Recently, due to a missed text, I ended up inadvertently double-booked on my patient calendar.
This simple incident reaffirmed for me the positive power of self-compassion, or conversely, the negative impact of self-shaming.
Certainly, I recognized that this mistake was minor. Considering that I see more than 30 patients a week and have several changed appointments per day, a mistake like this every six months or so is certainly not a reason to get down on myself.
I even had some logical explanations as to why the double booking wasn’t entirely my fault. I had been updating my phone software at the time the patient texted. The patient also did not get a confirmation from me agreeing to the changed appointment time and just assumed it would be OK with me.
Even though this mistake was clearly unintentional and despite my logical, cognitive reassurances, I chastised myself for the double booking.
Quite suddenly, a parade of self-critical thoughts arose. Over the next few hours as I ruminated about my mistake, I began to feel irritable and distracted. As I sat with patients, I had more difficulty focusing and remaining in the moment. I failed to follow their narratives and my thoughts wandered.
I was not an attuned, empathic therapist. I could clearly feel the difference in my body, brain and emotions from my normal self.
By the time I went home a few hours later I really wanted a drink to calm my cranky mood and I had a hard time relaxing enough to go to bed.
The feeling continued the next morning with minor irritability, lack of focus and generally low mood. To be sure, all of these sensations and thoughts were very mild and I was certainly well able to function.
To get out of my funk I repeated the logical explanations for the mistake and thought kind, compassionate thoughts about myself.
Later the next day I was completely back to normal — happy, contented and motivated. But as I look back at this incident, several lessons are apparent.
My radical change in mood due to one small mistake really confirmed to me the harm of self-shaming — a practice I had long ago give up.
Fear-triggering beliefs of inadequacy lead people to become self-critical, because they fear others will find them unlovable. People are afraid of the thought that if others knew them and saw these flaws, they would reject them.
When people feel inadequate, they feels powerless or “less than” others. It is then natural to react with a feeling of threat or fear if faced with an emotionally difficult situation. This leads to reactions of “fight,” “flight,” “freeze,” or “avoidance.”
The brain goes into a primal “survival mode” and reacts, rather than pauses and thinks realistically about a situation. The brain relies on the limbic system, where reactive, fear-based emotions are processed, not the prefrontal cortex (PFC). The PFC is where reasoning, problem solving and higher pro-social emotions, such as empathy, sharing, and compassion, are processed. If the brain spends enough time in this emotionally fearful state, it can create habitual ways of thinking and being.
Through years of the use of mindfulness, self-compassion and self-acceptance, I almost never have self-shaming thoughts and the resulting anxiety. I am nearly always in a good mood, with no fear of the judgment of others. I am calm, relaxed and in the moment, rather than critical, judgmental and fearful.
Because I am not in “fight-or-flight” mode and emotionally self-protective, my PFC is able to generate feelings of compassion for myself and for others.
Self-Shaming and Depression
What is interesting is that after my scheduling mishap I also suddenly started feeling sorry for myself about unrelated issues. Even though the day before I was quite happy with my life, out of the blue I began having negative thoughts of dissatisfaction. Thoughts of self-doubt expanded from questions about my attention to detail to questioning my ability as a therapist. I felt a lack of motivation to do housework. I noted that I have not been in a relationship in a long time and suddenly felt lonely and isolated, where hours before I did not have these thoughts.
We often label these types of thoughts and feelings as “depression.” However, my experiences of feeling mildly sorry for myself in that brief incident are indicative of how the brain works. When we feel threatened emotionally by fears of failure, we start to see threats and negativity everywhere. These threats cause us to withdraw socially, isolate ourselves, give up trying, and feel hopeless and helpless.
The Power of Shame
In looking back at this incident I am amazed at how quickly these negative, shameful thoughts and feelings came over me, despite my cognitive understanding of the situation and my overall excellent emotional resilience. When my mind, emotions and body experienced even a brief taste of emotional upheaval due to thoughts of self-judgment, I did not like it!
I realized how difficult it must be for so many, many people who live with this feeling on a daily basis and often at much more extreme intensity.
If I had not had psychological insight and emotional resilience, I may not have been able to recognize what had happened to me. I might not have had the ability to talk myself back to normal.
Fortunately, years ago I learned the power of self-judgment to cause anxiety and depression.
I learned that compassionate self-acceptance is the key to emotional health.
As a therapist I use techniques with patients to address self-shaming and self-critical thoughts by improving their ability to be mindful and self-compassionate. I know these techniques work, and my brief experience confirmed for me the need to be self-accepting and self-compassionate.