Is shame driving your relationships?

Shame – it’s an emotion we’re all aware of, but do we really understand it? More often than not, shame is deep-rooted from childhood and can rear its ugly head in other areas of our lives, such as relationships. However, some of us are so used to shame being part of our everyday lives that when it does start to cause problems, we barely notice it – taking the situation from bad, to worse. Below are some things to consider if you think shame could be driving your relationships.

Shame VS Embarrassment – what’s the difference?

It’s easy to confuse shame for embarrassment. The two are very different entities. Embarrassment is likely to come from the outcome of a situation and the feeling will eventually dissipate. One way to differentiate between the two is to ask: how would you have felt if no one else was there? Usually we think that a situation could have been embarrassing if someone had seen us, but shame exists whether you’re alone or with a group of people. Shame is always there, it just intensifies when triggered or in a particular situation. 

What does shame feel like?

Shame is the persistent feeling of something being wrong with you. Not just that you did something wrong, but that you are wrong. Usually, it’s so ingrained that we don’t notice when we are defending ourselves.

‘The compass of shame’

Donald Nathanson, M.D., writes about ‘the compass of shame’ in his book Shame and Pride. Basically, it’s the four ways that people tend to defend themselves against shame:

WITHDRAWAL: literally what it says on the tin. Withdrawal can mean either a literal withdrawal from things like attending parties or being quiet during a conversation. 

AVOIDANCE: this defence mechanism is harder to notice than some of the others as usually, avoidance is creating an entirely new persona than the ‘true self’. People who use this technique tend to do it to create the illusion that they are better than they actually are, both in who they are but also mentally. 

ATTACK SELF: if you believe that you are going to get shame from others, to essentially ‘get there first’ then shaming yourself is a way of making the belief more manageable and easier to cope with. However, this can make it much more difficult to love, or even like, yourself. 

ATTACK OTHER: sometimes, people avoid attacking themselves by attacking others instead. These attacks can be cruel and often unnecessary which makes it harder to forgive the attacker. 

It’s important to remember that shame doesn’t just disappear overnight. It takes a lot of hard work to overcome this and you may even need professional help. Even asking for help is a big step for someone who lives with shame. It’s important to show them compassion and understanding during this time. Not only will it help them but also your relationship.


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