Understanding shame

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,

Dana

Warning: Facebook can be hazardous to your relationship

There are more than 400 million active users on Facebook. It has grown into a huge social networking site. While it is useful in that it gives you access to all your networks of friends and family and helps you stay in touch, there are some dangers to be aware of.

In my practice, I have had a steadily increasing number of couples with complaints that Facebook has become an issue in their relationship. It doesn’t have to be, but if you are not careful, it can certainly wreak havoc.

Infidelity happens at the place where vulnerability meets opportunity and a choice is made. Anyone can be vulnerable to an affair. It is a dangerous thing to think your relationship is affair-proof. Vulnerability can result from issues in the relationship: poor communication, disconnection, or lack of intimacy. Vulnerability can result from external circumstances such as grieving the death of a loved one, loss of a job, birth of a child, anything that causes undue stress. Vulnerability can result from personal issues such as lack of self-worth, fear of intimacy, or substance abuse.  

Opportunity for an affair can come in different forms. It can come in the form of a friend, a co-worker, or friendly neighbor. In recent times, the Internet has broadened the depth of opportunity that is out there for an affair to occur.

Here is where Facebook becomes a threat. This is where people connect with ex-lovers, ex-flames, an ex-crush, or even with an old friend, and it might feel nostalgic to reminisce. This nostalgia can be mistaken for love interest. This may be innocent on the surface, but to the couple who is struggling, it becomes a great threat.

Here are some boundaries that may reduce the threat of Facebook on your relationship:

Be each other’s Friend so that nothing is hidden.

Do not connect with an old flame on Facebook unless you talk about it openly with your spouse and your spouse is comfortable with you doing so. But if you are having any difficulties in your relationship, avoid this at all costs.

Do not discuss any marital problems with people on Facebook. This is where the potential to share and relate opens the door to a deeper connection that threatens your relationship.

Make clear on your profile page that you are married or in a relationship.

If members of the opposite sex begin inappropriate sexual or flirtatious banter, put an end to it immediately and share it with your spouse.

Talk openly with one another with how you feel about certain types of friends on Facebook, and what each of your own personal boundaries are around its use. Be respectful of each other’s freedom of choice and privacy, but also respect each other’s boundaries on what is okay and not okay.

Be protective of your time as a couple. The other way that Facebook threatens a relationship is the amount of time spent chatting with friends, playing Farmville or Mafia Wars, or other addicting games that rob you and your partner of quality time. So put some limits around its use.

Facebook itself is not necessarily the issue, but it presents opportunities for connection that was not there before and something that may have started out as harmless fun can turn into something that breaks down trust in your relationship.

Facebook is not going anywhere any time soon. Online opportunities will continue to pose threats to the fidelity of your relationship. It is up to you to not let these outside influences inject themselves into the safety of your relationship.

True healing

Our negative emotions (pain, fear, frustration) serve a purpose. They let us know that something is going on within us that needs attention.

When we experience physical pain, it is the body’s way of alerting us that something is not quite right and needs attention. If we were to just medicate that pain without looking at what’s causing it, we can inadvertently cause more damage. 

Such is the same with negative emotions. Our culture wants immediate gratification and happiness and has lost sight of the valuable growth that comes from delayed gratification and understanding and “feeling” emotions. Many are in the habit of numbing or avoiding their negative emotions. Whether it’s through prescribed medications, or self-medication techniques like drugs, alcohol, porn, sex without love, etc. Emotional pain is an indicator that something is not right. And if you allow yourself to feel it, examine it, understand the thought process and behaviors behind it, then you can do the necessary work to grow, to move through it and create healing. The problem with this method is that it’s time consuming, it’s not a quick fix. However, it’s a longer term fix and allows for a deeper connection with yourself and the important people in your life.

Breaking the cycle

If you don’t like a particular pattern you are in with your partner, instead of trying to change your partner,
look at how you can change what you are doing to create a change in the pattern.
Do the opposite of what you are currently doing and see what effect it has.

For example: Sara wants Jim to call more often when he is away on business trips, and when he doesn’t call she complains at him for not thinking of her and he ends up calling even less. So she breaks the pattern by stopping the complaining but being happy to hear from him. She doesn’t even mention how often he calls. Over time, this results in him calling more often.

So think about what current dysfunctional patterns you are in with your partner, what could you change in what you think, how you respond or react that might change the pattern?

Communication

As you know, good communication is vital to the health of a relationship. But what is good communication? One important element is respect. Without it, your communication can be very damaging to the relationship. No matter what the conflict or how intense the emotions, commit to treating your partner with respect and kindness as the first step toward healthy communication and a healthy marriage.

Stop Grousing!

Grousing is to complain, nag, or criticize. These are deadly habits in relationships and over time can be highly destructive. So I challenge you to 3 days without grousing at your partner. Work to notice things done right rather than things done wrong, even if you have to take out a microscope to find them! Show appreciation and gratitude for your spouses contributions rather than finding fault. Do you think you can do it? (it’s not as easy as it sounds, and the longer you’ve been together, the harder it is!)

What about the strengths in your marriage?

It is often our human nature to focus on what is wrong rather than on what is right.

This is true in our relationships as well. In thinking about your marriage, do you spend more time trying to fix what is wrong? Do you take for granted what is right?

Think about how you treat your partner. Do you spend more time telling him or her what they do wrong, or more time telling him or her what they do right. If where you put your focus inspires more of the same, where do you want to put your focus? Criticism invites more of the behavior you don’t want. Appreciation and recognition inspires more of what you do want. Don’t ignore or overlook the parts of your spouse that are good and right, nor the parts of your marriage that are good and right. Recognize the strengths and build off of those, rather than focusing on the negative.

Keeping your marriage strong during hard economic times

I don’t have to tell you about the tough times our country is facing economically right now. You are seeing it on the news, at the pump and at the grocery store. People are losing jobs, homes, and investments. If these challenges are effecting your family directly, it can put quite a strain on your relationship.

What is most important as you face these challenges, is that you face them together, as a team. Your communication and alliance with each other is of prime importance right now. When couples face hard times financially, there may be a tendency to take fears and stress out on each other. But that only makes the situation worse. 

Here I present some strategies to deal with tough times, cope with fears and realities without damaging your relationship. 

1. Listen to each other. Your partner may be feeling many of the same fears that you are. Listen to each others fears and have empathy for one another.

2. Share ideas and discuss strategies with one another. Sit down and write out your budget together. Discuss ideas about how you might cut back, save money or manage money effectively. Listen to each other’s ideas and problem solve together. The only way to effectively problem solve is to listen and talk to one another with respect and resolve. There might not be a ready solution, but talking about it doesn’t have to do damage to your relationship.

3. Stick together. A lot of it is about attitude. Have and share the attitude that we are in this together, and we will get through it together.

4. Recognize that there are ‘free’ ways to spend quality time together. Date night doesn’t have to mean a $30 babysitter, a $50 dinner and $20 at the movies. Date night can be having a night cap on the lanai after the kids go to bed, or an afternoon walk in the park. Find ways to be together and connect with each other without spending money. Cook meals together and eat at home as a family, whether it’s just the two of you or your kids too. Share babysitting duties with a trusted friend who has kids. Take turns watching each others kids for some quality time alone with each other.

5. Be emotionally supportive of one another. Eliminate blame, criticism, finger pointing, attacking and defending. These actions do nothing to solve problems.

Outside stresses can impact your marriage if you let it. But if you build your relationship resiliency through respectful communication, teamwork, support, and love, you can weather these difficult economic times.

If you would like more strategies, I found this great website full of resources. Check it out! http://www.healthymarriageinfo.org/challenges/financialstress.cfm

What are you putting into your Relationship?

There’s a saying that you get out of it what you put into it. Usually when we think of this saying we are applying it to work or education or sports. But this is equally true of relationships. When thinking in terms of getting out what you put in, what are you putting in?

If you put into your relationship criticism, complaining, nagging, arguing and withholding, what do you imagine you will get out of it? If you put into it love, compassion, kindness, friendship, and giving, what then do you imagine you will get out of it?

All too often we focus on what we need from our partner and what they need to do to give it to us. I hear from a lot of couples, I want more respect/affection/attention/cooperation etc.. you can fill in the blanks. But little do we think about what we give. We are often more concerned with what we want to get. But in order to get respect/affection/attention etc.. we first need to think about how we give those things.

In one scenario, a woman is complaining that her husband doesn’t listen to her. But as we begin to uncover what she is doing to get him to listen, she realized she is often nagging, complaining, or demanding. Well of course he doesn’t want to listen! When you are looking for something from your partner, think in terms of what you are inviting. If you want a listener, does your behavior invite someone to listen? If you want more attention and affection, do your actions invite attention and affection? Couples get so focused on changing their partner to meet their needs, they often overlook what they are providing.

I believe that in the end, we all want the same thing; to be loved and accepted for who we are; to feel understood and respected ; to be treated with care and kindness. When thinking about your relationship, instead of thinking in terms of how your partner can do this for you, think about how you can do this for your partner. You cannot change your partner, you can only start with yourself. You can inspire positive growth and change in your relationship by focusing on yourself and what you are putting into the relationship. 9 times out of 10 if you are putting in love, acceptance, kindness, compassion, respect, and trust, you will inspire that in return.

Another important aspect of all this is to pay attention to the positives in your partner. None of us enjoy having our flaws pointed out to us, yet in relationships couples get in the bad habit of criticizing one another. What would happen to your relationship if you spent more time pointing out what’s right and good and wonderful about your partner. Chances are you’ll inspire more of the same.

We all fall into bad relationship habits, but with a little focus in a positive direction, we can affect change. What you are getting out of your relationship is very likely a reflection of what you are putting in.

Marriage is the Foundation of the Family

Having children changes the core dynamic of any couple’s relationship. All of a sudden, the two of you have this little being that you are both responsible for, in some aspects, a little intruder on your relationship. Your time together is no longer your own. While this is a wonderful blessing, it can also be a tremendous strain on your relationship. How you respond to this adjustment is important to the stability of your family. (If you don’t have children yet, save this newsletter!)

Many couples make the mistake of putting the children first. You might be saying, but that is what we are supposed to do, right? Wrong. The heirarchy is opposite of what most people think. Most think the heirarchy is children first, then spouse and then self. Well it is actually the opposite. It should be and needs to be self first, then spouse and lastly the children. Let’s explore the reasoning behind this. When you are on an airplane, the attendant explains that in case of an emergency, the oxygen masks will fall from the ceiling. You are instructed that when this happens, put yours on first, then you may assist others. The reason for this is that if you cannot breath you are of no help to anyone else. So it is with relationships and parenting. If you are running on empty trying to take care of everyone else, how good of a parent or spouse can you really be? When you don’t take the time to take care of you, do you find yourself irritable, less patient, less able to cope with daily stressors? How good of a spouse or parent can you be if you are in this state? It is by putting yourself first and taking time to recharge your battery (on a regular, consistent basis) that you are truly caring about your family, because it puts you in the position to give the best of yourself to those you love.

The foundation upon which your family is built is your marriage. Children need and deserve a stable home. Yet many couples put their relationship on the backburner to raise their children. This is the most detrimental thing you can do to your children.
You are your children’s primary role model for how relationships work. If you are not taking care of your marriage, what are you role modeling to them.
If you are not maintaining a loving connection with one another, the marriage will inevitably fall apart. At that point you will either remain married and role model a distant and unloving relationship to your children, or you will divorce, thereby breaking down the family system.
It is so important to carve out time to nurture the foundation of your family. Leave the kids with a babysitter so you can go on regular dates, put the kids to bed early in their own beds so you can have alone time, send them to grandma’s on the weekend so you can have an overnight getaway. They may complain in the moment, but they will thank you in the long run. I never get adult children in my counseling office complaining that their parents went on too many dates or spent too much alone time together! Remember, you really are doing what is in their best interest, and enjoying the many benefits of a satisfying marriage in the meantime!
Children do no benefit from being the focus of the family. The family benefits from your marriage being at it’s center.

My hope is that at the end of this newsletter, you will sign out of your email, schedule that much needed massage, call the babysitter and make a reservation at your favorite restaurant for you and your spouse. Your kids will thank you for it!