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Reducing shame: Creating intimacy and connection in relationships

Shame is not often talked about and can be difficult to identify or put your finger on, but it is often lurking beneath the surface of relationships in unhelpful ways. Understanding and recognising when shame is present can lead to healthier, happier relationships where ruptures can be repaired, and love, safety, empathy and intimacy can grow.

Take a look at the list below and see if any of the following resonate for you in your relationships (as a partner, friend, work colleague, daughter, son, sibling, parent, etc).

  • a low sense of self-worth
  • co-dependency
  • fear of being abandoned or rejected
  • putting your own needs aside for other people (prioritising their needs)
  • craving external validation
  • always fearing what might happen next
  • resisting positive change
  • tolerating abusive behaviours from others
  • difficulty standing up for yourself and asserting boundaries
  • being overly agreeable or a ‘people pleaser’
  • not being able to tolerate conflict

By understanding more about what shame is (its function and role in relationships) and in learning to identify it within the body, you can begin to recognise shame. You can take ownership for what belongs to you and give back the shame that belongs to others – stop them from shaming you

When shame remains unconscious, it can cause untold damage internally and externally. I once heard it described as an emotion that, very often, has no form of expression.

If we internalise it, it becomes like a ball in a pinball machine; reverberating around the body, mind and soul wreaking havoc on self-esteem. It brings self-doubt, self-criticism and judgement, anxiety, depression, worthlessness. Just horrible.

And, if we externalise it – in order to get rid of the horrible feeling – we could project it onto others and shame them instead. Neither of these ways of coping with shame is beneficial within relationships.

Understanding shame

There are two sides to shame – healthy shame and unhealthy shame. The first works in service of maintaining relationships, the second works in service of protecting the individual from being hurt, engulfed, rejected or abandoned, which in turn could prevent intimacy and potentially destroy relationships.

Shame is a universal, self-conscious emotion that helps to regulate pro-social and relational behaviour. In evolutionary terms, humans were vulnerable to predators and, so, there was strength in numbers or groups. In order for those groups to be cohesive, members of the group needed to build relationship connections. This was done by creating empathy and compassion for one another.

Moral codes of being and relating to one another meant individuals had to find a balance between being autonomous (or self-governing) without hurting others. So, an example of healthy shame is where an individual is accountable for any hurt, damage or offence they may cause another member of the group. By taking responsibility for their actions or behaviour and making amends, this could lead to repair within the relationship and enable the group to resolve any conflict.

Of course, in present-day society, groups come in the form of families, work settings, friendships or other social groups.

Shame and trauma

As very young children, we learn about ourselves in relation to others. Our parents, ideally, provide a mirror in which a child can see him or herself with as little distortion as possible. But, this need for mirroring is not just a requirement in childhood. Without feedback, response and acknowledgement, we have huge difficulty in knowing who we are.

If a child receives acknowledgement, empathy and genuine interest, this will be internalised. The message they learn will be “I have worth, I am allowed to feel, I am interesting. Therefore, I am valued simply for who I am”. 

When a child is notseen, heard and acknowledged for who they are, this is experienced as traumaticand is the most common form of trauma.

Trauma is the Greek word for ‘wound’ and when you are not loved and accepted and held in the way you need to be, this causes a wound in the deepest part of you; your core. Shame is the faithful companion to trauma and is about 'who I am' – unlike blame, which is about 'what I’ve done'.

Of course, children who experience other forms of trauma in childhood such as physical or sexual abuse, bullying or neglect will have added layers of shame. Where secrets are held and a child feels violated, unsafe, dirty or damaged, they will not want anyone to truly see them.

Shame only grows in the shadows; increasing fear of connection and shame can become a helpful, protective barrier to intimacy (in-to-me-see). Often it’s only in adulthood that it becomes clear that this once protective barrier has now become a way of keeping people out, making connection very challenging. This inner conflict of wanting to be close – but fearing closeness – creates anxiety and/or depression.

Without a clear reflection, a child may grow up believing that who they are has no worth. This can happen where there is a discrepancy between the child’s emotional needs and the response to them e.g. “don’t be a cry-baby” when expressing sadness or "you are a naughty boy” when expressing anger. This can set up an unhelpful association between certain emotions and being judged negatively for having these emotions. 

Being angry becomes 'being angry is bad', which becomes “If I feel angry, I must be bad” = shame for being who you are, not acceptance of how you feel.

This child will then learn that what they door how they behave makes them worthy of love and acceptance. For example, they may learn that, in order to be loved and accepted, they need to be well-behaved, not argue, not get angry, not have a different opinion and so on.

Basically, they learn that it’s not OK to just be themselves. This message is then internalised and becomes, "Being me is not OK”, “I am bad”, "not enough”, "a mistake”, "not worthy of love”, "not acceptable”, "broken” or "damaged”. 

The bottom line is that shame will always tell you what you are not

It’s no wonder then that, for these children, relationships can become a source of fear and shame. They cannot trust that they will be cared for or that their needs will be met.

They create co-dependent dynamics in relationships, where they depend on others for their own sense of self-esteem. They cannot live their own independent lives and are desperate to be loved, needed and highly regarded. They equate need with love and only feel loved if deeply needed.

After all, they do not feel safe. And children who do not feel safe, cannot play. They need to remain vigilant and on alert. Internally, they experience conflict – part of them longs to connect and feel a sense of belonging in relationships – another part of them (the ‘wounded’ part) fears connection and so develops a ‘survival strategy’. Flight (run away, maintain distance, withdraw), fight (ready for combat, attack as a form of defence) or freeze (emotional – and physical – numbing).

Shame sets up a sense of not belonging, of social disconnection as well as a disconnection to oneself. It can cause a person to exclude themselves from society, groups or relationships.

The shame tells them that there is something wrong with them. This creates more shame and the cycle perpetuates itself. This can lead to a dichotomous or black and white mindset that divides things into good or bad, success or failure, right or wrong, perfect or imperfect. This mindset is too polarised and extreme. In reality, life and human nature exist in shades of grey.

Shame in the body

When a ‘shame attack’ comes, the first response is often to want to hide or become invisible by covering the eyes or face or not making eye contact. Also, hunching the body, making it smaller, speaking more slowly or even losing the power of speech.

This is known as a 'hypoarousalresponse' and involves shutting down, freezing or feeling paralysed, feeling cold or shivering. It’s a survival response induced by fear, the aim being to not be seen or exposed – ideally to disappear.

Others respond in 'hyperarousal'– getting hot, flushing, increased heart rate, feeling panicky, angry, nauseous, waves of trembling in their body. The survival aim here, to get ready to either fight or run away if necessary.

If you notice any of these responses, it would be helpful to take a step back and reflect on “what is happening right now in this moment? Whose shame am I experiencing? Mine or someone else’s?”

For example, if your boss is criticising you for not having achieved your target or missing a deadline, and you know that you have done everything within your power and capability to do so (and yet are still feeling shame), try asking yourself, “What is my boss’s part in this?”

Could they be passing on to you the shame they felt when their boss criticised their team’s failure? What if you were to say, “I am sorry if you are disappointed (acknowledgement, empathy) but I believe I did everything I possibly could to meet that deadline/hit that target”. This is one way to enforce a healthy boundary – what is mine and what is yours.

Or, if you react in anger to your child’s angry tears – you feel hot and overwhelmed. When you take a step back and take a breath, a more detached perspective, what are you actually angry about? Are you angry that your child is angry because anger is ‘bad’?

What if your child’s anger is a healthy expression of their boundaries, saying, No, this is not OK!”Wouldn’t you rather your child had the ability to speak up and make themself heard in the world or would you rather raise another ‘people pleaser’? 

Your child is upset. Are you feeling shame for working long hours and not spending time with them? What is your part in this dynamic? Your child’s tears may simply be saying, “Mummy, I need you right now. I feel upset and I need a hug.” If you connected with this more empathic approach, how would that change how you respond to their needs?

Perhaps, instead of shouting, you may say something like,“I am sorry you're feeling upset and I'm sorry if I have been busy lately and we haven’t spent much time together. Let’s have a hug and do something fun.” This is being accountable – an example of expressing healthy shame.

Abusive relationships – giving back shame

It is extremely difficult to be in a relationship with a partner who is critical, judgemental, puts you down or is just simply cruel. This is an abusive relationship.

It helps to remember that all abusers were children once and probably didn’t receive any acknowledgement or empathy themselves, but this does not excuse their damaging behaviour towards others. All abusers need to be accountable for their actions.

Try to remember that what they say is not the truth. It is a distorted perspective designed to control you and make them feel powerful because they feel so powerless. As your own self-esteem develops and your boundaries become firmer, you will be able to know your ‘own truth’ and this will allow you to push back the shame onto your partner, where it belongs.

Where there is power or control, there is no love.

Love wants what is best for the person who is loved, even if this may mean sacrifice or compromise. In healthy adult relationships, there is balance and harmony, where “your needs are just as important as my needs”.

By stepping back and separating out what belongs to you and what belongs to the other (boss, child, partner, friend, etc), you can apportion the shame appropriately, give it expression, process it and then let it go. It doesn’t become stuck in the body and bounce around causing tension or emotional pain.

You will begin to learn that, if you need to make amends or apologise for something you may have said or done to repair a relationship, that is healthy shame. By modelling this to your child, they will also learn the importance of taking appropriate responsibility for their actions and will develop healthy boundaries.

Healing shame and trauma

Healing the old wounds comes when we develop more self-compassion and acceptance and learn to separate out what belongs in the past and take responsibility for our experience in the present. To understand what has happened to you, not what is wrong with you. 

Repair for relational shame is only possible within a relationship – as this is where the wound was first created. The therapeutic relationship can provide a safe environment where acknowledgement, acceptance and mirroring can be experienced. Therapy is very often not just about tools or strategies to cope, but simply a nourishing opportunity to be seen, heard and acknowledged for who you are. This then allows you to see yourself and, in time, accept and love yourself, for all that you are.

No one and nothing is perfect, but we are all worthy of love and are enough just for being who we are.

Developing more empathy and tolerance for difference promotes a more flexible mindsight. You can begin to embrace different possibilities, options, experiences, perspectives, opinions, feelings or behaviours. You open up – your mind and your heart. This can feel expansive and creates more space to be you.

Relationships, then, are more mutual, reciprocal and collaborative. Balance is achieved where power has no place – only love, empathy and respect. Most importantly, a more flexible way of being reduces fear.

Children (and adults) need to learn that they are allowed to feel. Whatever the emotion, it doesn’t matter, because feelings or emotions are simply a response to whatever is happening in the moment. They are neither right nor wrong, they simply just are. Judgement (and shame) come when we learn whether or not the feeling being expressed is ‘acceptable’ or not.

A powerful antidote to shame is developing authentic pride in yourself. This often comes via a sense of achievement, competency and/or mastery of a skill, interest or passion. It is internal, so not based on the evaluation of others. 

How to develop authentic pride

Firstly, take a moment to step back and reflect on what you are proud of in this moment and write it down. If you find this difficult, ask a trusted friend or loved one for feedback on what they value about you or feel you do/or have done well. You may be surprised at what they say. How we see ourselves is very often not how others see us.

Keep what you have written close by, so that when you are feeling a shame attack or your self-esteem takes a hit, you can remind yourself of what makes you a worthy person. Then, think about ways you can acknowledge yourself and make time for your needs.

Some examples might be:

  • creating a beautiful garden or home
  • starting or developing an interest, hobby or sport
  • making time simply for fun!
  • taking care of your appearance, clothes, fitness, nutrition, etc
  • learning something new

Developing authentic pride means you will need to take yourself out of your safe, comfort zone and be brave. This might be within relationships, in your professional life, setting yourself goals to aim for (physical, mental or emotional).

Once you realise that you are capable of something you never believed you could do or that taking a risk can reap rewards, your self-worth begins to grow and, all of a sudden, other things begin to feel possible. Taking responsibility for the fact that you are the master of your own destiny, brings empowerment and determination. 

There are so many benefits to developing authentic pride. Here are a few:

  • develop more resilience and perseverance
  • improve your boundaries and be more assertive
  • learn to express yourself (without fear of judgement)
  • feel more joy and be more connected to your humour
  • feel potent and alive
  • create more intimacy, be more open and trusting
  • develop more autonomy and self-agency
  • be braver
  • grow and evolve as an individual
  • feel confident
  • be self-compassionate and self-caring
  • feel an innate sense of self-worth
  • be more empathic and understanding

And always remember that there is no such thing as failure if you have the mindset that everything in life provides an opportunity to learn.

Go for it. Love thyself. 

In the wise words of Nelson Mandela,

“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure…there is nothing enlightening about shrinking so that other people won’t feel unsure around you…as we let our own light shine, we give other people permission to do the same.”

Counselling Directory is not responsible for the articles published by members. The views expressed are those of the member who wrote the article.

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Cambridge, Cambridgeshire, CB25

Written by Sarah Freed, Specialist in Relationships, Anxiety, Depression and Loss

Cambridge, Cambridgeshire, CB25

Sarah Freed is an experienced therapist and poet. She is passionate about making psychological ideas more accessible. Based just outside Cambridge, she works with individuals and couples using talking therapy and creative arts therapy with the aim of empowering people to live more loving, fulfilling lives.

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