How Shame Destroys Relationships

Shame. It can be a gift, and it can be a curse. Unfortunately, all too many of us experience the curse and miss the gift. Particularly in relationships.

Let me start by separating guilt and shame. There’s been much research and much said about both, and their relationship to one another.  The fundamental difference is that guilt is about what you’ve done; shame is about who you are; or, who you think/feel you are.

Our focus here is on shame, not guilt. And how we capture the gift of shame and avoid the curse.    

The gift of shame comes from shame’s ability to inspire us to grow. Whenever a significant event happens, the event helps us reflect (consciously or unconsciously) on what it says to us about who we are. We want that experience to inspire us to grow. The growth could be physical (taking care of our health, training for a specific skill); mental (educating ourselves, improving our mental processes); emotional (mastering our emotions, making better emotional responses); or spiritual (serving, growing). Another part of the gift from shame is in helping us to recognize when we need help. Whether we need God, a mentor, an accountability partner, a Life Coach, a therapist, a physician. The gift of shame can motivate us to reach out for that help. 

Evaluate your relationships.  Do you see evidence of shame’s gift or curse? Research has long said that one of the hallmarks of rich, fulfilling relationships is that each partner inspires the other to grow.

No one wants to live under a
dark cloud of shame!

Toward the end of this article, I will give you some steps on capturing the gift. But first let’s address what shame looks like in relationships, the two places it often comes from, and the damage it does.

Where toxic shame is at work, there are usually two ways that it can derail the relationship.

The two shame destructors:

  1. Shame that becomes a filter through which every interaction passes
  2. Shame that loads a laser zapper to offload shame by spewing it out on others.

Usually each partner has both. The more frequently and intensely they appear, the deeper the well of shame.

Research has shown that people with significant shame at their core have early life experiences that impede their growth. This can be an environment where one never felt “good enough” or an environment where one was “over-empowered”. Most can understand emerging with a shame core when situations created feelings of being “not good enough.” Most of us are not aware that the same reaction can be the result of over-empowerment. How does this reaction happen? Because we all have an innate sense of “unearned” accolades, privilege and power. This sense that we did not deserve such praise, privilege and power results in a core of shame.

Regardless of the underlying cause, those of us with a core of shame become shame filters or shame zappers. Both conditions can destroy relationships.

Those who carry shame filter everything that happens in their lives through the lens of shame. This is almost always an unconscious filter. We are not aware of the underlying shame that colors all our thought processes.  What does that look like in a relationship?

A great example is that two couples enjoyed dinner. While one couple was riding home, the wives shares with her husband that a comment he made about her at dinner “really hurt my feelings”. If the husband carries a significant core of shame, the comment immediately taps into that core.  The husband makes an immediate, unconscious interpretation, “My wife thinks I’m not good enough.” Without thinking, he goes into defense mode to protect his honor. He simply cannot discern the fact that the source of this message was his core of shame, not his wife. His response might be something like, “you’re just too sensitive”, or “well I didn’t like how you acted either!” The damage is done. His wife had no idea that his thought process error had happened or why it happened.  Neither did the husband! 

Because someone who is zapped full of shame interprets everything through the lens of shame, they rarely admit to being wrong about assumption that were incorrect, or their reactions.  If they do, the admission is often filled with qualifiers. For example, “Well I’m sorry if your feelings got hurt, but if you would just develop a sense of humor we wouldn’t be in this place.” There is rarely any true remorse or concern expressed. A thoughtful reaction would be, “Oh my goodness honey, I am so sorry. I was trying to be funny and didn’t even consider how that might affect you. That was thoughtless of me, and I promise to do better.” Why do those with shame filters not react this way? Because, in their minds, such an admission would only cause them to drown in their core of shame!  WOW!  Do you see how this cycle of shame damages relationships? And we aren’t even aware of it!

Let’s discuss the other side of shame, the zapper, because they are often the source of induced shame in our partners. Why? Because we are so burdened by our own core of shame, we are unconsciously “compelled” to unburden ourselves of this toxic load.  We upload our shame into our laser shame zapper and fire at our partners at every given opportunity. We often label those who engage in this behavior as being too critical, or as being self-absorbed, or as being mean-spirited. But as we have pointed out, we are often unaware of our own behavior.  We are unconscious of our internal mental gymnastics.  That we are zapping shame in our partners never occurs to us. In my office I often hear zapping comments such as these:

     *  You will never change

     *  You just don’t make any sense

     *  You can’t get along with anyone

     *  You don’t care about anybody but yourself

     *  You aren’t what I’d like to have in a partner

This indicates fully loaded shame zappers, going off continuously. But in their minds … they are only trying to help you!

Do some of these things sound way too familiar? You are not alone. Although the intensity varies from one relationship to another, the dynamics are often present.

In my office this week, I had a couple that provided an excellent example of what this looks like. The couple is struggling through a divorce. They had had an argument about their children. At the end of the argument, the wife took out her fully loaded, laser shame-zapper and said to her husband, “You have no idea how horrible of a dad you are to our kids. I do everything for them, and you, like always, have contributed absolutely nothing to their lives. I’m trying to help them achieve their best in life and protect them from you because you are a loser. I don’t want them to turn out like you.” WOW! And this is a Dad who goes to his wife’s home each morning (because they live apart, and she must leave quite early in the morning to take the train into the city for her job) and gets the kids ready for school, gets them to school, and picks them up after school. He also is a high-level executive, and takes them back to his office after school and helps them with homework before taking them home to their Mom.

After playing a recording of what she had said, he asked, “Didn’t she lose her right to speak to me like that when she filed for divorce?” I’m certain he expected me to respond that, “She certainly did!” But my response was very different. I said, “No, she did not lose that right because she never had it! But maybe because of your own shame core, you allowed it.” 

Of course, I’m aware that situations are often not that simple. However, the point is this: whether you are a wife, girlfriend, or ex-wife… or a boyfriend, a husband, or ex-husband; or, because you’re just another human being… no situation gives us any right to unload our shame zapper on anyone else. Ever! Under any circumstances!

If you are a person with a core of shame… whether you use it as a filter, or use it as ammunition for your shame zapper, let me speak to you from my heart: it not only makes it difficult for you to be in relationship, but it eats away at you every moment of every day. You do not deserve that. No matter what you have done or not done, said or not said, you are an amazing human being.

You may have created messes that you need to clean up. But you are not your messes. It’s time to drain your well of core shame. If not, it will eat your relationships alive. And I’m not speaking of just love relationships. I’m speaking of relationships with your young children, your adult children, your siblings, extended family, friends, coworkers. The list is long.

How do you rid yourself of your shame core? I’m so glad you’ve asked, because it is one of the most critical things that you can do to turn your relationships, your fulfillment, your success, and your influence toward greater things.

Steps to getting rid of shame:

1. Identify the source of the shame. Did it come from things that were said to you early in your life? Did it come from your living situation as a child? Journal about it.

Advising you to “identify the source” is often easier said than done.  I understand this and see it in my everyday practice. As with many attempts to examine ourselves, we may benefit from enlisting the help of others. I encourage you to seek the help of a qualified coach or therapist if you are unsure or experience frustration.   

2. Do an honest inventory of how the shame has affected your life. For example, a person sexually abused as a child often has body shame. This may affect their social life, because they never feel like they can look good enough. It may result in destructive sexual behaviors, from sexual addiction to sexual anorexia. It may dash a lifetime dream of being a dancer on Broadway … the person may have had the skills but was too ashamed of their body to actually audition.

3. I encourage my clients to journal extensively about the first two steps, sometimes over a period of weeks or months. Journaling often brings insight, which can form a basis for action. For example, last year I worked with a middle-aged woman whose shame core had kept her under-employed, in poor relationships, and very isolated. When her journaling gave her more understanding about the source of her shame, we worked together to develop a symbolic exercise to rid her life of it. She had just purchased a new home, and we dug a deep hole in her back yard. In the bottom of the hole we placed the journal pages. Then we put in some very healthy soil.  She had a favorite song that recounted how she could flourish like a palm tree and grow strong.  So, we planted a palm tree on top. It was a very special moment when I shared this symbolic action with her. She sends me pictures of the tree as it grows. For her it is symbolic of leaving the shame core behind and beginning to grow.

4. After examining your shame core, where it came from, and how it’s affected your life, it’s very important to begin to write about who you want to be. What do you want to be in a relationship as someone free of the curse of toxic shame?  As someone who wants to claim the gift of shame? How do you want to handle moments when you are frustrated, or when you have frustrated others? How do you want to handle moments when you or your partner is stressed? How do you want to handle things when you have made a mistake? Who do you want people to say you are? What behaviors will you need to change in order to make that possible? Who would you be today as a shame-free person that wants to inspire your partner, your spouse, your friends, your children, to growth? Inspiration to growth is the greatest gift that you can give them!

5. Be amazing! When leaving my office, the last thing everyone sees is a sign that says, “Don’t Forget to Be Awesome!” What does that mean? Research on conquering shame by Dr. Vest at Montana State University revealed something very interesting. Finding yourself, and being yourself, greatly enhances your ability to conquer shame. When you live an authentic life, and know and live true to your values, shame cannot co-exist in that environment. Interpretation? Pull the plug on shame by becoming authentic, knowing your values, and living by them.

That’s another whole blog, but for now I suggest this: identify the top three core values you are determined to live by. Mine are faith, love, and determination. What are yours? Identifying them and making every moment of your day congruent to them will force out the shame, no matter it’s source.

You deserve rich, fulfilling relationships. For the people you’re in relationships with, for a richer life, for YOU. 

The steps I have suggested come from my both research own experience.  In my struggle with shame, I completed all the steps above. I reviewed the questions and added to them as I went along. When I was contemplating my experiential exercise, I was attending Mastery University in Hawaii. Because there were various ropes courses available, I decided to harness the power of one of them to solidify my freedom from shame. I had the pages representing my work with me. As I was being fitted with safety harnesses, I stood at the foot of a 50-foot telephone pole, trembling with fear. I tore up the papers and tossed them into a nearby trashcan. I had consciously decided to leave them behind. As I tossed the pages behind me, I wanted distance from them. I climbed the 50 foot pole, pulled myself up, and stood on top of the pole.

I had left my shame behind, but I needed one more step. I wanted to jump into my dreams. My dreams of a beautiful relationship, my dreams of being able to inspire people to become their best, my dreams of living a life of purpose. I had a life verse that I proclaimed on top of that pole: “Instead of shame and dishonor, I will inherit a life of prosperity and everlasting joy!” And then I leapt through the air to grab onto a trapeze.

I truly believed in my heart that the trapeze bar was symbolic of my prosperity and everlasting joy. For me prosperity did not exclude finances, but the focus was on relationships and contribution. I left the shame behind, and I was willing to take the scary leap to something better. Anything is better than a swamp of shame! But in draining the swamp, I have seized my dreams! I wish the same for you! Know who you are, drain the swamp of shame, be awesome in your relationships and seize your dreams!