Shame. It’s a very powerful force. We all have it. But it’s hard to talk about. It’s a dark, difficult, lurking emotion. But the less we are aware of it, and the less we talk about it, the more power it has over us.
It’s easy to see when shame is triggered when you know what to look for. Here are the common responses to this trigger. Blame/projection. When someone is saying something negative about us, and somewhere inside of us we are either afraid this is true about us, or deep inside we believe it’s true, our self protective defense kicks in and we point the finger at the other person, We project our fears/beliefs back onto them and tell them they are the problem. Note: we often are not aware we are doing this. Another typical reaction is to get defensive. This is similar to the first in that it is touching on something we fear or believe is true about us so we protect ourselves by defending ourselves. We tell the other person how wrong they are. The last typical common response is that we shut down and numb out. We don’t want to feel these feelings and it’s overwhelming. Shame often makes us hide. We don’t want others to see what we fear is the truth of who we are in that shame place. All of these responses are detrimental to ourselves and our relationships. They push those close to us away. Which then reinforces feelings of shame that we are unlovable or not good enough.
No one can really make us feel something we don’t already feel.
If I know I’m intelligent and I feel secure in my competency as a person and someone tells me I’m dumb, I may not like it, but I’m not going to have a big reaction to it because I know this isn’t true. But let’s say I had a parent that put me down as a child, I struggled with school and was belittled for it. There’s a tender spot around my intelligence that includes feelings of shame. I feel not smart enough, not competent enough, and then someone tells me I’m dumb. Boy am I going to have a big emotional reaction to that that may include lashing out and blaming the other person, defending myself and telling them how wrong they are, or turning inward and shutting down. If we don’t understand where our tender spots are, our shame places, we often react while never really understanding why we react the ways that we do, and those reactions become damaging to ourselves and to our relationships.
This scenario quite often plays out in our intimate relationships. Our partner has the ability to hone right in on our most tender spots because they are the ones that matter the most to us, and they know us the best. This is the person we care the most about what they think, they are close enough to really hit those raw spots, and because they mean the most, they get the biggest reaction when those shame spots are triggered.
So let me illustrate a relationship example where both people are triggered by shame and how it leads to disconnect. Please note, all names and content are fictional, but it’s so common and universal, it’s not unusual to see yourself in it. I’m using some extreme examples of childhood wounds, but they don’t have to be this significant for us to have feelings of shame. Remember, we all have shame to varying degrees.
Joe had a very critical father grown up. If he got a B, his father would reprimand him and question why he never got an A. So Joe would try to perform and perform to get his father’s approval, and never felt good enough. His deepest shame fear was that he was a failure and would never be good enough. Sara was abandoned by her mother when she was very young, so she has deep feelings of shame that she is not lovable and everyone will leave. Joe and Sara are in a long term loving relationship.
Often times if Joe is not being particularly attentive to Sara because he is just distracted by a bad day at work, and he also forgets to take out the garbage. Sara’s shame is triggered, she fears she is not lovable and he doesn’t really care about her. So she launches into a critical attack telling him he never remembers to take out the garbage and all the household chores are up to her. She gets angry at him and tells him he doesn’t pull his weight and she’s tired of it. Sara doesn’t realize her shame is triggered, she is just reacting. Her reaction then triggers Joe’s shame. He starts to feel like a failure as a husband, that no matter what he does, no matter how hard he tries, he’s never going to get it right with her, he’s never going to make her happy. His reaction is then defensiveness. He tells her how she is wrong, that he does a lot around the house and she’s being ridiculous, thereby triggering her shame even more. If only they could see what’s going on. Their reactions are pushing each other away. But the shame they feel is real, it’s not their fault they have these feelings, and if only they could share that with each other.
So what do we do about this? We have to get in touch with it, acknowledge it, understand it, and have empathy for it so we can lessen it’s hold on us. Tune into those tender spots in yourself. Where do you recognize you have big reactions like this? What tends to trigger it? How do we react when it’s triggered? Having this information gives us the power to change our response so we can then love ourselves better and love those closest to us better. It takes tremendous courage to take a look at ourselves and acknowledge something so vulnerable as shame. But remember, it is part of being human. But if we can look at it and understand it with compassion, we can begin to heal it. We can begin to challenge these beliefs about ourselves that just aren’t true. Because the truth really is that we are all lovable, we are all enough, simply because we exist.
To learn more about Shame and it’s impact, Brene Brown has many amazing TED talks and books that delve deeply into this topic. Some of her books include: Daring Greatly, The Gifts of Imperfection, Rising Strong and others. And if you need support, counseling can help.
Wishing you love and happiness always,
Today marks the 12th birthday of my counseling practice, LinkedIn let me know, otherwise it would have passed right by me. It’s caused me to reflect on the past 12 years.
I remember when I decided to start my counseling practice. I was newly licensed, my firstborn son was 9 months old, and it felt like time. I knew for a long time it was what I wanted, but I had no idea what I was doing. I asked my mentor a lot of questions, and he guided me along the way. I put lots of ideas on paper of how to get started and I jumped right in. I’m like that, I don’t look too long before I dive. I decide and then I go and I figure it out along the way. I knew I wanted to work with couples, but on my journey toward licensure, without private practice, there was not much opportunity to gain experience with couples, so I had to learn as I went with only my education as my guide. Phew, that was scary!
I remember asking Gary Dudell, my professor and mentor who has now passed and is dearly missed, what is the key to being successful? His answer was, Just show up. Be there. Keep your word. I realize now the wisdom of his words. I show up, I’m present, every day, not just in my practice, but in my life, the best that I can. And it really does make a huge difference. People don’t expect people to show up, really show up. Meaning to be fully emotionally present. So when someone does, and hears them, and sees them, amazing things happen. I mean, really amazing things.
I am so grateful for every single couple that has passed through my doors. What they have taught me, what they have given me, is way more then I could ever put into words. They have taught me such big things about life, love, pain, grief, healing, bravery, strength, and resiliency in ways that at times takes my breath away. I have seen what love can endure, and how love can persevere when we are willing to be brave, to show up, to be vulnerable, to walk through wounds and shame toward growth and healing. It has been more than humbling to be witness to, and it has grown me in ways I could never quantify.
Something I think about often, and it would be hard to put into words, is that every couple I encounter helps me help the couples that follow them. Because I learn from each and every one. And it makes me better to help the next. There is such a tapestry of interwoven connectedness that cannot be seen, but as the one who links these amazing people to one another, I can sort of see it and feel it, but it’s still more vast than even I can grasp. 12 years. 12 years of that. Of connecting couples not just to each other, but to the others who are struggling beside them, and they don’t even know it. It’s such a beautiful thing to be part of.
People often ask, how do you do this work? How do you sit and listen to people’s problems all day long? I admit, sometimes it’s hard. Sometimes the intense pain levels me. Especially when someone else’s pain touches my own raw pain of whatever is going on in my life at that time. But I’m not listening to “other people’s problems”, I’m in it with them. I’m journeying along side of them. They are not a burden, they are a gift. And it’s so enriching and rewarding and humbling the ways in which I am entrusted with the deeply intimate lives and stories of others. It’s a window that many don’t get to look through. And what I see is that we are more alike than we are different. We all want to be loved. We all want to be seen and accepted. We all want to know that we matter to those important others in our lives, to be known, understood and felt. We all want to know that our important others will show up for and with us. We all want to know we are irreplaceable to a special few.
My work has held a mirror up to my own humanness and it’s made me understand myself on such a deeper level in my own everyday struggles of life and love. For that I am so grateful. Because we all struggle. And at one time or another, we all need a helping hand. For someone to see us. For someone to wholly show up for us. So here’s to the next 12 years. I am going to keep showing up. I am going to continue to be present for and with the people who embark on this journey with me. I am ever thankful for getting to do this work. It grows me every single day. And the courage I see humbles and amazes me every single day.
Wishing you love and happiness always,
Often times couples find themselves so emotionally exhausted from the issues that plague their relationship, they look for a way out and make the decision to file for divorce. Many times the couple is made up of two people who still love each other, but they just don’t know how to get along with each other. They don’t necessarily want out of the marriage, but they want out of the pain and frustration and think divorce must be the answer.
For this particular couple, they were in very damaging cycle in their relationship and did not know how to break out of it. They had already begun the divorce process at the time they came in for counseling.
In the first session, they were unable to be productive because they were so caught up blaming each other that they could not see their own part in the cycle. They decided to separate. During their separation, they continued individual counseling.
I recently heard this story about facing adversity. I thought I would pass it on to you. In your marriage, you may face turbulent times. When reading this story, you can apply it to any adversity in your life, but you can especially apply it to struggles in your marriage. Will your marriage be the carrot (crumbling under tough times), the egg where you harden and become cold with one another, or the coffee bean.
Enjoy the story and I hope it inspires you!
ARE YOU A CARROT, AN EGG, OR A COFFEE BEAN?
by Mary Sullivan
A young woman went to her mother and told her about her life and how things were so hard for her. She did not know how she was going to make it and wanted to give up. She was tired of fighting and struggling. It seemed as if as soon as one problem was solved a new one arose. Her mother took her to the kitchen.
The mother filled three pots with water.
In the first, she placed carrots.
In the second she placed eggs.
And the last she placed ground coffee beans.She let them sit and boil without saying a word. About twenty minutes later, she turned off the burners.
She fished the carrots out and placed them in a bowl. She pulled the eggs out and placed them in a bowl. Then she ladled the coffee out and placed it in a bowl.
Turning to her daughter, she said, "Tell me what you see."
"Carrots, eggs, and coffee," she replied. (You known the tone of voice.)
She brought her closer and asked her to feel the carrots. She did, and noted that they felt soft.
She then asked her to take an egg and break it. After pulling off the shell, she observed the hard-boiled egg inside.
Finally, she asked her to sip the coffee. The daughter smiled as she tasted its rich aroma.
The daughter then asked, "So, what's the point, mother?" (Remember the tone of voice.)
Her mother explained that each of these objects had faced the same adversity – boiling water – but each reacted differently.
The carrot went in strong, hard, and unrelenting. However, after being subjected to the boiling water, it softened and became weak.
The egg had been fragile. Its thin outer shell had protected its liquid center. But, after sitting through the boiling water, its insides had become hardened.
The ground coffee beans were unique, however. After they were in the boiling water…they had changed the water.
"Which are you?" she asked her daughter. "When adversity knocks on your
door, how do you respond? Are you a carrot , an egg, or a coffee bean?"
Think of this: Which am I?
Am I the carrot that seems strong, but with pain and adversity, do I wilt
and become soft and lose my strength?
Am I the egg that starts with a malleable heart, but changes with the heat?
Did I have a fluid spirit, but after a death, a breakup, a financial hardship, or some other trial, have I become hardened and stiff? Does my outer shell look the same, but on the inside am I bitter and tough with a stiff spirit and a hardened heart?Or am I like the coffee bean? The bean actually changes the hot water – the very circumstances that bring the pain. When the water gets hot, it releases the fragrance and flavor of the bean. If you are like the bean, when things are at their worst, you get better and change the situation around you instead of letting it change you.
When the hours are the darkest and trials are their greatest do you elevate to another level?
How do you handle Adversity?
ARE YOU A CARROT, AN EGG, OR A COFFEE BEAN?
Where do you begin when you’ve just found out your spouse has had an affair? Or, what if you are the one who’s had the affair and your partner has just found out?
If you’ve just found out your partner has had an affair, be prepared for the roller coaster of emotions. It is not a time to make any permanent life-changing decisions. Here are some important things to consider:
You do not have to know right now if you are going to stay or go. You are in crisis and may feel like the rug has been pulled out from under you. Give yourself time to make important decisions. Emotions are very raw right now so it’s okay to not know which direction to go yet.
Some people make the mistake of telling friends and family and then regret it later. So be choosy about who you share this with, the best route is to seek out a counselor who can help you sort through all the challenges that are in front of you. It’s also important to have a support system, again, select confidants carefully. There may be support groups in your area, seek these out through your local church or counseling center.
You are going to experience a lot of different emotions from anger to sadness, betrayal and fear, confusion and frustration. All this is normal. Research has shown that individuals who have been betrayed show symptoms of post traumatic stress. You may have flashbacks of the affair and images that you never even experienced. You will have triggers like when the phone rings or your partner gets a text message, where the fear and anger comes alive. You may want to cry one minute and scream the next.
In this kind of situation, the fight or flight response kicks in, but neither are conducive to moving forward. If you want to save your marriage, you can neither fight nor flight. A normal human reaction is to act out the rage and blame, yell at, accuse, distrust or check up on your partner. While these are normal reactions, they do continued damage to the relationship and to your own self esteem. Sometimes what might make you temporarily feel better in the moment, makes matters worse in the long run.
Self care is critical during the time of healing. Self care includes things such as exercise, going for walks, getting enough sleep, spending time with those who are supportive, getting counseling, making sure you eat well and enough. These small things might seem trivial or difficult to do, but it is important to take care of yourself.
You may want to ask questions or know details about the affair. It is okay to ask these questions, just be sure that you really want to know the answers. For some people the not knowing causes suffering and they would rather know, for others they would rather not know. There is no right or wrong, only you can know what is going to be helpful.
If you are the person who has had the affair, some important things to consider:
There is no right time frame for getting over an affair. So do not push your partner. Your patience and support is critical. Do not avoid talking about the affair, do not give excuses or blame. Right now your partner needs to know that you understand the impact this has had. This is not going to be easy for you either, but it is important that you remain supportive during this challenging period.
This may seem obvious but it bears pointing out: be honest. Be where you say you will be, do what you say you will do, don’t leave anything out no matter how insignificant it seems. Rebuilding trust is going to take time, but it starts now
Listen to your partner. If they ask questions and want to know the answers, it is important that you answer them with total honesty. Do not decide for them what they should and should not need to know. It is important to allow your partner to make the determination what he/she needs to or wants to know.
Be an open book for your partner. And remember, this is temporary. But this is an important time to be in close physical proximity to your partner to maintain a sense of safety. Allow your partner to see your phone, text messages, emails, to regain a sense of safety. You can, and it is necessary to, have your privacy back at some point, but for right now your partner may need this to begin the process of rebuilding trust and feeling safe.
You are going to go through difficult emotions as well. Guilt, shame, regret are all normal feelings to experience. It is important not to let them get in the way of being there and listening to your partner. It is also a good idea for you to seek counseling as well to deal with these emotions and to understand why you made this choice.
If you want to save the marriage (or even if you are unsure) it is important to seek couples counseling as soon as possible. It may take some time to find a counselor that you feel comfortable with. Remember, affairs happen in good marriages and to good people. There are many reasons why an affair occurs and it can take one to two years to recover whether you stay in the marriage or not. Take your time, seek help and work together to begin the healing process.
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