How Shame Impacts Relationships

Shame is often confused with guilt, an emotion you might experience if you feel remorseful as a result of a wrongdoing and which may lead to making amends. Where you may have an urge to admit guilt and talk with others about a situation that left you feeling guilty, it is less likely that you will broadcast your shame. It is more likely that you will conceal your shame as it means revealing that you are feeling negatively about yourself. Guilt is feeling bad about something you’ve done while shame is about feeling bad about yourself.

Self esteem and intimacy can be dramatically impacted by shame. When we feel shame we are plagued by self doubt and a sense of inadequacy. Shame involves the feeling of being “exposed” or viewed in a diminished sense. People experiencing deep shame are unable to feel whole, complete, or sufficient as they are. When this is the case, developing deep and lasting relationships becomes difficult if not impossible.
A person feeling shame may have a pattern of avoiding social interactions, which can lead to a lack of confidence in one`s social skills. They may also lack trust in intimate relationships as their inability to value themselves may interfere with their ability to believe that others value them. While shameful individuals seek love, they may have great difficulty receiving it. At times of personal stress, shame may become amplified and lead to a deterioration of one’s ability to trust themselves and others commitment toward them. This often leads to feelings of loneliness even when surrounded by a strong support system.
Shame and low self-esteem may manifest in a sunken posture and in non-verbal behaviors such as  averting eye contact, covering of one’s eyes, lowering their gaze, blushing, chewing their lips, or fidgeting. Other responses may include irritability, annoyance, defensiveness, exaggeration, or denial. Because the effect of shame often interferes with our ability to think clearly, we may experience confusion, being at a loss for words, or a blank mind.
Men and women experience shame in different ways.  Women often feel shame when they are unable to do all the things they think they should do. They must be a good mother, a sexy wife, a successful breadwinner, a caring friend, a good sister, and more. The list is smaller for men. Shame usually manifests when they feel weak. Dr. Brené Brown, an expert on shame, says, “While women are faced with a web of many layered, competing, and conflicting expectations, there seems to be one major expectation for men—do NOT appear weak.”
Men and women often react to shame differently. Women blame themselves when they feel ashamed. They often look embarrassed and turn inward. Men often blame others when they feel ashamed. They often look angry and may explode outward.
There are a variety of ways people defend against shame. The most common coping mechanisms include rage, internal withdrawal, blame, contempt, striving for power and control, perfectionism, and comparison making. All of these strategies serve the function of temporarily alleviating the painful feelings of inadequacy, inferiority, and “unlovability” that shame bound people struggle with. However, none of them address the root cause of shame. To understand one’s shame, its origin and its impact, one likely will need the support of a therapist.
Recovering from shame is a slow and painful process. All of us need to feel that who we are is valuable and it is through receiving affirmation from those we are in relationship with that we learn to affirm ourselves. However, we now know that a powerful antidote to shame is EMPATHY.  When one shares their story of shame and are supported with a great deal of empathy, they are likely to be able to transform their perception of the lead cause of their shame and start seeing themselves in a new positive light.

To see Brene Brown on the topic of Shame, click here.