Don’t Let a “Shame Attack” Get The Best of You

By UB’s Joyce Marter, LCPC, for PsychCentral

One of my friends, who is a therapist, accidentally drunk-dialed her male client (rather than her ex-boyfriend) and played a love song into his voicemail after saying she missed him. The next morning, her client politely called her to alert her of the error. Her emotional response at that moment is what is called a, “shame attack.”

We all have shame attacks. They suck. 

Some are short and minimal. Like the therapy session that I conducted and accidentally dropped and an Altoid into my cleavage while making a very serious psychological interpretation—my client and I burst out laughing and I forwent searching for it…

Some are intense and haunting. Like the time my stiletto got caught on a cord while I was saying hi to my husband who was deejaying on the stage at our children’s school benefit—resulting in my backwards fall into the shrieking crowd, taking a folding table and much sound equipment down with me…

Shame attacks can occur after the following:

  1. Substance induced disinhibition or sloppiness. (See above.)
  2. A mistake, accident or error. I once dropped a rental movie into a mailbox on the street and put my mail into the video store’s return slot. In my defense, it was early morning and  I was not properly caffeinated—and, when I called to get the situation corrected I learned I was not the first to have done this…
  3. Self-disclosure. One therapist who works for my practice said she experienced a “shame attack” after disclosing personal information about her own psychiatric treatment during a training I facilitated. (BTW, I love when therapists admit that we have issues too. Quite simply, it is what brought us to the field and gives us the ability to help others—nothing to feel shame about.) As long as what you said was authentic and true, there is nothing for which to feel badly. Social anxiety is a projection of our own self-loathing.
  4. Sexual impulses. Flirtation. Advances. Verbalizations. Actions. Sometimes it is hard to admit what we want, especially if unreciprocated. Understand sexuality is intensely personal. We all have needs and perhaps we all feel silly about them sometimes.
  5. Regressive behaviors. I once (okay, more than once) yelled something ridiculous and childish at my husband when the doorbell rang and my neighbor and his daughter were at the door. I went from five years-old and psychotic to 41 and composed in five seconds. My neighbor was nice enough to pretend he didn’t hear a thing, but we both knew he saw my less-evolved self. We all act like babies sometimes. Reflect on why those old parts are getting triggered and seek the help of a good therapist.

How to recover:

  1. Remember, you are human and nobody is perfect. Nobody expects you to be perfect (except for yourself and maybe your mother, LOL.)
  2. Understand, mistakes happen for a reason. They help us learn and grow.
  3. Make amends whenever needed. Take responsibility for yourself for poor behaviors and apologize. If you are having multiple substance-induced shame attacks, get help through treatment, therapy and/or a 12-step program.
  4. Forgive yourself. In moments of quiet, prayer or meditation, express forgiveness and compassion to yourself just as your would extend to others whom you love.
  5. Learn from mistakes. They are messages that something needs to change in your life (like you need to slow down, take better care of yourself, etc.)
  6. Understand, “This too, shall pass.”  Zoom out and look at your life from a greater perspective. Did anybody die? Is it the end of the world? Remind yourself you will feel better about the shame-triggering event with each day that passes.

When I look back at the things I have felt shame about, most of them don’t matter a wee bit.  And shame is a heavy burden to carry you need to purge the ickiness to make room for joy. 

Breathe in, breathe out and let it go. 

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