The Shame Spiral

It had been eight years since Drew Katchen, a 32-year-old Web producer who works for a major media company in New York, had been in touch with an old friend of his from his home state of South Carolina.

“She was cool. I always really liked her,” he said.

Mr. Katchen was delighted one afternoon when a message from this individual, titled, “Flashback,” popped into his Facebook in-box.

“I decided not to read it at the time because I was busy doing whatever I was doing,” he said, “and I wanted to set aside enough time to send back a proper and thoughtful response. I wanted to get a handle on some old memories I could share.”

A noble gesture, indeed, and Mr. Katchen swears he meant to write back sometime in the next day or so, but it just slipped his mind. Before he knew it, a week had passed, and still, he kept putting it off.

That was six months ago. Today, the message remains unread. In fact, “it’s the only message I haven’t read,” Mr. Katchen said. “It still haunts me! Each day I’ll go through the other messages I have, but before I log out, I’ll have that one unread message that will still be there. I can’t bring myself to look at it now, but I also can’t just delete it. I can’t even bring myself to look at her Facebook page. I worry about running into her when I go back to visit my parents.”

Mr. Katchen is in a shame spiral, so embarrassed of his repeated failure to execute a task as simple as firing off a friendly missive and clicking “reply” that he’d rather wallow in his own disgrace than confront the source of it. 

But what is a shame spiral? It’s a pattern of behavior: Person screws up; person feels ashamed of said screw-up; person’s shame spirals out of control into a whirlwind of avoidance and self-loathing—one that is made especially complex by the hyper-connectedness of modern life. There are more ways to communicate with people than ever before, and this also means more ways to avoid them.

 

LIKE MOST OF the sources interviewed for this article, Tom, a 32-year-old South Brooklynite, was too ashamed to offer up his full name for print. Tom recently found himself in a shame spiral similar to Mr. Katchen’s after months of dodging a certain friend who wanted nothing more from him than to catch up. “I just can’t stomach the thought of a conversation because so much of it would consist of having to catch up on months of having not talked,” he said.

The first front of avoidance was the emails. Then the phone calls. Still, Tom promised himself he’d reach out to his pal before it got to be too bad.

But one day, while Tom was killing time on Facebook, there it was—a live message from his friend that popped up suddenly in the bottom right-hand corner of his computer screen. (Until that moment, Tom was unaware of Facebook’s chat feature.) His stomach dropped, and he closed the browser window as quickly as he could.

“I feel bad,” he said. “I’ll have to call him eventually. He’s a really nice guy!”

The Shame Spiral