I’ve been in my dark place recently. I was doing a pretty good job of avoiding it, too, until my bf suggested we go fishing. Now, I dislike fishing at the best of times for various reasons, but it’s the whole “being with your thoughts without distraction” that I find the most unbearable. It’s pretty much torture when you’re depressed. Yoga and meditation titrate the difficult feelings. But fishing? No thanks. My practice isn’t that advanced.
So needless to say, I didn’t go fishing, but I did notice my extreme reaction (terror) and begrudgingly decided it was time to face the feelings. Here’s a summary:
Ninety-percent of the time, my depression is shame-induced (or at least exacerbated & perpetuated). Shame comes about when my critical voice is louder than my compassionate one. Stress, uncertainty, and lack of routine give it more material, so it’s been really livin’ it up for the past couple months. But things revved up a couple weeks ago. It started with the comment, “Wow You’re a Stupid Bitch” on a YouTube video of mine (really constructive feedback, I know). And of course, despite my attempts to react mindfully in that moment, it still felt as though every appreciative email or thoughtful comment I’ve ever received was negated. At that moment, I was a failure; a joke; a disgrace.
My compassionate defenses eventually kicked in, so Shame didn’t cling to that experience for long, but it now had momentum. It began to spread. Coupled with the indulgence of the season and an immobilizing knee-injury, Shame attached to my appearance. It bullied me for this year’s wrinkles, for my thighs, for the dozens of imperfections that were suddenly glaring. Shame told me I was too out of shape to work out publicly–that people would judge me or I’ll run into someone I knew back when I was fit, and they’d definitely judge me.
Then it jumped to my relationships–told me I’m bad daughter, sister, friend, and girlfriend. Some people got me gifts and I didn’t get them anything. You’re self-centered. A bad human. You didn’t catch up with people you said you’d catch up with. You’re unreliable. You’ve gone radio silent on your emails. You’re disrespectful.
Then, of course, it latched onto my unstructured and uncertain career. Told me I’m lazy, irresponsible, undisciplined, and disillusioned. An imposter and a joke and a failure. “You call yourself a writer? You have the vocabulary of an 8-year old!”
After a few days of shame, my self-confidence is usually successfully undermined, so anxiety kicks in full-force. I begin to avoid making eye contact or smiling at people. Being aware of my skittish behavior, I start to tell myself stories–how others think I’m rude or unfriendly. Then I feel more shame. I judge myself for what I say (or don’t say), and get hung up on interactions I never would have cared about before (cue social anxiety).
Shame then tells me stories about what would otherwise be totally benign things. My mom likes a photo on Facebook: Shame interprets this as meaning she’s missing me and I should be more present. I’ve been sick and thus stayed in tonight: Shame is sure to tell me my friends think I’m a flake. I’ve been in a mood for the past couple weeks. Shame assures me I don’t deserve to be in my relationship. That no one can handle the “headcase” that I am. That I really ought to end my relationship and be on my own to protect whatever poor soul I’ve manipulated into being with me…
Damn. Intense, eh?
This, my friends, is a classic example of one of my shame-spirals (also referred to as “My Dark/Bad/Low Place,” depending on my choice of depression euphemism). It’s nothing in comparison to how it used to be, but it still gets me, and it still sucks. Whatever lingo fits for you, what’s important is that you recognize the role shame is playing in your pain.
How Shame Causes Anxiety (and Social Anxiety, and Performance Anxiety)
Shame and anxiety hang out together a lot. Anxiety is a shame cling-on. A parasite that feeds off of shame’s threats. You see, anxiety knows that Shame abuses us in response to failing to meet expectations. Anxiety hops on board and says,
“Better not screw up, or you’ll feel shame. Better not make a fool of yourself, or you’ll be judged. Better not make a mistake, or you’ll feel Shame’s wrath. Better not be unproductive, because that means you’re a loser. Better not see someone prettier/more successful/more popular/happier on social media, because that means you not good enough.”
Shame and anxiety team up to convince you you’re supposed to be superhuman; perfect; infallible. When we learn how to mitigate and dissolve unproductive shame, unproductive anxiety tends to leave as well. The anxiety that comes along with fear of failure and judgment needs shame to survive, so when it learns shame don’t come around here no more, it gathers its things and heads off in search of some shame it can attach to.
Now, let me stick up for shame for a (quick) sec. I’ve been dissing it pretty hard. Shame isn’t all bad. Sometimes we intentionally shame others for socially undesirable behavior, as we do ourselves. if you didn’t have shame, you might end up a social outcast or just an asshole. The desire to avoid shame keeps us following social norms. The problem is that productive shame generally comes around less often than unproductive shame. Here’s how I differentiate between productive shame, unproductive shame, productive guilt, and unproductive guilt:
Productive shame: A healthy, temporary feeling in response to antisocial or immoral behavior (e.g. after you’ve gotten wasted and done something you regret), usually involving the perception that other people have rejected or would reject this behavior. Shame says “This is not socially acceptable.”
Productive guilt: A healthy, temporary feeling in response to behavior that’s not in line with your values (e.g. you cheated on a partner, said something hurtful to someone you care about).
Unproductive shame: A chronic, heavy feeling that says, “You are bad. You are unworthy. You are unloved. You’re not a good enough person/mother/friend/etc.” The “why” is often difficult to determine, but oftentimes it’s in response to perceived personal or social failure.
Unproductive guilt: A chronic, heavy feeling in response to not meeting unrealistically high expectations. For example, guilt in response to “wasting time” or calling in sick to work (when you’re actually sick).
Sidebar: These aren’t Webster’s definitions. Some professionals agree with this, others don’t. I find these work for me. You won’t be tested. What’s more important is that you pay attention to the feelings (with curiosity, nonjudgment, and acceptance–aka mindfulness), thus recognizing a serving way to react.
So I’m hoping you now have some understanding of how shame is creating, exacerbating, or perpetuating your depression, anxiety, and social anxiety. When we can recognize shame’s significant role in our depression, we suddenly have agency. Rather than the slippery depression monster we often feel powerless against, we can do something about shame. Now let’s talk about what.
1. Make Space For the Shame to Determine if it’s Productive (Which is Unlikely)
We generally want to avoid shame. It’s a horrible feeling. Avoiding shame prevents us from drinking too much at the office Christmas party or popping a squat in the middle of a busy sidewalk if we have to pee.But when something happens that causes us to feel shame (e.g. we finish all the ice cream), we need to lean into it rather than avoiding it (despite our inclination to distract or suppress). We may as well, as shame catches us in the quiet moments anyway (while fishing and stuff).Broken record, I know, but we’ve gotta make space for it. Lean into it. Be with it so we can breathe, step back, quit judging ourselves for feeling shitty, and ask ourselves what we need (rather than anxiously trying to distract ourselves or push it away). So stop trying to avoid it and make space.
2. Practice self-compassion
Self-compassion is one of two necessary antidotes to shame. Shame says “You’re bad,” and self-compassion says “You’re human.” Whew. I feel lighter just writing that. For a refresher on self-compassion, read this, but remember there are three major components:
1) Mindfulness (accepting the current moment without judgment)
2) Self-kindess (saying to yourself what you would a friend or loved one); and
3) In-this-togetherness (Reminding yourself that we all feel this stuff at times–this is being a human. If you want to take it a step further, consider knowing we’re all part of a greater consciousness)
3. Connect/Talk it Out
Connection is the other antidote. Shame loves secrecy. This is because it can keep telling you lies about how horrible you are when you’re alone with it. As soon as there’s someone else around who knows your value and shows you unconditional love, you’re like, Wait a second…I can’t be THAT bad, and Shame’s like, “You are that bad! Don’t believe them! They’re delusional! They’re crazy to want to spend time with you!” And sometimes we believe Shame’s discounting ways. So if connection alone isn’t helping, take it a step further and talk about it.Shame HATES being talked about. Even as I write, I can hear it burning off (“I’mmmmm meellllllttiiiiiiing”). This is why people feel better after confession or group therapy or a solid heart-to-heart. If you don’t feel comfortable talking with a partner, friend, or family member, consider seeing a therapist. And if you’re not up for that just yet, consider writing about it. Seeing its ludicrous accusations on paper (screen) can help us realize it’s a lil’ cray cray.
4. Pay Attention to the Moment, Sans Past Judgments or Future Expectations
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. Mindfulness is our safe haven away from shame and anxiety. It’s where we can just be in the moment, drinking it in, free of judgment or wounds or pain points. Free of fear and expectation and dread. Focus on your breath, your surroundings, a song. When I’m in the depths of shame, I like to remind myself of one of my favorite quotes:
“Just for a moment, let yourself be here. Let yourself STOP becoming more, better, or different. You are not a walking mistake. You are not a problem to be solved.”
Mindfulness and self-compassion go together. You need to be in the moment nonjudgmentally to be self-compassionate, but we need self-compassion to be in the moment with whatever painful feelings we’re feeling. If this feels overwhelmingly foreign to you, I encourage you to recruit the help of a therapist, or attend a yoga class or meditation, or at the very least listen to a guided audio meditation. A tip I like to use with myself to harness compassion is to think of how I’d treat a puppy, kitten, or young child–gently and with warmth and care.
5. Let Yourself Be A Human (It’s OK if you’ve fucked up in the past, and you can trust you’re going to fuck up in the future).
I guess this could fit under “Practice self-compassion,” but it’s more the philosophy behind it. Remember it’s OK to fuck up. We all fuck up. In fact, if you never fuck up, you’re probably trapped in your comfort zone (which I’m not judging you for, but it might be holding you back from fully experiencing life). As I said before, shame can be a productive emotion (but more often than not, guilt is a healthier one to feel). When you permit yourself to screw up, embarrass yourself, and receive negative feedback, shame is either mitigated entirely or dissolves a lot faster.
6. Remember It’s You Who Ultimately Decides Your Worth
At the end of the day, it’s really up to you (and God, if that’s your jamz), to determine whether or not you’re good enough. It’s not up to your dad who told you you’re “A disappointment” that time (or several times). It’s not up to your old boss who laid you off a few years back and led you to believe you’re incompetent. It’s not up to Shame, who tells you you’re “Not where you’re supposed to be at 30 (or 40, or 60).” It’s your life. Your world. You’re the one who experiences your thoughts and feelings, not someone else. So consider telling yourself you’re good enough today. You’re worthy. You’ve screwed up–yeah–so has everyone else. That’s what being human is. That’s what life is.
So the next time you’re in a dark place, consider Shame (and it’s parasitic anxiety). It might not make everything peachy, but noticing, understanding, and reacting with self-compassion can ease some of the pressure.