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,