- Breaking self-destructive shame-based patterns requires taking deliberate, informed action—not just willpower, talking, or insight.
- Shame can be relieved and healed by taking healthy risks to be authentic with accepting people and doing things that generate pride.
- Testing out different, healthier behaviors creates new connections in the brain and momentum for growth and change.
- Habits can be broken with practical neuroscience based tools that leverage the way the brain works.
Shame is often the hidden culprit behind self-destructive compulsive behaviors, addictions, and social avoidance. It can also be the root of other less conspicuously self-defeating problems such as (compulsive) perfectionism, preoccupation with status-based “success,” as well as behaviors that hurt others such as rage and being controlling.
These symptomatic behaviors can be understood as unconscious defenses against shame that develop instinctively in the service of psychological survival. Designed to banish, reverse, cover up, and avoid the unbearable effects of shame, these defenses offer an escape by substituting other states of mind, disowning or reversing shame, preventing exposure, and projecting shame and blame onto others. Narcissistic rage in response to shame, for example, and other forms of abuse, effectively convert a feeling of being weak, small and humiliated into a powerful feeling, and forcibly project shame onto the other person, making that person into the one feeling powerless and small instead.
A Likely Candidate for Escape
Substance-based addictions and compulsive escape behaviors that function similarly to addictions (such as porn use, acting out, binging/purging, and cutting) are likely candidates for the job of regulating painful emotions and states of mind when people have learned they can’t rely on relationships. (To understand shame and guilt, and the causes and effects of shame, check out my companion post here.)
Compulsive and addictive escape behaviors provide instantaneous transport to an altered state of mind, creating dissociation and numbness, or the rush of hyperstimulation. Compelling enough to effortlessly draw you in, and powerful enough to effectively overtake the effects of shame, these methods of escape and avoidance offer a temporary out, but then backfire.
The Spiral of Shame and Self-Destructive Behavior
Though intended to shield people from shame, succumbing to addictive compulsions not only becomes its own source of shame, reinforcing the need for escape, but validates a shame worthy feeling, resulting in an unconsciously self-fulfilling prophecy that perversely “hits the spot.”
(For more on punishment and self-punishment: "I did something bad." Should You Punish Bad Behavior?)
Confusing Shame with Identity
Children learn to see themselves through their parents’ eyes and take on as “self” their parent’s projection of who they are, based on how they are treated. Though how they are seen is a reflection of the parent’s state of mind and projections, the power and timing of shame-based memories of feelings and sensory experiences contribute to the perception that it is who they really are at their core.
Without recognizing and identifying the language and predictable characteristics of shame as such, early in the cycle, people take these feelings and symptoms literally, and are tricked into confusing a shame state of mind with identity and what defines them. Recovery cannot progress while engaging in out-of-control behaviors that generate shame and validate shame-based self-perceptions. Escape compulsions also take on a life of their own and keep people stuck by preventing opportunities to develop new neural pathways, reinforcing fear, avoidance and unwanted behaviors both neurobiologically and psychologically.
10 Ways to Break Out of Self-Defeating Habits
1. Make explicit the person you want to be. List your values. What would most matter to you, for example, if you were looking back on your life later on and feeling peace (or regret)?
Shame and feeling bad or guilty can remind us of our values and, by way of internal conflict, tell us something about who we really are at the core. There wouldn’t be so much angst and suffering about being a bad person without a sense of having violated an internal code that is part of us. Going against our own values creates shame. Making our values explicit can motivate us in a positive way to align our behavior with who we want to be.
2. Write a list of the reasons you want to stop your habit and post it somewhere visible to you to keep you grounded in reality rather than defaulting to an automatic self-deceptive script.
3. Tell yourself you are allowed to do something different this time, rather than thinking of it from the perspective of what you’re not allowed to do, or what you "should" do, which creates resistance and rebellion.
But what if your reasoning (rationalization) is that you are going through a hard time and need to “indulge” right now in order to feel better?
People justify self-defeating compulsions by telling themselves that they get to do whatever they want because they need to feel better. Update yourself about what you actually want, and that you don’t have to give in this time. Looking at it this way is a reminder that what you want is to be in control and that being an escape junkie doesn’t make you feel better or help you, or you wouldn’t be in turmoil struggling to try to stop.
4. Anticipate how things will play out. Make an accurate prediction about the situations in which you are most likely to surrender to the impulse and have a realistic plan for what to do instead. The strategy here is to identify the obstacles to success, as opposed to envisioning success using wishful thinking and unearned confidence.
Repetitive behaviors and cycles are habits that not only are difficult psychologically to give up, but also are like a paved road or groove in the brain that has been reinforced over time and become instinctual. Counteracting that instinct and creating new neural connections or new habits” requires outsmarting it through expecting and anticipating the urge. Planning while not in the throes of an episode and taking informed preventive action is your best defense.
5. Use the 30-minute rule before acting on an urge. Dip your toe in the water and see how it feels.
Recognize that the feeling of craving is the brain in a compensatory dopamine deficit or pain state that results from repeatedly reinforcing excessive dopamine release through overexposure to escape behaviors that trigger high dopamine, and can change your baseline levels (Huberman, A., 2021). The brain seeks equilibrium, but it's even worse than that because pain has a competitive advantage. So for every dopamine spike, there is a subsequent dopamine deficit that causes levels to fall below baseline (Huberman, A., 2021), creating an ongoing cycle of pain and the need for more relief, on top of reinforcing shame and a shame-based identity.
Practice waiting and introducing a delay between the feeling and acting on your compulsion to seek "relief" or escape. Notice your state of mind and allow yourself to see that you can tolerate it. It is transient and its power dissipates if you allow that to happen. This is also a way to bargain with yourself before succumbing to the impulse.
During the 30 minutes, read your list of reasons to not reinforce the compulsive cycle. Then do something else that absorbs your attention (reading, watching a video) or physical activity/movement to transition to another frame of mind. Breathing and visual techniques can also be used at these times to alter your mental state, reduce stress, and increase your resilience to painful states (Huberman, A., 2016).
6. Use mindfulness. Leverage the capacity to dissociate or step outside of your experience to observe and recognize thoughts and states of mind and notice that they are different from the “self” or who you are, as opposed to taking them literally as if they are facts or an accurate assessment of reality/self. Here the goal is to develop the capacity to tolerate your internal experience, and not be completely overtaken by it, maintaining an “observing ego” that is not confused about what is happening.
7. Rather than trying to get rid of shame, which is doomed to fail, recognize it as separate from you. Seeing shame for what it is and is not diminishes some of its power, though it will still be painful.
This approach is different from cognitive behavioral approaches that involve challenging one’s beliefs and trying to change or replace them with more adaptive, rational ones. That can be ineffective and backfire for some people, evolving into an internal struggle to defeat shame. Inevitably shame wins, and the reasoning used in the intervention and predictable failure that results is folded into shame, fueling the shame spiral.
8. Remember that you are not defined by where you are at one point in time or one event. We are all “works in progress” and the neuroplasticity of our brain allows for ongoing growth and change.
9. Grieve the time you lost but then let go and move on from the losses. You can start at any time regardless of where you are at now or how long it has taken you.
10. Remind yourself that you can use your mind to change your brain.
How to Heal and Relieve the Shame that Underlies Other Symptoms
Secrecy, silence, and being out of control are close companions of shame. Healing shame happens interpersonally when people are ready to take small, safe risks to be “seen” and known, and take actions that generate pride (an antidote to shame) in a nonjudgmental setting. Shame can be relieved by breaking secrecy about your struggles with safe, accepting people, being witnessed in the context of authentic connection. You can help heal a friend or loved one’s shame by revealing your own shame and talking about your mistakes and regrets.
Huberman, A. (2016, November 22). How Neuroscience can hack your brain’s potential. [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qksd7aHGAUQ
Huberman, A. (Host). (2021, August 22). Dr. Anna Lembke: Understanding and Treating Addiction (Episode 33) [Audio podcast episode]. In The Huberman Lab Podcast. https://hubermanlab.libsyn.com/dr-anna-lembke-understanding-treating-addiction-episode-33