The definition of shame is to believe that your core sense of self is flawed or worthless, which in turn creates feelings of self-rejection and loathing. People that feel ashamed are constantly afraid of rejection, criticism, and judgement.
People who feel shame have to hide. They don’t want anyone to see who they really are because then…they would abandon them.
In couples therapy shame hijacks the session and gets in the way of people being able to access their softer emotions and also to be able to tolerate listening to their partner’s feelings.
For instance one partner may be sharing that they are feeling so afraid and sad because they feel let down and disappointed. If the other partner has a lot of shame they will quickly go into feeling afraid of rejection (believing inside that they are unworthy of the relationship, unable to be relied on, undeserving of their partner’s love, deficient in some way or another, saying to themselves: “if they only knew about me”) and they will quickly react by getting defensive, counter attacking, and blaming to move away from their own bad feelings. The truth hurts and if you are already feeling horrible about yourself then it is very hard to tolerate hearing the person you love the most confirm that. Who wouldn’t want to move away from that feeling?
Guilt is “I’m sorry I made a mistake” Shame is “I am a mistake”
This is why it is so hard for people with shame to take accountability- they are not saying “I’m sorry I made a mistake.” They are saying “I’m so sorry that I AM a mistake, and you probably wish you never met me and you would better off with out me”
So what can we do about it? How the hell do we get around this thick fog of shame?
Well there isn’t really a way around it, just like other feelings you have to go in it and through it. The thing about shame is that it is all about hiding. It is about hiding how terrible we really think we are. Ask yourself these questions: “What is it that you see inside yourself that you would never be able to show your partner?” and “What is it like to feel so bad about yourself?” Only when we can truly feel the grief and depth of our pain about how bad it is to feel this way about yourselves can we move towards wanting to heal it.
Sue Johnson says “the partner’s acceptance is the antidote to shame.” What does this really mean? It means that if you open yourself up, share how bad you feel about yourself and all the sadness and pain about how much it hurts to feel this way, and the big fear you carry about feeling not good enough, and you look into your partner’s eyes and see that they feel so sad and sorry for how bad you feel- healing does happen- to be seen in our worst pain heals all. Then they reach out and tell you “I don’t see you that way, your not such a bad person, and yes I do love you and accept you, you can feel the relief and the reassurance that you are safe and you can rest in their arms. The person then learns that they don’t have to be alone with these terrible feelings; someone will always be there for them to pull them out of the hole and reassure them that they are ok, or they are good enough, or they are a good person, that is truly loved and accepted.
If you feel like you and your partner get stuck in these types of shame spirals that prevent you from having a closer connection where you are able to really be accessible and responsive to each other emotionally then give us a call at A Path of Heart Counselling Services.
A Path of Heart –Your Road Map to Intimacy
Robin Menard MSW RCC RSW
Marriage and Couple Specialist
Also see below Brene Brown’s newest talk on Shame
Some of the information for this article was borrowed from Yolanda Von Hockauf, Core Skills and Beyond March 2012.