The Value of Shame and Trust
Shame Part 3: Traveling companions for healing and reconnection
Posted Feb 02, 2020
Continuing our look at shame, we have discussed the evolutionary and social function of shame: to give us pause to reevaluate where we are, who we are with and if our relationship with another is one that needs to be changed or even discontinued indefinitely, to ensure our well-being.
- Limits our emotional expression when it serves us to do so in uncertain situations. (This is seen in the wordless disengagement from connection so typical of a shame response, a dropping of the head and averting our gaze from the face of the other.)
- Serves as a motivator to retreat from inappropriate or rejecting people.
- Directs us towards privacy when we need to regroup. (The script of “shame withdrawal” on the Compass of Shame can provide this privacy break we need when shame hits.)
While these points are part of understanding the adaptive value of shame, it can be agreed that repeated and unrelenting experiences of shame as seen in familial or societal abuse, neglect, oppression, and persecution is cataclysmic for the child, person or group on the receiving end of it. John Bradshaw was among the first to identify the profound effects of toxic shame on a person. More recently, authors like Pete Walker have brilliantly illuminated the impact of toxic shame as seen in Complex PTSD. Both authors, having survived their own shame wounds, offer compassionate insight and actionable ways of healing oneself into a life of thriving.
Shame at any level, from moderate embarrassment to extreme humiliation, can feel like a psychic or painful burden. The difficult task when shame hits is to modulate the flood of feeling. In my work with clients, we use many strategies to attenuate these difficult emotional experiences. They include art, writing, music, and meditation. These methods are a part of an overarching strategy to name, accept, and soothe difficult emotions; they help to open space for healing and new possibilities.
Central to making these experiences effective for healing is sharing the experience with a trusted other. That trusted other may be a therapist, a friend, a family member, or a social group. And, when one is working with such vulnerability, the presence of trustworthiness in the other person is paramount.
“Trust is the glue of life… It's the foundational principle that holds all relationships.” ― Stephen R. Covey
So what does trust look like?
Having trust in another person, according to Chalmers Brothers, is made of three types of judgment:
Our assessment of sincerity
Our assessment of competency
Our assessment of reliability or credibility
Below I elaborate these categories as holding these qualities:
- Sincerity includes the qualities of compassion, empathy and non-judgment. If you’re in connection with someone who is sincere, you tend to feel safe that what you’re sharing is being held with kindness, understanding, and openness.
- The sincere person listens and supports you, without an agenda other than to be with you. It’s doesn’t become about them, or any kind of one-upmanship.
- A sincere person creates space for you to share and find your own answers. They don’t presume to have your answers, or to know what’s best for you. If you ask, they might give you a suggestion. When they don’t know, they own it.
- Competent people are generally self-aware, curious about themselves and others, and may have “done their own work,” so to speak. There is an ease about them you can trust as being authentic.
- With a competent person, your strengths, as well as your vulnerabilities, are acknowledged and supported by them. This is important. As humans we seek out others not only to soothe difficult feelings (one purpose of funeral ceremonies) but we want our enjoyment shared and amplified as well (one purpose of weddings!) There is a sense of “whole” when all aspects of ourselves, happy and sad, are held in support and acknowledgement.
- The relationship is equal. A trustworthy person can be comfortable with their own vulnerabilities, and will ask when they need support from you.
It’s a two-way street, the relationship feels equal and mutually supportive. There’s no superior/inferior dichotomy.
- A person who is reliable, is respectful of your boundaries (they don’t need to control your time, thoughts, preferences or needs).
- A person who is reliable holds what you say in strict confidence.
- A person who is reliable follows through on commitments. If agreements must change, they take responsibility and are honest and transparent about it.
- With a person who is reliable what you see is what you get. Their behavior is consistent with everyone, i.e., you have the sense they hold and respect others in the same way you feel respected. There is no gossip or behind-the-back judgment-making.
- When you need help they ask “What can I do?” And they do it. There may even be times when they just proactively offer help.
- When a person is reliable you can trust them to be honest about their feelings, they are respectful in expressing them to you, and they take responsibility for their part of your relationship.
Clearly, no person and no relationship is perfect. There are hurts, misattunements, and breaks in connection. Yet, when there is basic trust in the other person, and in the relationship, we are freer to navigate and negotiate the murky waters of disconnection.
Our willingness to risk trusting is critical to growing, learning and finding community. At the same time, it’s healthy to go about this “risking” with a grip on our own standards for a mutually beneficial relationship. In this vein, you may want to answer these questions for yourself.
What qualities, listed above and/or from your own values, are centrally important for you to forge a mutually trusting relationship?
What standards do you hold for yourself to be trustworthy in your relationships?
What qualities do you seek in “trustworthy” others?
When trust is broken, by what standards do you evaluate the relationship and the possibility of its continuation? Is there a shared responsibility for repair? Do you have to compromise yourself in a fundamental way to stay in it? If so, how do you decide about your direction?
Bringing these questions, and others of your own, into consciousness is an exercise in creating relationships that serve us and others. It’s central to defining how, and with whom, we are able to heal and move on when difficulties occur.