The Most Difficult Emotion: Shame, Disconnection, Courage and Love
We seem to be soft-wired to feel close to one another. We're designed to give each other comfort and support. We've evolved to nurture and care for one another, to open our hearts to the people we love.
Yet in relationships, too often we feel frustration, anxiety, and distance. What's going on? What gets in the way of the closeness and connection we long for?
One of the things that gets in the way is shame.
The Anatomy of Shame
Shame is different from embarrassment or guilt. Embarrassment is to be uncomfortably visible. Guilt is the sense that we have violated a standard - we feel bad about something we did. With shame, we feel bad about who we are. And when that happens, we go into hiding.
Shame is about unworthiness. It's an emotion that pulls us inward. It makes us feel inadequate, like somehow we aren't measuring up. The root of the word "shame" means "to cover." And with shame we "cover" ourselves emotionally.
How We Manage Shame
Shame is possibly the most difficult emotion we feel, and hard to manage. Sometimes we cover it up by pleasing others, or by trying to be perfect. Sometimes we pull back and spend more time alone. Sometimes we just feel numb.
A common way of managing shame is to "pass it on". We hand it off to someone else by blaming them for our bad feelings. We don't do it on purpose. But it happens a lot when couples feel frustrated, angry, or disconnected from each other. One person blames; the other person often reacts by blaming right back.
It's a cycle of criticism and defensiveness. Marriage researcher Dr. John Gottman finds it common in distressed relationships. It goes like this: First I criticize you. Then you defend yourself and criticize me back. Then I defend myself and criticize you back. Around and around we go.
Sue Johnson, author of Hold Me Tight, calls this back-and-forth "Find the Bad Guy." If people can't talk about the deeper issues that help fuel it, they end up pointing fingers. When people get the message from the person they love that they're not doing things right, that somehow they're not measuring up, they feel shame, and try to ward it off.
One Couple's Story
A few months ago in my counseling practice, I met Kaleb and Gail. They called me because Kaleb felt betrayed by a decision Gail made. His sense of betrayal tapped into a deeper feeling of shame. He felt that not only he was left out of the decision-making, but also that he was somehow was unworthy of being an equal partner as their relationship moved forward.
The couple had a hard time talking about this hurt. When they tried, their conversations were angry. But one of the benefits of being with a counselor is that you can talk about things that are too loaded to talk about at home.
I was a facilitator for their conversations. I listened carefully to their experience, one person at a time. I made sure that instead of debating facts, they were finally able to bring their feelings into the conversation.
In addition to being a facilitator, I was an interpreter, so Gail and Kaleb could see the positive intention in each others words and actions. Because of this, Kaleb started to open up and talk about his experience at great length, and the feelings of unworthiness connected with it.
As the weeks went by their conversations shifted, and my role changed too. They were really listening to each other, so my job now was to support Kaleb so he could tell his whole story. At one point Gail said, "I had no idea you felt this way; I never meant to hurt you." For the first time, Gail was speaking from her heart, and Kaleb was deeply moved.
Then Gail said, "There are some things I want you to understand about how I made that decision," She talked about her hopes and dreams and sense of family that were behind it. As she spoke, Kaleb's face softened. The decision, he finally understood, had been made with thoughts of protection and love. In all their previous conversations, they had debated reasons and facts. The caring that was behind the words hadn't come through. But now, as I helped slow down the conversation, Kaleb was able to hear what Gail really intended.
This was the beginning of an opening for this couple. Each time we met, they got to be more and more open and honest. As he felt Gail's caring and support each week, his sense of shame started to disappear.
Gail and Kaleb had come in frustrated and feeling a great distance from each other. But with the ability to make it safe to explore their feelings of shame, they began to soften. This set the pattern for future sessions, where they continued to talk about things they hadn't yet been able to forgive or forget.
The Courage to Change
It takes courage to do this kind of work.
Researcher Brene Brown has spent years researching how people heal from shame. She found that only one thing separates people who feel good about themselves and comfortable in their relationships from those who don't. It's not special genes or a happy childhood. It's just a sense of feeling worthy. That's all. People who believe they are worthy feel worthy.
She talks about courage as a way to heal shame. Courage, she says, comes from a word meaning "heart." To live with courage, she says, you need to be willing to "tell the story of who you are with your whole heart."
That's what this couple was finally doing. They were telling their stories to each other with their whole heart. Instead of hiding their feelings of unworthiness, they were talking about them.
They had more work ahead, but they had courage. They were well on their way to healing.
Take a look at this incredible video by Brene Brown. If you've ever struggled with unworthiness or shame, you'll appreciate her knowledge and understand, and the upbeat way she shares her personal struggle.