The Shame Cycle

Just because someone is spinning in an endless cycle of shame doesn't mean you have to be a part of it.

Is shame always bad?

Shame cycles exist everywhere. No one can escape them entirely. And shame is not always a bad thing. Shame works closely with its friend guilt to create conscience, that part of ourselves that keeps our integrity in check. Since none of us is perfect, we are all bound to screw up from time to time. In an emotionally healthy person, when mistakes happen shame and guilt step in to remind us that we need to make the situation right.

But left unchecked, shame can poison us and everyone around us.

The Shame Cycle

The term “shame cycle” is not a new one. In psychology it is usually used to describe an internal cycle of shame that starts with a bad behavior, which leads to guilt, which leads to a craving for relief, which leads you to do another bad behavior, and so on so forth. Although very real and perhaps relatable to you, this is not the shame cycle we are discussing when we are redefining love.

The shame cycle in redefining love is relational. It has to do with how we relate to other people. In redefining love, shame and guilt are considered contagious, meaning left unchecked it can pass from one person to another to another. This is the type of shame cycle that is being referenced throughout this site.

Without accountability, shame and guilt can infect not only the person who feels it, but all those in proximity. Entire families are infected generationally. Shame cycles can grow to affect entire companies, communities, or… dare I say… even entire countries.

The shame cycle starts when someone refuses accountability for his or her mistakes. When we refuse accountability we become outwardly defensive, and inwardly ashamed. Outwardly we work to cover up our mistakes and align people to our point of view.

Most of us know conceptually that there are always two sides to a story. Yet when faced with an angry, defensive person, we tend to become angry and defensive ourselves. We either side with the person who is angry, or the recipient. Either way, we feel internally ashamed, because really we know that this situation has nothing at all to do with us.

In dysfunctional families, shame is almost always generational. People living with dysfunctional families in the 21st century probably have no direct connection to the original source of their shame. Somewhere, way back in your family’s history someone made a mistake, refused accountability, became ashamed, and voila! A shame cycle was born.

When we feel shame without accountability our primary goal is to pass the buck. When a parent screams at her five year old child that he is stupid and worthless, it actually has zero to do with the child and everything to do with the parent’s own feelings of worthlessness. Their feelings of worthlessness were planted and reinforced by their parents, which were reinforced by their parents, and so on and so forth back to some caveman who fell asleep on guard duty and a saber tooth tiger ate his sister.

No one is immune

Unfortunately, none of us are immune to shame cycles. All we can hope for is to learn to recognize them so we can avoid infecting those around us when shame comes knocking.

Here’s an example…

Have you ever been working on a tight deadline and someone in your office just won’t stop trying to chat with you? It drives you nuts, right? You send out all the signals. You rustle papers. You sit with your head in your hands staring at the work spread all over your desk. You smile and nod without really listening. Maybe you don’t even look at them while they are talking.

Then again, there have been other times that you were totally bored or distracted at work. You’ve finished all your tasks for the week, or maybe you haven’t but you feel really upset about something and you just need to talk. You seek out a colleague who is normally friendly. Clearly he is deep in thought. But still, who wouldn’t be interested in your awesome weekend plans? Or how angry you are? You need a friend right now.

So you stand there and keep talking, mostly just to hear the sound of your own voice, completely oblivious to the disinterest of your listener.

We’ve all been on the giving and receiving end of a similar conversation. And whether you are the giver or the receiver, in both cases you are caught up in a shame cycle. Certainly not the most dangerous kind, but a shame cycle nonetheless.

By passively listening to the other person ramble on, we are violating our own boundaries, which makes us feel weak, which makes us feel ashamed. Somewhere deep within yourself, beneath the panic of trying to meet your deadline, you are flogging yourself. Subconsciously you are thinking, “Why can’t I just tell this person I’m too busy to talk?” You become angry at yourself, which makes you feel defensive, which quickly turns to anger at the other person.

Though not communicated directly to the other person, your anger becomes clear in your posture and demeanor. Though consciously focused on the conversation, subconsciously the other person feels insecure and unloved. A voice deep inside is saying, “I’m not worth listening to.” The other person feels ashamed, which makes them angry at themselves, which makes them feel defensive, which makes them angry at you.

So the other person moves on to the office drama queen – that one in the office who is always willing to listen. They discuss what a jerk you are, what a stick in the mud, what a kiss-up to the boss, what a bad friend you are. As soon as the other person walks away, the drama queen is headed to your office.

The drama queen tells you in great, slightly exaggerated detail exactly what the other person said about you. You are already mad at him for interrupting your work. Now you are thoroughly ticked off. But inside you also feel kind of guilty for not listening and being a good friend to your colleague. You feel inwardly ashamed at your inadequacy. Not only were you a bad listener to your friend, but now here you are gossiping about him instead of working on your project. Now you’re a bad friend and a bad employee!

Meanwhile, the other person is in someone else’s office, or on the phone, or at a coffee shop, feeling outwardly angry at you and telling anyone who will listen, while feeling inwardly ashamed because deep down he knows he should have just let you get your work done.

And BOOM… You have a shame cycle.

Breaking the shame cycle

When you are caught up in the shame cycle, you are both the purveyor and recipient of shame. You dish it out just as fast as you’re taking it in. Two-way accountability is the only way to escape the shame cycle. You must hold yourself accountable for your own part in the cycle, and hold others equally accountable as well.

This means no gossiping, no taking sides, and absolutely no disrespecting other people’s boundaries.

Without intentional reflection on your own feelings and the feelings of the other person, shame grows entirely in our subconscious without our even being aware it is there. Look at the above example. If either one of those people had reflected for even one second about their own feelings, and the feelings of the other person, the entire scenario would have ended quickly and without incident.

Redefining love breaks the shame cycle because it requires accountability, which requires you to look within yourself and the other person for their motivations behind their behavior. When you’ve redefined love, you’re able to set boundaries. You’re also able to recognize that the other person is struggling. This empathy prevents you from gossiping.

You don’t feel guilty about setting boundaries because you realize that setting boundaries is an act of love. You are telling the other person where you end and they begin. It isn’t that you are being mean to your coworker by explaining you don’t have time to talk. You simply respect yourself enough to realize you have a deadline to meet, and you respect the other person enough to be honest.

Conversely, you also realize that the other person isn’t being mean to you by ignoring you when you wanted to talk. Clearly they have something going on that has nothing to do with you, and you should leave them to it. You love yourself enough to recognize you don’t need someone else’s validation, and you love the other person enough to respect their boundaries.

Of course, you can’t control how the other person reacts. It is quite possible that the other person will continue on with the shame cycle without you. But that is the key phrase… Without You. Just because other people are spinning in an endless cycle of shame doesn’t mean you have to be a part of it.

Copyright © Redefining Love 2018

The author of Redefining Love is not a licensed mental healthcare professional. The information included on this site is for general informational purposes only. For mental health questions or concerns, please reach out to a licensed mental healthcare professional.