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The Shame Spiral

And how to crawl back out of it

· Personal Growth

Some people are really good at getting all of their ducks in a row. A letter comes in, they open it, read it, deal with it, and file it. A bill arrives, they pay it. Client work is complete, they send an invoice. Not only that, but they actually track each and every document. Every process. Every bit of admin - as it comes up.

Those people are amazing. I respect them. I admire them. I am not, however, one of them.

I used to believe that I alone suffered from the increasing anxiety buildup of not knowing how to deal with some piece of admin, putting it safely to the side to “handle later” and then discovering the letter again about a month later only to realize, to my own horror, the deadline had passed. Or worse, I was now going to be charged a late fee. I always think to myself, “Well, that late fee will surely teach me a lesson in managing my mail better!” And yet, it never does. Somehow, the same thing happens again.

Letters come in, or important admin that needs to be handled, and somehow I file it away in “Important” or “To Do Next Week”. And next week next week. Then next month. And so on.

Now, think of all these amazing administrative tasks - and compound that with the fact that I am receiving them all in a third language. In a country that simply LOVES bureaucratic communications and snail mail.

Welcome to my world.

I am one of the fortunate ones. After years of living in this beautiful land of currywurst and lederhosen - I have wonderful, kind, loving friends who also happen to be native German speakers. And on top of that, they are smart. Smart enough to know what the hell I have to do with all those piles of unopened or unanswered mail that builds up at my front door. I don’t need to say your names, secret guardian angels, each of you knows exactly who you are. You have saved me. Time and time again.

When I describe this pain to friends - people say, “tell me about it” or “I hear you” or “admin is the worst!” Everyone can relate. Only I don’t really feel like they can relate. I feel like they are trying to make me feel better, but secretly everyone else just handles this so much better than I do.

Enter: The Shame Spiral. This magnificent spiral was coined by yours truly. I was on a phone call with one of my favorite humans discussing a client project that I wasn’t quite able to get a start on, but had been sitting with for longer than I’d like to admit on such a public forum, (a girl can keep some things sacred, can’t she?) At first, I explained that I was just a bit stuck in the opening lines. As the conversation continued, the truth unraveled. I was completely and totally stuck and so deep in the trench was I that I hadn’t actually started what I’d promised to begin on weeks before.

I was so wound up and full of shame at having not started and every day or week believing that this would truly be the end of it! “Enough is enough, Amanda!” I told myself this countless times. And because I kept trying to start and kept being unable to or getting stuck, I was too embarrassed to even reach out and ask for help. To be honest, I didn’t even know who to ask for help.

This, my friends, is the Shame Spiral. That feeling of shame when you just didn’t manage to get done what you hoped/thought/promised/prayed to do and instead of finding small steps to climb out of the hole, you sink further and further down the spiral until the ladder no longer reaches you and hide away in your hole of shame hoping no one ever finds you, for if they do you will surely be mortified beyond repair.

I uncovered this hidden shame on the phone with my friend who told me about her own deeply buried shame spiral. An email that had never been sent, but was meant to be sent on many occasions. The shame spiral, I realized, could quite possibly be a human experience. Far away from the isolating anguish that surrounds the spiral, so many friends and family members suffer in silence - hoping no one will notice with horror and judgment the thing they aren’t doing well, or just can’t quite seem to get done.

When we’re far down the shame spiral, we believe everyone must know that secretly we are buried in shame over the thing we didn’t do. I am so sure it is written all over my face and my actions. I am afraid to mention it to anyone lest they judge me - which completely prevents me from asking for help!

I am professing my very own shame spirals to you, as openly as I dare, to start the un-shaming process. The part of the process where I admit to myself how far down the hole I am, and how much I need help to get back out of it.

A phone call with the same amazing human mentioned above ended with a pact between us - to pull us both out of our shame. “Send me three bullet points about what you want to say,” I told her, “I will help you write that email.” And so great was the laughter between us, and the noticeable relief in her voice that when she said, “Amanda, send me a few bullet points about what you want to write. Let me help you get started.” I was almost in tears.

We all have those hidden pockets of shame that sometimes feel so insurmountable to us, and may seem like the simplest thing in the world to those around us. In a kind, gentle voice they probe, “Why don’t you just...x, y, z” not truly understanding how often you’ve already had that thought yourself. The good news is that when you acknowledge where you are to yourself, taking that first step - or reaching out for help becomes a less daunting task.

What shame spiral are you currently experiencing? What is one step you can take to get out of it? Who is one person you trust enough to open up to and ask for help?

Amanda is a Leadership Coach who empowers women to clarify their vision, unlock their potential, and activate the courage to make transformational changes.

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