Shame envelops us with a powerful sense of inadequacy and self-doubt about every aspect of our being. It evolves from an all-encompassing negative self-evaluation that makes us want to retreat, disappear, or hide. While it’s a natural emotion that we all experience from time to time, some of us are exceedingly burdened by it.
Shame serves a function. It moves us to follow the standards of others and our culture to gain love, acceptance, and inclusion–and to avoid rejection and feared isolation. We invariably feel shame and diminished self-worth when we conclude we have violated our own standards or those of the “tribe” to which we wish to belong. Psychologist Chris Germer provides further insight with his perspective that shame and the need for love are two sides of the same coin. Underneath the shame is the desire to be loved (Germer, 2021). He emphasizes that shame results from the negative self-evaluation based on viewing ourselves through the eyes of the other.
Based on this perspective heightened shame arises from not having our early needs sufficiently satisfied. Factors such as physical or emotional abuse or neglect interactions that encourage a child to believe “I am bad” rather than “I did something bad” contribute to shame. (Here is a more detailed description of the etiology of shame in Overcoming the Paralysis of Toxic Shame).
The tendency to experience shame very powerfully genuine intimacy in our most loving relationships. It is in these relationships that we most fear the exposure of our weaknesses, aspects of ourselves about which we feel shame. Managing this vulnerability may be evidenced in a variety of ways.
A couple in conflict
Source: 123rf Stock Photo/belchonock
Shame’s anger as a defense against closeness
Psychologist Paul Gilbert poignantly emphasizes that our relationships help us to regulate our physiological and psychological systems (Gilbert, 2007). Consequently, to the degree that we have issues with shame, we may become more sensitive to perceive rejection, whether real or not. Fear of shame and shame about our shame may lead to anger with a partner as a way of keeping her at arm’s length. “Humiliated fury” might result when our self-assessment leads to an intensely reduced self-worth. (Lewis, 1971). This may then lead to verbal or physical aggression in a relationship, toward a partner, or even with oneself. Such anger serves as a reaction to and distraction from the intense pain of shame and it may also lead to withdrawal and isolation.
While we may desire emotional connection in a relationship, shame heightens the fear of rejection by our partner. For those with a high degree of shame, the experience of rejection is a significant trigger for verbal or physical aggression in domestic violence (Robbins, et. al., 2019). It has also been found to contribute to a higher incidence of psychological abuse when dating (Harper, et. al., 2005).
In my clinical work, I’ve frequently observed how men with shame used anger as a smokescreen to avoid being authentic with themselves and their partners. Or, they shamed a partner in an effort to make the partner back off or even feel responsible for the bad feelings and conflict in the relationship.
Shame creates a barrier to taking in the positive
Unfortunately, shame is a barrier to feeling lovable and to loving ourselves. It stands in the way of truly trusting and savoring a partner’s genuine expressions of love. This inability further contributes to frustration in the relationship and a sense of isolation, both of which may only reinforce shame. Additionally, this difficulty can lead a partner to experience anger, frustration, and even shame about not having his or her love truly accepted.
Shame leaves us vulnerable to feeling criticized
Intense shame is associated with self-doubt, self-criticism, and even depressive tendencies. It is then not surprising that it can foster heightened sensitivity to criticism, even when it is presented in the form of supportive and constructive feedback. The ongoing need to defensively protect one’s self-worth diminishes the capacity to accept support and to be objective about such feedback.
I’ve often heard clients of partners with shame state the frustration of assertively sharing feelings such as disappointment, anxiety, or fear regarding some action by their partner—only to have a partner become angry with them. And, their partner’s response was: “No matter what I do, I can’t do anything right!” Shame can make one completely unavailable to hear a partner’s concern when it is consistently heard as criticism.
Shame regarding sex
Physical intimacy for many individuals can be a highly charged subject and activity. Whether due to religious morality or other reasons, many adults never fully feel comfortable with their body or sexuality. It is then understandable that shame may lead to reduced interest in physical intimacy and even anger regarding a partner’s expressed desire for it.
Shame, perfectionism, and competition
Perfectionism is considered a shame regulation style (Schalkwijk, et. al., 2019). Specifically, a compulsive drive for perfection is often rooted in the desire to avoid shame associated with the humiliation of not being perfect. Striving for perfection is one thing. However, being human implies we have flaws and weaknesses and we make mistakes.
Overly intense perfectionism can fuel an intensely competitive drive—leading to tension and conflict with a partner when engaged in shared activities such as sports, board games, or even when socializing. It can also lead to conflicts about making decisions of any kind as someone prone to shame may feel diminished even by a request for compromise or taking turns regarding such decisions. Another resolution of this challenge is a complete refusal to even engage in competitive activities, thus eliminating the potential to experience shame.
Men’s fear of emotions
Many men fear their emotions. They may embrace the attitudes of the traditional male, one who internalizes the notion that real men should be stoic; they are weak or even feminine if they experience negative feelings such as anxiety, self-doubt, or sadness. Simply suggesting they be in touch with their feelings may feel threatening and may trigger anger.
This situation can be extremely frustrating when one partner is pushing for emotional expression and the other is not. It’s important to remember that a partner’s refusal to discuss their feelings may reflect their lack of self-awareness due to minimizing, denying, or suppressing their feelings. This contrasts with not sharing feelings due to fear of conflict or as an expression of passive-aggression.
Strategies for addressing shame in a relationship
Clearly, shame is a roadblock to intimacy, including constructive communication that is essential for a healthy and mutually rewarding relationship. As such, there are some strategies you can cultivate to help you deal with shame in your relationship.
- Recognize any shame you might have and when it is being triggered by your partner’s shame. Remind yourself that your partner’s shame is not about you.
- Be grounded in your feelings and share them. You may not always get what you want, but you will remain grounded.
- Express appreciation for changes your partner has made to improve intimacy.
- Be mindful that telling a partner they have shame issues may only exacerbate their shame.
- Be aware of how insisting that your partner share feelings may only result in their increased defensiveness.
- Compassion is the antidote to shame. The more you can help your partner feel safe may increase candor and even self-reflection.
- Talk with someone about your feelings. This might include seeking a professional for further consideration for your unique situation. Additionally, couples counseling may be one of the best resources for dealing with this challenge.
- View guidelines suggested in Overcoming the Paralysis of Shame, for strategies to deal with your shame.
Shame is an obstacle to the growth of intimacy in a loving relationship. While it is an intensely difficult emotion to address, when not fully acknowledged it can lead to tension, conflict, and isolation. It interferes with truly being present with our partners and with ourselves. Yet, it is an emotion that all of us experience and can recognize. Cultivating compassion, for our own shame and that of a partner, is key to a more fulfilling and rewarding relationship.