Shame Attack

Shame. Just seeing the word makes me cringe.

I’ve been mentally suffering again, and I struggle to know what it is that brings me down into the darkness. I’ve written about it before, as some sort of cycling mood disorder or depression that hits me for a few days. I have figured out that shame is at the root of this, and I think I actually suffered a shame attack. (my word – to liken it to a heart attack or asthma attack)

I revisited Brene Brown and her ideas on vulnerability and shame.

This time I came away with the notion that guilt and shame are related, but completely different. Brene posits that guilt is healthy, it is an agent for change and action.

GUILT=”I hurt your feelings, I did something bad, I feel guilty, I apologize and feel better”

SHAME-“I hurt your feelings, I AM bad, I feel shame, I apologize and feel worthless”

Shame allows us to internalize the bad, be one with the bad, in an endless cycle of self hate. I’m starting to figure out some of my triggers for shame attacks, I think. Triggered by success. Triggered by the kindness of others. Go figure.

I used to think I was such an introvert that any social interaction wore me out and gave me need to hide in a dysfunctional stupor for a few days. I am now starting to think that is only partially correct. Yes, I do need alone time to recharge, but that implies a healthy recovery process. Not me hiding from my own brain, dodging my own painful thoughts – thoughts of self loathing and giving up on life itself. I must ride the waves of self destruction, drifting aimlessly until I spot the horizon. Thankfully I have been through this enough times to know that I will spot that horizon, so it is more a matter of distracting myself than actually nurturing myself on those days. Finding some way to ignore the putrid lies my brain feeds to me, hateful lies full of shame and disgust.

I had a lovely time at my public art demonstration. I was mindfully present and felt joyous. Hubby was amazing helping me get organized and make the schedule work with kid events too. Many of my new friends came to watch me draw and I felt loved. Many, many strangers complimented my work. I felt proud of my accomplishment. All in all it was a great experience.

So why the shame attack the next day? I’m not exactly sure of the mechanism, but I think to simplify it a bit, my inner self does not believe art is a worthy way to spend my time, and even deeper than that, I think I am afraid I don’t deserve the compliments – that I am not actually talented.

Now this was a juried show, meaning I had to submit a sketch and plan to be invited to participate, and it was limited to a small number of artists. They gave me a spot central to the festival and said they were so happy to have me. All of those people complimenting my work were not just being kind. Rational thoughts should say that someone thinks I am in fact talented. I do think I am talented, and I was proud – hugely proud of myself that day. It felt great to interact with the crowd, answer questions, and hear their surprise and admiration.

It was the next day I was filled with doubt. The next day I could barely get up out of bed, I wasn’t sure why though. The dark thoughts are so powerful and confusing, like being tossed about in a tornado. See, the shame is not so direct, it is all encompassing and does not tell me why it is there, and so I am left guessing about why my brain has chosen to torture me yet again. I’ll list some of the thoughts I had in my negative tape the next day.

“Why did you choose something so complicated to draw? The others were done in half the time”

“You should have spent more time talking with your friends or the crowd, it was rude to keep drawing”

“You looked fat in the photos. When did you get so fat? Why didn’t you exercise more before this event?”

“You forgot your business cards on purpose – you don’t actually want success”

“The kids were tired and whining, why do you keep dragging them along to your events?”

“You wanted to be with your friends, out drinking, and not with your kids – you are a terrible mom – a terrible person”

“Why do you need so much attention?”

“Why can’t you finish any framed art? Why do you only do these art shows with nothing to keep or sell?”

“What’s the point? It’s all meaningless”

“They didn’t pay you enough, why did you work so hard? Don’t you have any self-respect?”

“You’ll never make it as an artist”

“You wore yourself out doing something silly for yourself and now you are useless to your family.”

“You’ll never learn. You’re so stupid”

“Everyone just humors you”

“All you do is waste time. You’re wasting your entire life. No need to continue life if you’re just going to waste it”


I chose TV and video games, and alcohol, to drown out these thoughts. These activities numbed the pain, silenced those thoughts, but actually made me feel worse about everything as I prove to myself that I am a pathetic waste. I avoided my family, doing only what needed to be done to feed them. Luckily they can all dress themselves now and mostly played outside. Extra shame when their friend comes inside and sees me not dressed at 2pm, hair not brushed, dishes not washed, floors not swept, and playing games. I couldn’t even pretend to work, the games were obvious, and I had no extra energy for pretense.

The good news is, the attack only lasted 1 day. Yesterday. Today felt more like recovery and recharging instead of survival. I still zoned out with alcohol and games, but I also got moving and did some chores in between levels – because I wanted to, not out of guilt. I was able to think and plan and make a nice dinner, so Hubby could have one thing less to worry about. Yesterday I could not rub two thoughts together in any helpful way.  I barely remember it, it’s all hazy. What a strange brain I have.

Today the thoughts were gentle, encouraging, and no hate. And as my inner bully quieted, the tears weren’t waiting to fall today. Here are some of today’s thoughts.

“Yesterday was hard, but it is over now.”

“I could do one load of dishes, that would be really helpful”

“You’ve been through much worse, this is no big deal”

“Your family loves you and understands”

“I can wash some towels, we’ll all appreciate that at bath time tonight”

“I can vacuum those dust bunnies real quick”

“I really had fun drawing, I wonder if I should do it again next year? I’ve learned so much about composition, it keeps getting easier”

“I’d like to enter an art competition, I wonder if I can find the time to meet the deadline?”

“This game has beautiful graphics, it would be fun to sketch some of these scenes”

“I’ve never been to Venice, I hope I can travel the world more some day”

“I wonder what we’ll do in that meeting at work tomorrow?”


So shame has left, and hope has returned. Again. This cycle is exhausting, but at least I am still learning, and I think, still headed in the right direction. I do wonder if there is any way to stop the shame attack before it starts? I’m surely going to try.

Who knew that tearing up the sprinkler system ...

Maybe next time, I’ll just wear my cone of shame and see what happens (Have you seen Up?) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)






15 thoughts on “Shame Attack

  1. Remarkable. I’ve been doing something similar these last weeks. I will get set off by something and all the same old thoughts come crashing back in, but somehow I manage to sort the info in my head differently and instead of it taking two weeks to clear the experience, it now takes me a couple of days. You got hit with a trigger (I hate that word) and immediately began breaking it down until you were comfortable with the small, manageable pieces. Amazing. Thanks for sharing it one. 🙂

    • I hate the word trigger too. I am happy to hear you are recovering more quickly from these mental blows as well. We are learning some strong coping tools at last. So instead of devastating us, it seems manageable. Crappy, yes, but manageable.

      • It IS Crappy but manageable. Even when we lose our grip we seem to be landing on our feet (or at least our hands and knees). I’m glad you’re doing well too…coping better than before. It makes a huge difference. xx

  2. Success is a horrible trigger for me. I know why: NM would verbally tear me down anytime I was complimented or praised or did well at anything. Now, I do it all by myself without her help at all. I really, really, really hate that. I don’t know how to change it either. I just keep trying. I have found doing one little thing leads to another. It’s the only way I know out of the hole.

    Good for you for working through it, pretty quickly really.

    • Yes same here. I was never allowed to own anything I did, it could have always been better, or it was no big deal, or it was a waste of time. Or it was a sin to feel pride. Abusive father often threw religion back at me, that I not only disgraced him, but God too. I struggle with that part still, and may blog about it one of these days.

      You are exactly right, the secret is to do something, anything, and that leads to doing another something, anything, and eventually you get out of the hole that seemed too big at first.

  3. One of the more powerful pieces I have read.
    My Ggod dam deamon has a way of getting to me WHEN
    I am clogged up emotionally.
    I am becoming more and more convinced that this whole dis-ease is driven by
    the deep seated emotional conflicts that persist below the level of consciousness.
    I wish I had a really great answer, but I think it would just be a different way of saying what you said above.
    Thank you dear friend.

    • Yes I think that’s how it sneaks up on us involuntarily, since it lives in our subconscious. I can fight it when it surfaces, but it seems to always be there waiting. Thanks for understanding.

  4. I have experienced shame “backlashes” many times, often after doing something creative or nurturing for myself. It’s as if my inner critic is threatened by my small victory and cracks down. Glad today is better.

  5. I’m an abuse survivor myself. And I’ll tell you one very important thing I’ve come to learn in the last year. Those kinds of intrusive thoughts that I used to get from a source in my head that I labeled “The Voice” weren’t really mine at all. For me, it was initially difficult to believe that I wasn’t the source, considering it was coming from me after all. But, as I broke down my so-called “value system”, I came to realize that those were inherited from some extremely ill people that produced so many years of pain for me.

    I think you’ve got it on getting to the road of eliminating shame attacks altogether. It’s about practicing the positive thoughts you had at the end. The biggest roadblock for me in that respect was getting past the whole belief that I was “making excuses” and “rationalizing bad behavior”.

    • Thank you for the supportive comment. Yes, I know exactly whose voice forms those thoughts in my head, my abusive father. I have been successful with practicing positive thoughts and making connections to others, and I plan to continue on this road. It seems the more I share, the more I learn, and the shadow may disappear completely with this spotlight on it.

      I’m interested in your last line, about your biggest roadblock and making excuses/rationalizing. I’m not sure I grasp your meaning and would love to hear more from you if you have found something helpful or another way to view this.

      • (I had written a great explanation, only for my phone to eat it. LOL.)

        Whenever I would attempt practicing the positive thoughts, I’d have intrusive thoughts that would trump anything nice I had to say about my life or situation. I figure it has to be pretty common, at least in a subconscious way, because it’s the one thing that would continue to perpetuate the cycle of self-degradation. The intrusive thoughts were pretty much the same, “You’re just making excuses for yourself.” or “That’s you just trying to justify your behavior.” or “There you go, rationalizing all your behavior away again.

        It would stop any positive progress I could possibly make dead in its tracks. I know exactly what it stemmed from. Growing up, (and even in abusive relationships later in my life) I would get trapped into this rhetorical questions. “Why did you…?” or “Why did you…?” They weren’t questions that really required an answer, because anything I said wouldn’t be good enough. Any legitimate explanation I would present would be more excuses or lies.

        The rhetorical questions were a way of engaging me in a conversation. If there was no conversation, then there was no possible way that I could be emotionally abused. I would beg and plead for people to actually listen to me and take me seriously. But, it wasn’t about actually hearing my side of the story or coming to understand my perspective. It was about taking me down a peg or two. But, because it began with that one question, it always seemed like some legitimate conversation.

        For the longest time, it made me very sensitive to criticism, to the point of where I would become combative and perceive slights. I had gotten to the point of where I would desperately require validation and outside approval. If it didn’t come from someone else, (because apparently, I had been so deluded before), then it wasn’t worth anything to me. Because anything nice I could say to myself was simply delusion on my part.

        You’ve got it right. You build your positive thoughts and stick to them. There is no entity that starts to argue with you at that point that you still aren’t good enough. For me, that was so hard to get to. And it took a long process of determining the mechanisms that prompted this vicious cycle, and to eliminate them. I’m currently writing a post about it, describing the overhaul to my value system and how I started living life by my own rules.

  6. Last year I read the book RECONCILIATION by Thich Nhat Hahn, a Buddhist monk, who lives in Plum Community in southern France. I have read the book three times…each time I learn something new…I am sure I will be reading forever…I began to attend the Mindfulness Center in Milwaukee–a Buddhist meditation center. It has helped me tremendously! When I read about what you wrote above…I could put myself TOTALLY in your shoes…I have learned that when I “attach” myself to these negative feelings, I am not listening to my true self. Tonight’s meditation was on suffering. We all suffer. But we can handle it differently to free ourselves from this illusion. First of all, recognize the feeling, i.e. shame, joy, depression, loneliness; Secondly, acceptance—accept that we are feeling shame, unworthy, whatever the emotion/feeling; Third, Non-identification with the emotion. Do not say, “I am depressed”—no, see “depression” (or whatever emotion) as a condition…choose to accept it or not! Your experiences are arising out of the condition. We do NOT have to be our experiences—we can go beyond them–to peace. The third step is the most difficult.
    I am sharing this with you, because it has carried me past where I have been for 63 years…it has carried me to inner peace and freedom.
    Namaste! (Namaste means I recognize the goodness and light in you!)

    • I am overwhelmed by the responses I have had to this post. Thank you for the book reference, I will certainly read that. Parts of my spiritually already fit nicely into buddhism, so I am eager to learn more. There was a time when I would not have believed your words here, that peace is possible – for me. But I do now, and I am getting closer to finding it. Thank you for joining my journey and adding to my toolbox.

  7. I do this, it is a terrible cycle. I haven’t ever really related it to shame but it is as good as word as any.

    I don’t deserve to be loved.
    I don’t deserve my success.
    I don’t deserve to be admired for my talents.

    I think I will beat myself about my head, shoulders and heart until I convince myself.

    This is a terrible cycle to throw yourself into. I am glad it only lasted one day for you. The only way out is to listen to those who tell you otherwise, listen closely and hold their words in your heart.

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