is to be able to recognize shame.  For shame living on the surface you can use the bulleted list above to recognize it.  When shame goes unconscious, it can show up as arrogance, anger, pride, having to be right and making others wrong, defensiveness, or may be confused for depression.  

You can discern at least two types of shame.  Relational shame (shame that was conditioned in a relationship) is often chronic.  Healing from this kind of shame typically requires a very astute and skillful therapist and an investment of energy.  Working with relational shame means you learn to more consistently access a felt sense of your innate goodness rather than getting entangled in worthlessness, a sense of threat, and self-doubt.  Relational shame is sometimes referred to as toxic shame.

Event based shame, on the other hand, acts more like an alarm and can be met directly.  Once you recognize it, the first thing to do is talk to someone you trust about it.  Talking about it aloud prevents it from going unconscious and wreaking havoc.

Next, identify the other feelings present.  In addition to shame, you usually have feelings like sadness, disappointment, or fear.  Allowing and giving attention to these other feelings helps you locate in your heart rather in than in your head, which is where the shame loop is usually running.

Then, identify universal needs/values that you perceive to be unmet when you did that which is triggering shame.  For example, if you yelled at someone close to you in anger and judgment, you might perceive that you were not in alignment with your values for integrity, compassion, and caring.  The value of integrity is almost always present with shame.

Lastly, identify how you will tend to the needs/values you named.  This part might be called repair or accountability.  It might include offering empathy to those affected by your action.  It might also include some specific actions to meet the needs you identified.  For example, you might find several ways to offer care to the person at whom you yelled. Repair and accountability also likely include a plan of action about what to do in a future similar situation so that all needs can be met.

Shame is one of the most likely feelings to be repressed.  You may fear the pain of shame and being lost in it.  Working directly with shame, with support, allows you to develop a confident relationship to it.  From this confidence you can hear it as the alarm it is meant to be and adjust so that you are living a fulfilling life from your deepest values.


Take a moment now to reflect on a time when you effectively worked through shame.  What steps did you engage in then?  Did you do something not listed here that was effective?  If so, add it to the list below.

Steps to Freedom from Shame Loops

  1. Learn and recognize the symptoms of shame.

  2. Talk about shame with someone you trust.

  3. Identify and give your attention to other feelings present with shame.

  4. Identify the universal needs/values that you perceive to be unmet when you did that which is triggering shame.

  5. Identify how you will tend to the needs/values and take specific action.