Much of what therapists do has to do with helping people process shame. Shame is the best and the worst of the nine basic emotions (fear, anger, sadness, joy, surprise, interest, relaxation, disgust and shame; McMillan, 2005). It is the worst because it causes so much pain. Many therapists see shame as the root of all pathology. Few are able to see that it is the essential fertilizer for change and growth.
Because of its intense pain, shame is an emotion we try to avoid. If shame is a persistent emotion inside us with high intensity, we can begin to believe that we are disgusting to the core, unfit for human contact. With such intense shame we can feel closed down, dead to ourselves, choked, confined, imprisoned, too close, too exposed, needing distance, more defenses, and more clothes. This is what some social isolates feel, like the historic mountain men of the old west or Ted Kazinski the uni-bomber, or the Christian self-flagollate stoics that whipped themselves into a bloody frenzy. Toxic shame can be the engine for addiction and for crimes of abuse.
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Most of us who suffer from toxic shame try to pass it on to others. We blame others for our mean behavior. We especially tend to blame our spouse and/or our children and/or our parents. We want others to feel the shame that is too much for us to bear.
In relationships we can use blame as a manipulative tool to force others to feel this pain for us. Couples often play a game of hot-potato with shame, passing it back and forth as quickly as they can.
Shame at Its Best
Just as shame seems to be the worst of human emotions, it is also the best. Shame is the thread that reweaves torn relationships. It is the salve that heals relationship wounds. It is the reason for faith after failure.
We have all heard the song lyric, "Love hurts." That is true and shame is the reason. If we love someone and we let them down or make a choice that causes them pain, we will feel shame. And it hurts. If we did not feel shame, what kind of a person would we be? If we do and the people we love witness that we hurt and feel shame because we hurt them, then how are they likely to feel toward us?
Shame is a relationship's best teacher. Shame is essential to the definition of love. The person we love matters to us so much that if we hurt them our shame will motivate us to change, learn and grow. Because of our shame we will behave differently next time. Because we love our team and we dropped the ball and let down our team, we spend all week practicing catching the ball so that we don't drop it again. This is how shame works.
Relationships need shame if couples are to get better. As we consider our choice of a mate, hopefully we will choose people who can carry their own shame, admit to their mistakes, hurt when they hurt others and learn to do better next time. If you choose someone who thinks they are perfect or who believe that they do not make mistakes, you are in deep trouble. The abilities to apologize and forgive are essential tools for any successful relationship.
If you reflect on the most important character lessons you have learned, I would guess you will find shame was your teacher. Shame challenges us to become better than we have been.
Sex and Shame
One of the purposes of a relationship is to help one another manage shame. Sex is full of shameful taboos. Men, especially young men, are filled with shame about their sexual thoughts. Some say men have sexual thoughts every few minutes. Men know that for the most part these thoughts should not be expressed. Most of the women who are the subject of these thoughts do not welcome these thoughts. Women expect men to contain their sexual impulses and if they have to, to use shame to do it. And that is what men do.
Perhaps the greatest moment in a man’s life is when he is with a woman he loves and respects and she notices that he is aroused. In some way or another she asks if that arousal is because of her. When it is clear to her that it is and she finds a way to tell him that she is happy that he feels that way about her and that this is one moment he does not have to be ashamed of his sexual excitement, her permission, acceptance and even shared sexual excitement releases him from shame into a new world of adult sexual expression free of shame. Oh what great joy! This woman has become his protector from shame.
Now consider the young college girl who has had sex for the first time. The culture puts most of the responsibility of women to be sure sex occurs in the context of love so that if they become pregnant their child will be sure to have the protection of a loving father. This is an immense responsibility. For the young woman who has had sex for the first time with a new man in her life or for the young girl who has sex for the first time, she wonders and worries if she has not made a horrible mistake.
Often she returns to her college dorm that night, head down, shoulders slumped feeling intense shame for what she has just done. The boy who has had sex for the first time returns to his dorm room proud, his shoulders back and a new swagger to his step. The contrast between their two experiences is profound.
If the male lover seeks out the girl first thing the next day and gives her flowers or a card and somehow or other says to her that she should not be ashamed, that he is prepared to share the consequences of their lovemaking together with her, that he is proud he is with her and she has shared such intimacy with him, then he has protected her from her shame.
Managing Shame Beyond Sex
This shared couple responsibility of helping our mates not be overwhelmed by shame extends far beyond sex.
It extends to the car salesman husband who just sold a car and made a very good commission on the sale. He may feel guilty for taking the money, but his wife assures him that she is proud of him for bringing the money home to the family. It extends to the mother who just punished her young son and he is hurt and crying. The mother/wife feels guilty for having caused her child pain. The father/husband assures her she did the right thing and he is proud of her and sees her as a good mother. And so it goes, day after day, we bring home our shame to our mates and ask them to bless us and help us find some way to be proud of ourselves.
Managing Shame Begins With Us
Ideally this is what couples should do for one another, but often couples do just the opposite. Instead of protecting our mates from shame, we become the source of shame and humiliation for our mates. What makes the difference is whether or not we as individuals honor and value our own shame as our teacher. Can we appreciate our mates when the criticize us as worthy opponents instead of stupid enemies? Can we understand that we are often wrong and that when we are criticized by our mate it is because they love us not because they want to hurt us?
To be prepared to be in a relationship we have to be able to carry the burden of our own shame. We must be able to transform shame into honor. We have to understand that mistakes are essential to growth and only the people with the best of character can face up to their mistakes, feel the pain that comes with shame, use that pain to motivate change, growth and learning. If we are able to transform shame into growth, we have a right to be proud of ourselves. If we are such persons, we will make good team players, good employees, good bosses, good parents, good partners and good lovers. We have to understand that our partner is not equipped to meet all our needs. We have to have compassion for them and know that they want happiness for us and that they are doing what they can to satisfy and support us.
To the extent that we cannot transform shame into honor, we are impaired as a relationship partner. This means all of us fall short of meeting our partner's needs, because none of us come to a relationship without an ego and the need to defend it.
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