“Will you stop guilt tripping me?!” exclaims Peter. His wife Linda, sitting across from him, stops with surprise on her face. “I am not trying to make you feel guilty. I am just trying to get through to you. I want to see changes…” Her voice trails off. Peter has shut down. His body language indicates that what he is actually feeling right now is not guilt but shame.
Even though Peter feels that Linda is trying to control him by making him feel guilty, the emotion that is actually triggered for him is shame. Guilt and shame are related, yet they have different directions and are dissimilar emotions. We experience guilt when we feel that we have done something bad, we have made a mistake or not the strongest choice in a certain situation. We are able to apologize and let the other person know we will make a different choice next time. The focus is on the behaviour and we are separate from our behaviour. Shame is way more debilitating. It is the experience of being bad, of feeling that there is something profoundly or deeply wrong with who we are. Shame is directed at the person themselves. What is most devastating about this emotion is that we believe we deserve our shame. Shame corrodes the parts in us that believe that we can do better.
Shame is highly correlated with depression, rage, suicide, addictions, and eating disorders. Guilt, on the other hand, is inversely related to these experiences because the more we are able to separate ourselves from our actions, behaviours or choices, the less we are pulled into self-loathing or the feeling of worthlessness which leads to depression and addictions. We are able to see that we did something that was not in line with our values but we do not experience being fundamentally bad.
Most of us grew up with being shamed by our care-givers. As parents, we need to make clear distinctions between who our child is and what they did. A sentence like “You are a bad girl/bad boy” instead of “you are a good girl/boy but you didn’t make a good choice”, teaches us to feel ashamed. We carry this shame into our adult life and it gets triggered by similar situations and events.
In my last article, we explored the Inner Critic voice more and talked about how to cultivate an Inner Champion that helps us to not get caught up in shame and instead to feel good enough. The more shame we carry inside, the easier it is for our Inner Critic to make us feel flawed and lacking.
Brené Brown has researched how men and women experience shame differently and that there are gender specific shame issues. If we want to help our partner to not be activated into experiencing shame, we need to understand more about this emotion and how it affects us all.
Most of us, like Peter, are unaware that we are even experiencing shame. We will substitute the word shame with guilt. It is part of our culture that it is shaming in itself to admit to feeling shame. The assumption is if I am acknowledging shame, or like Brené Brown says “claiming shame”, it means I am somebody who should be ashamed. The same can apply to fear or anger. There is a stigma to feeling these emotions, so we are not even able to recognize them correctly. Anger can often cover up fear or shame.
Brené Brown points out that shame is the birthplace of perfectionism and anger. She says, “in my experience, men have two switches when it comes to shame: pissed off and shut down.” Peter in our example shuts down and has shut down many times before in his interactions with his wife. Linda is unaware of how she triggers shame for him and is unable to help him out of that experience of shame.
It starts with recognizing and acknowledging the emotion of shame. “If we don’t claim shame, it claims us” (Brené Brown). It corrodes all our relationships and we might give up on them because we can just not stand the feeling of not being good enough anymore. When we claim this emotion as what it really is, we can work with those younger parts in us which we have exiled because they were shamed by somebody in the past. Working through shame gives us the gift to live a life without playing small. It’s the opportunity to step into who we truly are, and to build the respectful loving relationships we really want.
According to Brené Brown’s research, shame is different for women and men. The women she interviewed told her that shame is “being rejected, not being able to do it all and most of all shame is people seeing you are struggling or failing”. Linda feels most ashamed when she feels she didn’t manage to be the perfect wife, perfect mother, perfect daughter and perfect career woman. Peter can trigger her shame when he shares with their common friends or his mother that Linda had a fight with her own mother or yelled at their daughter. She feels deeply ashamed when what she says is “private” is revealed without her consent. These are the areas she feels vulnerable and exposed in and Peter has a hard time understanding that being exposed and seen as flawed triggers the experience of shame for his wife.
One woman in Brené Browns studies said, “You work hard to keep up appearance and shame is when the mask is being pulled off and the unlikable parts of you are seen. It feels unbearable to be seen.” Shame for women is often also being an outsider and not belonging. Not getting “a seat at the table with the pretty popular girls”.
The shame experience that comes up for a lot for women is when others see that we are not holding it all together. Life for women is often about making sure no one ever sees how hard you are working to hold it all together. Not only is it shaming to not be able to keep all the balls in the air, but it’s shaming when people see us struggle.
Shame is also connected to what we as women believe to be feminine qualities. According to Jim Mihalik’s Research from Boston College, that is “being thin, nice, modest, and using all our resources in the pursuit of looking better”. So there is shame attached to not having the perfect body or not looking perfect at all times. Being caught in our pajamas or not having the perfect slim and trim body that the media have brain washed us into believing we need to have. PSYCH-K® or the belief change technique from Shadow Energetics can help reprogram our gender stereotypical subconscious beliefs.
For men, shame is “failure, at work, on the football field, in marriage, in bed, with money, with your family, with your children, it doesn’t matter.” Shame is being wrong as opposed to doing something wrong. Shame is a sense of being defective. Shame occurs when people think you are soft or afraid. Shame for men is connected to being perceived as weak. And shame is being criticized or being ridiculed. Peter feels when Linda criticizes him that he is defective and a failure as a husband, a father and as the provider of the family.
How can Linda and Peter get out of this dynamic of triggering each others shame and either of them shutting down, or getting angry in response?
As a first step, they both need to learn to become aware when shame is being triggered for either of them and have empathy for each other. Present day interactions bring up our conscious and subconscious childhood memories. With IFS (Internal Family Systems), Linda and Peter can rescue and unburden the inner children which have experienced shame in the past. As they heal these parts in themselves with self-compassion and empathy, shame loses its power over them. As they both work individually on their own childhood experiences related to shame, they are activated less and less into this emotion. They are able to communicate differently and problem solve better without this incapacitating emotion taking over.
Let me finish with another quote by Brené Brown:
“Show me a woman who can sit with a man in vulnerability
and really hold space for him,
I show you a woman who has really done her work.
If you show me a man who can be with a woman in struggle,
who is in pain, and he can just hear her and validate her,
without trying to fix it or make it better,
I show you a man who has done his work.”
If you are curious about finding out more about working with your parts in general or the emotion of shame specifically, contact me for a free phone consultation. I offer sessions for individuals and couples.
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