The Real Relationship Killer
Earlier this year I wrote about a concept called Look Who's Talking, the many selves that "live" inside us. (click here to read) Two of these selves are the Wounded Child (WC) and the Shadow. I want to talk about a certain aspect of WC/Shadow that is a known serial killer in relationships. It's called Shame.
Warning: this article may be difficult to read at times.
First, let's lay some groundwork. As human beings, we are wired for relationship. We all want to love and be loved, to know and be known. For some, this comes easily. If we had a family that gave us the feelings of being valued, being loved, and belonging, we grew up with self-worth and an ability to create loving, happy, and connected relationships.
Most people, however, grow up with a mix of loving (happy) and unloving (shaming) experiences, both in and outside of the family. When painful things happen often enough and/or with sufficient intensity, we become wounded in ways that cause issues in our ability to have healthy relationships as adults, especially intimate love relationships.
BrenÚ Brown PhD describes shame as: "the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing we are flawed and therefore unworthy of acceptance and belonging." She says shame brings with it the fear of disconnection, feeling unworthy of connection, and the fear of being seen.
John Bradshaw writes, "As a state of being, shame takes over one's whole identity. To have shame as an identity is to believe that one's being is flawed, that one is defective as a human being."
Jane Middleton-Moz reports, "It is my feeling that debilitating shame [is] at the root of all dysfunctions in families."
Sometimes shame is confused with guilt. Guilt is the understanding that one has done something bad; shame is the belief that one IS bad. Guilt is a sign that we have made a mistake. It stems from the awareness of right and wrong. Shame is believing that we are not loved because we are not lovable.
If you've gotten this far, good for you! Many people avoid the subject of shame because it is too painful. Some have hidden it so deeply in their Shadow that they don't even know it's there. Most of us are ashamed of our shame.
The challenge with this is, left unhealed, shame tends to cause most relationship difficulties and failures. When we are certain that we are unlovable (even if only unconsciously), we will destroy the love that comes our way and/or the person who sends us that love. Or we will chose to stay with people who shame us.
In order to be loved, we must let ourselves be seen. Intimacy = into-me-see. Those who were provided enough opportunities to feel valued, accepted and loved in their childhood years have no problem letting themselves be seen. They end up in fulfilling relationships that go smoothly, nourish their souls, and last a long time.
People who grew up with shaming experiences tend to struggle with intimacy and go through life wondering if they will ever be good enough and ever be loved. They tend to end up in relationships that hurt, are hard, and fail.
What happens is that the Wounded Child (WC) gets triggered (easily and often) by something that taps into the shame. Then alarms of fear (or terror) go off and the Shadow either acts in or acts out.
For example, people who live with shame tend to feel hurt (shame) when a mistake is pointed out. Even the slightest correction can bring up intense feelings of shame. When the WC gets triggered like this, the Shadow reacts. Acting out might look like defending, arguing, or blaming the other person, stomping off in a huff, or engaging in an addiction (eating, drinking, shopping, etc.). Acting in might look like severe self-criticism, the silent treatment, or withdrawal/isolation.
Over time, shame-based reactions like the one above erode trust, connection, safety, respect and love. The relationship becomes a painful battle ground instead of a lush garden paradise.
To better understand this concept, it helps to explore its effects on our psyche. Below are some common characteristics of shame-based individuals.
- Driven by guilt, fear and an overwhelming need to please others
- Driven by the need for approval- constantly seek attention, approval, and validation from others
- Low self-esteem, strong sense of inadequacy, highly self-critical, terrified of making mistakes
- Perfectionistic, controlling, rigid
- Overly cautious: view others as angry, blaming, unfair, aggressive, judgmental, controlling, mean, or "out to get them"
- Overly pliable: unable to set boundaries, unable to say no, tend to collapse, acquiesce to others' needs/opinions/desires, overextend themselves and over-apologize
- Often unable to tell the truth - tend to skirt issues, offer white lies or outright untruths
- Not able to address issues directly - tend to hint, manipulate, avoid, mind-read and expect others to mind-read as well
- Fear rejection and abandonment - usually resulting in hyper-vigilance, over-sensitivity, and defensiveness
- Black-and-white thinking
- LONELY - this is one of the most painful aspects of a shame-based identity
- Withdraw from others - physical isolation, emotional aloofness, use of a strong Mask (fašade) to keep people at a distance
- Unable to embrace their humanity
- Become MORE than human - they are right and everybody else is wrong
- Become LESS than human - they "know" they are wrong and expect to be attacked, and so are in constant defense mode against everyone and everything
- Other LESS than human behaviors - feeling not worthy, not deserving of love, money, help, support, etc. This causes either overt or covert rejection of these things.
First, you have to know it's there. Shame can be a tough one. It's so painful we hide it deep inside the Shadow. The good news is that there is a way out. You can heal your shame.
To start, notice if any of the characteristics above resonate with you. If you're not sure, watch yourself throughout the day. Check your reactions to see if embarrassment, guilt, self-criticism or fear show up. Shame is often in there somewhere.
Begin to explore the feelings, and see that they are just feelings. Let yourself know, to your core, that your shame is not your fault, and it's not true. It's just something you learned to feel a long time ago.
Find ways to express your shame - through journaling, collaging, drawing, talking about it, etc.
Create a "family of choice". This isn't to replace your family of origin (unless you want that), it's to help you fill in the blanks. We all need a place to belong, to know that we are valued, accepted and appreciated. Your success in healing depends on your ability to surround yourself with loving, nurturing, emotionally available and supportive people. This includes adopting another set of "parents." It helps to learn from direct experience that you are not crazy, not unlovable. If you'd like, you can collect more than one set of surrogates. The more love you surround yourself with the better.
Shame is deadly. I hope you'll do your best to eliminate it. Good luck on your journey!
- A Must-See video: BrenÚ Brown PhD: click here to view
- The STAR process: click here for website
- The Gifts of Imperfection, by BrenÚ Brown PhD
- Healing the Shame that Binds You, by John Bradsaw
- Shame and Guilt: Masters of Disguise, by Janet Middleton-Moz
- When Will I Be Good Enough: Healing the Daughters of Narcissistic Mothers, by Karyl McBride
- Learning to Love Yourself: Finding Your Self-Worth by Sharon Wegscheider-Cruse