If You Want To Understand Relationships, You Need To Understand Shame
When I first became a sex educator, I figured I’d be learning a lot about relationships. Over time, I discovered that helping people explore sexuality also meant that I learned a lot about shame. So much so, in fact, that I went back to school and started learning about the interplay between sex & shame. I’ve been on that journey for about 10 years now and one thing that I’ve discovered is that the more I understand how shame works, the more I understand relationships.
Shame is one of the more difficult topics to talk about. Just discussing it can trigger it, especially if you have a lot of undigested shame lurking in your psyche. My grad school studies led me to work through a lot of my old shames, which was challenging and ultimately rewarding. Unfortunately, it also meant that I inadvertently triggered other people’s difficult emotions when I was talking about what I was learning. My partner, in particular, had a rough time of it for a while.
There isn’t a lot of clear language for discussing shame. When I use that word, I’m talking about a whole range of feelings, from mild embarrassment to guilt to shame to deep humiliation. Similarly, “fear” encompasses worry, anxiety, fear, and panic. Other people say that guilt, shame and embarrassment are different emotions entirely. That’s the one point in which I disagree with Brene Brown’s amazing book I Thought It Was Just Me. I find that these different emotions are similar in feel and effect, while occurring on different scales and in response to different events.
Another reason shame is so hard to talk about is that when we experience it, there’s a shift in how our nervous system functions, which makes it difficult to tap into our higher-order cognitive skills. We tend to sink into the emotion and lose our ability to think clearly about what we’re experiencing. Granted, that can happen with any emotion, but shame in particular makes it challenging. Allan Schore’s very dense but incredible book Affect Regulation and the Origin of the Self offers an impressive amount of info on the neurobiology of those mechanisms, but let’s just leave it for now that shame is an especially tricky emotion to process because when we’re in it, our capacity to think clearly often diminishes.
So if the shame feelings are so challenging, why do I talk about them so much? Because shame is the emotion of disconnection. When we feel shame, we tend to disconnect from others, and when we disconnect from others, shame is often triggered. Gershen Kaufman described shame as a “rupture of the interpersonal bridge”, which I think captures it nicely. Anything that weakens or damages or severs a connection that we have with someone else can trigger a feeling on the shame spectrum. The scope and intensity of the feeling will vary from person to person, and is partly dependent on how much we want that connection as well as how much the relationship is injured. Some people are very shame-prone and even minor disconnections trigger big emotions. Some relationships are more important than others, so disconnections are more threatening. This is part of why coming out to parents or family members is often harder than coming out to strangers. And minor ruptures will usually result in smaller emotions, unless they bring old feelings or memories to the surface.
Unlike a lot of people, I don’t think that shame is inherently bad. It can certainly be a hard emotion, but it’s there for a reason. It’s one way that we learn rules, boundaries, and expectations. Problems arise when it’s used too much or when we don’t have a way to apologize, make amends, and reconcile. It’s common for people to use shame to enforce rules that don’t make sense or to avoid talking about the rules they’re imposing. (That comes up a lot around sex.) And quite often, people use it in the wrong settings, such as when there isn’t a positive relationship in the first place. But even with all of those limits, shame can also serve us. For example, I once broke one of my relationship agreements with my partner. The shame that I felt when the truth came out has kept me from doing the same thing ever again- it hurt us both, it was incredibly unpleasant, and I won’t go through that another time.
Some people have argued that we don’t need our difficult emotions to keep us in line, and that we should be able to abide by our agreements by making an intellectual commitment to them. But our emotions are what motivate us, which is why both words share the same root. Our feelings are there to give meaning to our experiences and they’re pretty effective at it, even though they can also be very confusing. Anyway, given that we have them, I’d rather learn to use them than deny them.
I think that this is crucial to our understanding of relationships because it helps explain many of the ways that people act. For example, in Passionate Marriage, David Schnarch discusses one of the common pitfalls of relationships: enmeshment (aka codependence). Couples who are enmeshed are so tangled up in each other that they’ve lost their individuality. Learning to step back a bit and give each other some room requires the ability to tell the difference between moving back and disconnecting. And when someone is shame-averse or has a lot of undigested shames, they often have a hard time telling the two apart. As a result, fear of shame and/or the inability to process it tends to encourage enmeshment. When you’re scared to move back, all you can do is move closer together until you lose your individuality.
Another reason understanding shame is useful is that misattunements, miscommunications, and small ruptures in the connection will happen in every relationship. When we explore how shame works, it becomes easier to see the patterns and find ways to work through them. When we avoid or fear shame, minor disconnections can become big triggers and reconciliation becomes much more difficult.
Here’s an example: people who are afraid of disconnection and shame often apologize reflexively, as if to say “I’m sorry. Please don’t leave me.” But apologizing before the other person has a chance to put their feelings on the table is ultimately an attempt to control them. Instead of letting their partner have their reactions and then finding ways to work through the situation together, the shame-averse person is trying to limit how their partner acts in order to protect themselves from disconnection & shame. Seeing how shame contributes to this pattern can help us change how we respond. Instead of immediately apologizing, one might say (either to oneself or to the other person), “I’m having a shame reaction.” That can give them the room to manage their feelings, self-soothe, and ground in order to deal with the situation instead of reacting to the anticipation of disconnection.
In my view, shame and love are two sides of the same dynamic. Love is the emotion of connection, and shame is the emotion of disconnection. Or another way to think of is is that shame is the shadow side of love. My experience has been that running away from my shadow makes it chase me, while fighting it makes it stronger. But when I’ve learned to sit with it, and maybe even dance with it, it has often calmed down. In fact, it can even offer me marvelous insight into my inner workings. The more I’ve learned to sit with my shames and listen to them, the quieter they’ve become and the stronger I’ve grown. In many ways, my shames have been some of m most powerful teachers.
I’m not suggesting that we wallow in our shames- that’s not usually very helpful. Instead, we can discover how to pay attention to the feelings, learn when to let them be and when to lean into them, and develop the tools we need to be able to stand on our own in connection with others. It’s not an easy path, and it can be richly rewarding.
If shame and love are complements of each other, then it makes sense that the more you know about how they each work, both in general and for you in particular, the easier it is to navigate relationships. Learning how they operate is part of developing the tools for emotional self-regulation and communication, which are essential relationship skills. In my personal experience and in my observation of other people, the more we discover how this all-too-human part of our psyches work, the more we can make our relationships thrive. On the flip side, when we don’t understand how the mechanisms of shame influence us, we’re missing some significant information about our interactions with other people. It’s no wonder so many folks are confused about how relationships work when they’re missing such important pieces of the puzzle!
Out of all of the books I’ve read on the topic, I Thought It Was Just Me is one of the most useful. Brown’s description of the mechanisms of shame is incredibly clear and her compassion shines through every page. While the book focuses on patterns of women’s’ experiences, anyone of any gender is likely to find it useful. On the topic of love, bell hooks’ All About Love and Stephen Levine’s Demystifying Love stand out, although the latter is written for therapists so the language might not be as directly accessible for some folks. Pema ChÃ¶drÃ¶n’s Getting Unstuck and When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times are also great resources.
Although it isn’t an easy path, unpacking shame and figuring out what makes it tick can be a source of incredible wisdom and power. When disconnection inevitably arises in your relationships, you’ll be much more able to talk about what’s going on, move through the feelings, and create new ways to move forward. Finding ways to make room for moving apart gives us the freedom to discover new ways of coming together. And it creates more resilience, in each person and in the relationship.
So rather than avoiding shame or trying to deny it, I invite you to integrate it into your life, to pay attention to how it plays out in your relationships and those that you see around you. After all, it’s already there, so we might as well figure out how to work with it.