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Blog Short #58: The Shame-Blame Circle

Welcome to Monday Blog Shorts – ideas to make even Monday a good day! Every Monday, I share a short article with you about a strategy you can use, or new facts or info that informs you, or a new idea that inspires you. My wish is to give you something to think about in the week ahead. Let’s dig in!

Photo by Fokusiert, Courtesy of iStock Photo

Shame is one of those emotions that’s extremely uncomfortable. Imagine this scenario:

You’re sitting in a meeting, and your boss calls you out for being late on an assignment. You get that “deer in headlights” feeling. You can’t breathe, and you can feel your face burning as you blush. Your stomach drops, and you get a lump in your throat. All eyes are on you. You feel anxious and paralyzed simultaneously, and worst of all, you feel shame.

Have you had an experience like this? I have, and it’s awful.

When something like this happens, there are three reactions you can have. One helps you regroup and recover, and the other two draw you deeper in. I’ll go over those last two first, and then we’ll talk about the best way to handle it.

Response #1: Attack yourself to justify the shame.

In this case, you engage in a full-on attack of yourself. You assign your entire sense of worth to a single incident or specific characterization of who you are, and then sink into it. It’s a very all-or-nothing exercise in self-condemnation. The lower you go, the more shame you feel. In the case above, you might think to yourself:

“I’m totally irresponsible, unreliable, lazy, and inept. I probably deserve to be fired. I’m so stupid! I can’t do anything right!”

Response #2: Blame someone else to pass on the shame.

In this case, you get defensive and angry and try to justify yourself by ruminating about how you’ve been mistreated or are a victim of circumstances. Again in our scenario above, you might think:

“My boss is a jerk to embarrass me like that in front of everyone. He loves to have power and control! I didn’t have enough time to get that assignment done and he knows it, but he doesn’t like me, so he decided to call me out. Besides, I do great work! He’s lucky I haven’t quit already, but maybe I will!”

What’s Happening

In both cases, you’re playing hot potato and trying to move the emotions either deeper where you can get some leverage over them, or expel them outward and discharge them so you can disown them.

Sometimes we do both and ping-pong back and forth between self-blame and other-blame. One moment you blame the boss and ruminate about how he mistreated you, but then, you circle back around to yourself and think:

“Maybe he’s right, and it’s all me. I must be the problem!”

This is called the shame-blame circle, and it can be relentless and painful.

Why Shame Feels So Shattering

We treat shame like a hot potato because it shatters our sense of self.

At its core, shame is non-acceptance of who we are – or aren’t. Underneath the pile of emotions is a sense of unworthiness, inadequacy, and failure.

During moments of intense shame, we might have thoughts of wanting to disappear and not be. We feel like we shouldn’t exist. People say things like,

“I wish the Earth would just open up and swallow me.”

So what can we do to find some perspective that will help us through these moments?

Here’s the short-list.

1) When you feel it, acknowledge it and sit with it.

Don’t try to avoid it. Allow yourself to feel it and wait it out before reacting. After you’ve had some time to calm down, you can go back and review the situation you were in that led to the feeling.

2) Ask yourself if there’s something you need to repair, improve, or adjust.

Shame and guilt go hand in hand, especially when you’ve done something that caused someone else distress or upset. In these cases, it’s best to focus on repairing the situation rather than sinking into the shame.

Using our scenario, what could you do to make amends?

If the boss was right and you were late on your assignment, then you could complete it and take it to him, apologize for being late, and let him know what you plan to do to avoid being late in the future.

You might figure out a better way of tracking your work to be more timely, or if you’re overwhelmed and have too much on your plate, you might ask for a meeting with your boss to discuss what you can do to alleviate that problem.

In either case, you’re setting aside your feelings of shame to make amends, and by doing that, you’ll both feel better and repair the problem.

3) Take responsibility for your feelings regardless of how they were initiated.

Some people take pleasure in shaming others, which they do through condescension and dismissiveness.

When you’re around people like this, you might feel shame even if you didn’t do anything to bring attention to yourself. This is particularly true if you’re more sensitive to rejection or already have doubts about your worthiness.

Just keep in mind that no one can make you feel shame unless you accept their faulty view of you and take it in as your own. You have the power to reject projections that don’t belong to you and the power to accept who you are, imperfections and all.

4) Keep things in perspective.

One of the issues human beings have is a stubborn refusal to accept that things go wrong.

We all say we accept that things go wrong, and we even go so far as to say we expect it, but we don’t really. Underneath is that belief that things should be easy, we should be happy, and things should go right.

This is true even of the worst “scrooge.”

The antidote to this ingrained belief is to keep yourself flexible and approach stressful situations with a little humor and lightness. It’s like being a fielder in baseball not knowing where the ball’s going to go, but keeping your knees bent and your body loose so you can pivot in whatever direction you need to field it. Even then, you might make an error and have to run after it to retrieve it.

Fix what you need to fix, but wrap your emotional arms around yourself and say,

“I’m okay.”I can keep working and get better, but I’m okay.”

5) Be your authentic self.

Shame happens when you try to be someone you’re not, and then don’t succeed. When you accept who you are and make friends with yourself, you can handle making mistakes without beating yourself up. It’s very freeing!

It’s helpful to review your beliefs about who you are, what you value, and what your traits and personal characteristics look like. Check that list for validity. Are you parroting someone else’s “shoulds” you got growing up that don’t really ring true for you?

Make sure that you reflect what you know about yourself, and embrace that, warts and all.

You have the power to become more authentic and the power to prevent other people from defining you. Strive for excellence, yes, but your excellence, not someone else’s.

Authenticity is the most attractive human quality. That’s because it’s honest and trustworthy. What you see is what you get, and that’s relieving. It’s also accessible. Authentic people are easy to be around and connect with, whereas perfection is off-putting.

Last Thought

Since we’re coming up on Thanksgiving, you might think about who and what you’re grateful for, and be sure to include yourself in the mix.

I hope you have a wonderful holiday!

All my best,


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