Shame can lead to self-destructive behaviors, such as substance use, which can then lead to more shame. Practicing mindfulness, identifying your triggers, and reframing your thoughts can break this cycle of shame.
Many people find themselves stuck in a cycle of shame and self-destructive behavior — you do something harmful, you feel terrible about it, and out of self-loathing, you do it again.
Shame can be a painful and overwhelming feeling. You might feel the urge to hurt or punish yourself when you feel ashamed. Or, you might engage in self-destructive behaviors such as substance use to numb or avoid the pain.
So, the cycle continues. But this cycle of shame and self-destructive behavior can be broken by practicing mindfulness and self-compassion.
Shame is a natural human emotion that we all feel from time to time. Shame produces feelings such as:
- I’m unlovable.
- I’m a bad person.
- I’m a failure.
- I don’t deserve happiness.
- I’m not important.
Shame can sometimes become so overwhelming that it leads us to engage in self-destructive behavior.
These self-destructive behaviors often can make you feel more ashamed, which can lead to you engaging in more self-destructive behavior.
This begins a cycle of shame and self-destruction.
Obvious forms of self-destructive behavior can include:
- alcohol and drug use
- binge eating
- risky sexual behavior
- reckless driving
- spending money recklessly
More subtle forms of self-destructive behavior can include:
- chronic avoidance
- engaging in relationships with an abusive partner
- self-deprecating comments and negative self-talk
- self-sabotaging your career, relationships, or health
Self-destructive behaviors can be a way to temporarily escape shame. They can also be a way to “punish” yourself for engaging in behavior you feel is unhealthy.
For example, you might feel ashamed about skipping all your lectures at school and lying in bed all day. Because you feel so ashamed, you continue to engage in this self-destructive behavior.
As another example, you might use drugs and alcohol one night. The next morning, you may feel deeply ashamed. Because you feel so terrible about yourself, you might use drugs and alcohol to escape the shame. Or, you might engage in other self-destructive behavior — such as self-injury.
Consider trying these strategies to break the cycle of shame and self-destruction.
Notice your triggers
Shame is often tied to the fear that we’re not good enough. Different people feel ashamed because of different reasons, and what triggers shame in one person might not trigger shame in the next.
Try to pay attention to what triggers you. Consider the last time you did something self-destructive.
What happened before that? What causes you to feel deeply ashamed? Noticing your triggers might help you be more mindful of your feelings of shame.
The point is not to avoid your triggers but to explore why they make you feel that way.
For example, if you feel shame more deeply when you fail at work, it might suggest that you tie your worth to your productivity, which is something to unpack and explore. Or, perhaps you feel ashamed after having sex, which suggests you could address internalized sex shaming.
Try to talk about it
Talking about the things you feel ashamed about can be a real challenge. After all, if you feel bad about something, you’ll probably feel vulnerable when talking about it.
But talking about shame can be helpful. Dr. Brené Brown, author and professor known for her research on shame and vulnerability, advocates for talking about shame.
“If you put shame in a Petri dish, it needs three things to grow exponentially: Secrecy, silence, and judgment,” Brown says. “If you put the same amount of shame in a Petri dish and douse it with empathy, it can’t survive.”
Consider talking about your feelings and the causes of your shame to a non-judgmental friend or in a support group.
Consider reframing your shame
Shame is often accompanied by negative self-talk. This negative self-talk can be self-destructive in itself and can make you feel worse about yourself.
When you start feeling shame — whether about self-destructive behavior or not — try reframing it.
It’s possible to regret your actions without feeling shame. The difference between shame and guilt is that shame is internalized. Instead of thinking, “I did something bad,” you may think, “I am bad.”
Examples of reframing shame statements include:
- “Staying up until 5:00 a.m. wasn’t a good idea because it means I felt tired the next day. But doing it doesn’t make me a bad, stupid, or worthless person.”
- “I regret drinking last night. But my mistake doesn’t make me a loser.”
- “It hurts that I was passed up for promotion. But this doesn’t mean I’m not a good worker. Because I am worthy, I’ll continue to make healthy decisions that make me feel good.”
Engaging in negative self-talk can affect your self-image, according to
Remember that it’s OK to feel shame. But shame isn’t proof that you’re a “bad person,” and it doesn’t mean you have to harm or punish yourself.
Try mindfulness activities to ease shame
A 2019 study looked at mindfulness, self-compassion, and shame. It found that people who practiced mindfulness were less likely to experience high levels of shame.
The researchers examined this further and found that non-judgment — a key facet of mindfulness, which teaches us to observe the world without judging our thoughts and observations — helped people feel less ashamed.
Mindfulness can help you quietly observe your thoughts and behaviors without judging yourself. It’s about paying attention to your external surroundings and your internal world without getting caught up in judgment or overthinking.
There are many ways to practice mindfulness, such as:
- meditation, including loving-kindness meditation, which focuses on fostering self-compassion and compassion for others
- mindful yoga involves focusing on your breath, movement, and bodily sensations
- journaling, with or without prompts, can help you pay attention to your thoughts and consciously practice more self-compassion
- mindful breathing, which effectively reduced shame in a 2017 study
Consider experimenting with one or two of the mindfulness practices that sound interesting to you. During these mindful states, try to focus on feelings of self-compassion and kindness.
Mental health support can help you break free from the cycle of shame and self-destruction. Talk therapy, or psychotherapy, can provide you with a judgment-free space in which you can begin to process, understand, and change your behavior.
The following signs suggest it may be time to consider speaking with a mental health professional:
- it’s affecting your relationships, home life, finances, or work
- you feel distressed or upset about your behavior
- you’re using substances more than you’d like
- you’re engaging in potentially dangerous behavior
With that said, anyone can benefit from speaking with a mental health professional. You don’t need to wait for your situation to worsen before seeking help.
If you’re unsure where to start, you can check out Psych Central’s hub on finding mental health support.
Although the cycle of shame and self-destruction can be hard to break, it’s possible. Support groups, psychotherapy, and mindfulness can all help you address feelings of shame and work to reduce self-destructive behaviors.
You might benefit from the following resources:
- Listening to shame, a TED Talk by Brené Brown
- How To Stop A Shame Spiral, a podcast episode by The Perfectionism Project
- “Shame: Free Yourself, Find Joy, and Build True Self-Esteem,” a book by Joseph Burgo
These Psych Central resources might also be helpful: