Why do I feel awful for no good reason?
Often when you feel awful, you at least have some idea why. You can point to an event that’s caused the awful feeling.
But sometimes it’s not that simple.
What if you can't pinpoint what caused your most recent spiral into doomtown? Or what if something did happen, but it seems so objectively minor it doesn’t explain why you’re still feeling so crappy days later?
For me, there's a likely culprit when I feel this way. Shame.
There are two types of shame spiral. Know them. (Fear them.)
To begin, a few words on shame spirals more generally. Way back in issue one of the Big Feels newsletter, I wrote about having a shame spiral on the basketball court:
I was playing in my team’s (very) social league, and I screwed something up that meant the other team scored. My teammate told me off in a way that was slightly over the top given our team motto is wait, which basket is ours again?, but it was nothing I wouldn’t normally shrug off.
Except for some reason instead I just crumpled. I left the court and sat on the bench, avoiding eye contact with anyone. When a friend asked ‘what’s wrong?’, all I could think was, PLEASE stop drawing attention to me right now. Because my only answer to that question sounded ridiculous. I feel awful because I just got told off. I am 33 years old.
This is just one type of shame spiral. We'll call it the Short Sharp Shame Spiral. It's relatively quick, and it has an obvious cause (I messed something up, I got told off).
Any shame spiral - including a quick one like this - has the same basic logic.
I feel bad because of X.
I think, ‘X isn’t that big a deal, I shouldn’t feel this bad.’
I feel bad for feeling so bad.
(rinse and repeat)
The more objectively minor 'X' is, the more momentum the shame spiral gets. ('Why am I so affected by this minor thing? I am so fragile!')
The Short Sharp Shame Spiral doesn't last
There are two characteristics of the Short, Sharp Shame Spiral that make it relatively manageable.
First, it has a clear and obvious cause that makes sense. Sure, you tell yourself you shouldn't be so affected by being told off on a basketball court, but it at least makes sense that being told off like that might make you question your ability as a basketball player. There's an internal logic to this internal pile-on.
Second, the Short Sharp Shame Spiral seems to run its course within an hour or two. It’s a flash flood. I need a nice hot bath after getting caught in the downpour, but I’m otherwise ok.
What happens when the spiral keeps a-spiralin'?
The Long Slow-Twisting Shame Spiral: an altogether different beast
The second type of shame spiral has a lot in common with the first, but it’s an altogether different beast. I call it a Long Slow-Twisting Shame Spiral. This one can last for days, or weeks, before you even fully realise what’s going on.
Like the Short Sharp Shame Spiral, there might be one particular thing that kicks it off. But in the case of the Long Slow-Twisting Shame Spiral, that initial cause very quickly becomes besides the point.
Let's say a friend of mine is disappointed with something I've done (see: screwing up at basketball). In a Short Sharp Shame Spiral, you start with this thought: 'my friend thinks I'm crap at basketball', and you morph fairly quickly to something like, 'everyone thinks I'm crap at basketball, but they're afraid to say it.'
In the case of the Long Slow-Twisting Shame Spiral, that's just the beginning. Within a few days that lovely self-talk has morphed from 'everyone thinks I'm crap at basketball' into ‘no one thinks I'm good at anything, they’re all just pretending I’m not the worst person ever.’
In other words, those feelings of worthlessness really dig in and take root.
Let's twist again (and again and again)
Before long, the initial reason for feeling awful has faded from view, but the awful feeling has just gotten worse. It begins to latch on to all sorts of other reasons to feel bad.
In just a few short days, the Long, Slow-Twisting Shame Spiral can take a relatively benign proposition (Person X is disappointed with you) and twist it into something that threatens the very possibility of redemption.
Person X is disappointed with you doesn’t just become Everyone is disappointed with you. After a week or two it turns into something far more drastic, like:
This is all meaningless. You’re a worthless pretend human who’s incapable of happiness anyway.
The scariest thing about this is how quickly the feeling can become completely divorced from the reality of your life situation.
There might be several objective reasons to think you’re doing ok in life. Person X might even get over whatever problem they had with you (for instance, my basketball teammate apologised immediately for being overzealous, and later sent a text to apologise again). But in a true Slow-Twisting Shame Spiral, none of this matters. For whatever reason, sometimes the mud just sticks.
Your waking thoughts become framed by that one dreadful possibility you now know in your bones to be true:
The good things in your life don't mean anything, because they don’t count. Because you don’t count.
The Slow-Twisting Shame Spiral is a full body experience
Here’s what it feels like for me (for days on end).
That whatever problems I have in life are suddenly written on my body for all to see.
That my tender heart is bruised, and my lungs, chest, and gut all form a tight fist grip to protect it from further harm.
That my whole body is straining against the present tense, like I’m trying to throw my body weight against the rotation of the earth.
And above all I feel like I could cry at any moment (if only I hadn’t been thoroughly socialised not to.)
The Slow-Twisting Shame Spiral creeps up on you
The slow-moving nature of this shame spiral means not only does it last longer, but also that it creeps up on you.
You don’t necessarily know you’re in a Long Slow-Twisting Shame Spiral until you’re well into it. Which can really add to the shame, because everyday life becomes just that extra bit more difficult, but you haven't yet twigged to why that might be. You think ‘why can’t I just reply to those emails I’m supposed to reply to? Why do I keep saying no when people ask me to do stuff? What’s wrong with me???’
It also means, when you do realise what’s happening, it’s very hard to imagine it ever ending.
When you feel awful for no good reason, you often blame yourself
When there’s no obvious thing to blame for how you’re feeling, you blame yourself. ‘I’m such a fragile flower. I can’t handle everyday life the way everyone else can.’
That’s a lonely place to be.
There's an argument to be made that having a really hard time with life for no good reason is its own kind of trauma.
We live in a culture that wants to know why you feel the way you feel. We live in a culture that wants to assign meaning and blame so it can fix your pain.
When there’s no obvious cause, what we’re left with is a feeling that our pain doesn’t count. Even in our own heads we discount the bigness of our feelings. We berate ourselves for not handling them better. And it hurts.
What happens when you stop asking why?
Mark Epstein, author of the magnificently titled book The Trauma of Everyday Life suggests we stop trying to figure out why we feel awful, and try another approach altogether. He puts it this way:
“It is not as important to find the cause of our traumatized feelings as it is to learn how to relate to them. Because everyday life is so challenging, there is a great need to pretend. Our most intimate feelings get shunted to the side.
We all want to be normal. Life, even normal life, is arduous, demanding, and ultimately threatening. We all have to deal with it, and none of us really knows how.”
But also, wow?
Why is it so comforting to read someone describing that we’re all essentially fucked?
I think it’s because Epstein’s words contain a healthy dose of what I’ll call ‘realistic hope.’ It’s not ‘cheer up, you’ll be ok’. It’s something much more realistic, but therefore more useful. ‘You’re not ok right now, and that my friend is a very human experience.’
So maybe I am a fragile flower, but what if that’s the point? Aren't flowers supposed to be fragile?
The Slow-Twisting Shame Spiral is hard to explain. So don’t explain it.
So when you’re stuck in one of these slow-twisting spirals, how do you explain that to your friends and family?
What I have found most useful is not explaining it at all, but simply pointing to it.
Because it has no clear cause, I don't actually want the people around me to go into 'fix it' mode. I just want them to know what's happening, so they don't take it personally when I stop answering their messages.
My best strategy for this has two parts. 1. Picking the right people to share it with, and then 2. Creating a shared language with them to describe the situation with as little fuss as possible. That shared language can be whatever you want. Like, say, tortured metaphors about emotional weather patterns. (Ahem.)
For what it’s worth, here are the emoji me and my girlfriend use to signal oncoming shame spirals.
'I’m having a Short Sharp Shame Spiral':
'I think I might be in a Long Slow-Twisting Shame Spiral':
'Ok I’m definitely in a Long Slow-Twisting Shame Spiral':
If you don’t have anyone in your life to send those sorts of things to just now - feel free to send one to us as needed. We may not reply in a timely fashion, but sometimes it’s just about getting it out there.
What do we want from other people when we're in this space?
I’ve realised that often I don’t even need much of a response when I send these messages. So why does it help?
It’s not about explaining myself. Because with these sorts of big feelings, the whole point is that they don’t really make sense at the time.
I don’t even think it’s about being understood. It’s something simpler than all that.
It’s about reminding myself that what I’m feeling can be communicated, however fraught and coded that communication might need to be. The act of at least trying to share what’s happening for me, it helps me remember that what I’m experiencing isn’t some alien experience that our species doesn’t even have words for.
And when you’re worried that what you’re going through is yet another sign of your total, irredeemable weirdness, every little bit helps.