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A Sneaky Obstacle that Undermines Our Well-Being

One of the most hidden barriers to satisfying relationships.

Key points

  • Shame can not only damage self-worth, but it can also be a destructive force in relationships.
  • One of the biggest obstacles to healing shame is being ashamed of shame. Shame is a universal emotion that we need to manage and work with.
  • Healing shame begins by recognizing it and being spacious around it. Bringing gentle awareness to it is the first step toward healing shame.
Pixabay image by Gerald
Source: Pixabay image by Gerald

We often hear how fear can hold us back from taking the risks necessary to love and be loved. But there's another human emotion that may be even more destructive to our relationships: shame.

Shame is a complex and typically hidden emotion. We all experience it. But oftentimes we’re not aware of the secret ways it operates—and how it harms ourselves and constrains our relationships. We may become so fused with shame that it unconsciously drives behaviors that are toxic for love and intimacy.

Shame is the belief that we are flawed, inadequate, or defective. But shame is more than just a toxic belief. It is something we feel in our body. When someone says to us, “You’re selfish, you’re too sensitive, you're a failure,” our shame may be triggered. We might notice a felt sense of tightness, jumpiness, or a sinking feeling in our stomach. Shaming words diminish our value and worth, especially if we don’t have a strong sense of ourselves.

The French philosopher Jean Paul Sartre reflects the somatic nature of shame when he described it as that “immediate shudder which runs through me from head to foot.” Shame is such a painful emotion that our impulse is to avoid feeling it. It’s unbearably painful to believe there’s something wrong with us. To protect ourselves from this threatening shame, our body triggers a fight, flight, freeze response to protect us—or try to protect us.

Shame poses such a danger to our well-being and integrity that we might immediately run from it. We shut down the conversation to avoid feeling shame or embarrassment. Or we attack the person we feel shamed by, even if it's someone we love. We transfer the harness of shame to them so we don’t have to feel it. In his classic book, Shame: The Power of Caring, Gershen Kaufman explores how we transfer shame to others when we're unwilling or unable to deal with it inside ourselves.

This dynamic is often apparent in our political dialogue. Whenever a politician viciously shames and attacks their opponent, shame may be driving them. Their attacks are a shield that protects them from feeling their own shame. It is unbearable for them to make mistakes and look bad, so they find clever ways to make the other person look bad. When our self-worth is robust, we care less about what people think of us. We refuse to engage in adolescent-like conversations.

Being Ashamed of Our Shame

A healthy relationship with ourselves and others requires healing the shame that secretly drives us. Fearful of being debilitated by shame, we dissociate from it—cutting off our awareness from this painful and overwhelming emotion.

The first step toward healing shame is to allow ourselves to notice it. We need to find some space from it and shine a healing light of awareness on it. We can’t heal what we’re unable to feel. In my therapy practice, I often invite people to gently notice the shame that is living in them. When my clients begin to notice and identify their shame, they can begin to recognize it without being debilitated by it, thereby taking a big step in their personal growth.

A major obstacle to healing shame is being ashamed of our shame. It’s one thing to have shame in us (as everyone does!) and quite another to think something is wrong with us for having shame. Shame is simply part of the human condition; it takes ongoing mindfulness and courage to recognize and work with it.

Most of us grew up with abundant shaming, whether at home, in school, or on the playground. Unfortunately, most children have not been guided to work with shame in a skillful way. Few parents or teachers have the skills or awareness to help kids develop the resilience necessary to deal with shaming comments or events. Perhaps they themselves are prone to go into a shame freeze or attack the people who might be shaming them. This reactivity is toxic to the climate necessary to create fulfilling, intimate relationships.

It’s natural for our accumulated storehouse of shame to get triggered in our adult relationships. The key is to notice it without sinking into it or getting lost in it. There’s nothing wrong with us for having shame. We can practice being mindful when it arises, perhaps by tuning into our body and noticing the impulse to lash out or send a nasty text message. As we affirm that we have shame, but we are not the shame, we can allow this painful emotion to settle. We are then more able to respond rather than react in ways that escalate conflict.

As we find a way to allow shame into our awareness without being ashamed of our shame, we take an important step toward accepting ourselves as we are. We begin to gain a healthy distance from our shame—seeing it for what it is—a universal emotion largely conditioned from all the shaming we endured growing up.

As we become less defined by shame, we can see it for what it is—and isn’t. Feeling shame doesn’t mean something is wrong with us or that we’re flawed. It simply means that a normal human emotion just got triggered in us, perhaps based on old, painful feelings of shame that need healing. As we cultivate a gentle spaciousness around the feeling shame, it tends to pass. We come back to our center—affirming ourselves just as we are.

The next time you notice some painful or difficult emotion that gets triggered in you, perhaps from a critical comment or because you did something unwise, check to see if shame got activated. If so, can you simply notice it rather than feeling ashamed of your shame? See if you can make a gentle space for it, allowing it to be there without criticizing yourself. If shame is an obstinate presence in your life, as it is for many people, consider seeking the help of a therapist skilled in working with it. And check out Brene Brown's Ted Talk on shame, as well as the website of The Center for Healing Shame for free webinars and articles by Bret Lyon and Sheila Rubin.

Kindness toward yourself—full and radical self-acceptance, as psychologist and meditation teacher Tara Brach puts it—is an antidote to shame. Remember that you are not your shame. You are—and always will be—much larger than that.

© John Amodeo