Shame is a relational phenomenon. The opposite of shame is belonging. When we feel shame, we feel estranged from those around us, as if we don’t belong. If we perceive others do not have the ability or interest to receive us or respond to us effectively, we feel shame. It is a creative adjustment to protect us. Problems can occur when, through shame, we detach from our own wishes, desires and feelings
eventually disowning them and making them part of ‘not my world’. This occurs, for instance,
when a parent or carer rejects a child in distress or responds inappropriately, eg parent says
‘boys don’t cry’ for instance, and the child uses shame to pull away from the distressed part of
themselves not being received. With enough such incidences shame will attach to the
experience of distress forming an ‘introject’ and the child will then automatically experience
shame when distressed. In time they will lose awareness of their experience of distress and only
experience shame. They will lose their voice for distress.
How does shame affect couples?
Conflict can result in couples with high internalised shame where one will resort to defences and strategies to deflect and camouflage or mask their experience of shame. Strategies include, rage, blame, criticism, contempt, control, withdrawal, etc. These are often shaming to the other partner. Fear of shame in the high internalised shame partner limits their ability for vulnerable contact and their ability to notice their partner. And the low internalised shame partner is wary and reticent to bring up certain topics because of the threat of disconnection that can result when the high internalised shame partner floods in their own shame. Their problem-solving abilities reduce the range of actions in which they engage and leads to less satisfaction for one or both of them.
Shame limits knowledge of the self and the other. The presence of internalised shame hinders intimacy, eg: Couples with high internalised shame find it difficult to reveal their feelings, determine when self-disclosures are appropriate, respond to feelings of the partner, express desires and preferences, notice desires and preferences of the partner, face and resolve conflicts, manage couple differences and tolerate their own and each other’s limitations.
Case Study: Annie and Dom
Annie and Dom are a couple in their mid-forties. Annie is a florist and is planning to convert their garage for her new flower business. She has decorated the garage beautifully. Dom is a lawyer and praises Annie profusely in her endeavours. Annie enjoys in Dom’s admiration of her. However, Dom’s mood changes when she tells him she’s thinking of ordering a new van, resplendently sign-written with her business name. He becomes sullen and withdrawn. Annie can’t work it out. That evening Dom can hardly look at Annie and the two go to bed with hardly a word between them. The next day, Annie asks Dom what is wrong. He becomes agitated and critical of her, accusing her of being ungrateful in her good fortune, and worse, he thinks she is greedy, excessive and arrogant. How could she want a new van when the one she has will suffice? How can she not show more appreciation for their refurbished garage? Why can’t she be happy with that? Why does she need more? In therapy Dom discovers his own hidden shame about wanting things as a child. His mother shamed him if he did not honour her by showing gratitude for every small thing she gave him. The family culture was one of having to show great humility and of being humble. Annie’s easy-going nature and shameless gaining of what she needs for her business was at first something that attracted Dom to Annie, but as is often the case, the shadow side to this quality now negatively impacts Dom. Annie has inadvertently stimulated his internalised shame. Dom deflects from these painful feelings by launching a critical attack on Annie. Dom’s own shaming was punitive and harsh and he metes out to Annie what he dare not acknowledge within himself. When he realises he was reacting to his own toxic shame, it frees him to examine his past conditioning and to be vulnerable in expressing the shamed feelings of the boy within him instead of lashing out at Annie. This study illustrates how high internalised shame in one partner can cause hurt and alienation in relationships. What happens if both partners have a high level of internalised shame?
Case Study: Renata and Greg
The following case illustrate the ‘shame attack cycle’ when both partners have high internalised shame. Renata feels unloveable, she has low self-esteem and worries about her body shape. Her partner Greg, in a loving embrace one evening, suggests they have sex. Renata pushes him away in anger and tells him she is not interested in sex. Greg gets angry in return, calling her frigid and unloving. He argues with her saying they have not had sex for several weeks. Renata shouts back ‘you’re only interested in sex; you don’t care about me’. Greg is now even more in a stew, ‘that’s such a lie, I’ve been kind and loving towards you and haven’t suggested sex for weeks because I didn’t want to push you’. He eventually storms off into another room and remains detached and cold towards Renata for several days. For both partners their internalised shame is running the show and creating ever higher degrees of activation. In Renata’s upbringing, sex was something shameful that only whores engaged in, men are untrustworthy and so is she. When Greg asks for sex, this triggers her shame around her being receptive to sex. She also has shame connected with her body and does not believe she can be attractive to Greg. Greg had a father who abused his sexual power with his sister. Greg has shame around his masculinity, believing that he is bad for wanting sex and so distances from this part of himself. When Renata rejects Greg this triggers his shame around wanting sex. When Greg and Renata come to therapy to explore their unsatisfactory cycles, we can uncover how they each contribute to it through their unacknowledged shame. Greg learns to integrate his sexuality and own his desires. Renata discovers she can trust Greg, love her body and find her own way to embrace her sexual self.
Shame exists in the shadows and when buried out of awareness, it causes damage in relationships and can prohibit individuals from making satisfactory partnerships. To mitigate the discomfort of shame Dom, Renata and Greg act defensively to mask and deflect from the wounded parts within. This is a natural defence mechanism but if it stays as a conditioned reaction it erodes self-esteem and personal agency. Shame, particularly sexual shame, is a protective solution to scarcity. In most cases, our desire is greater than the opportunities available for satisfying those desires. Hence shame is a way to inhibit and protect the individual from social exclusion and embarrassment. But in extreme, sexual shame leads to disembodiment, distancing from the body and withdrawal of awareness from the body. But when Dom, Renata and Greg ‘out’ their shame in the safety of the therapy room and when they experience the painful feelings, work through them and digest them, shame ceases to hold the same power and control. The positive benefits of some degree of shame can help us to inhibit our urges such that we are socially acceptable human beings, remaining connected and feeling we belong in our social circles. But the shadow side of shame, when it is unprocessed and unacknowledged, can create conflict, disconnection and alienation.