Why shame can destroy our relationship and how we can better deal with it
Nobody wants to talk about shame.
Most of the time we prefer to bury our heads in the sand, hide, remain silent and hope that no one will ever find out what we are ashamed of.
However, that’s the worst we can do.
Because the less we talk about it, the greater the shame.
And in the end, it’s shame that gets most in the way of our need to connect.
All people long for love and connection.
But few of us are willing to be vulnerable, to allow ourselves to be seen for real, with all our rough edges, flaws and shadows…with all our shamed imperfections.
However, this is exactly what it needs for a fulfilling relationship.
The courage to show ourselves vulnerable and to bring into contact that which we are ashamed of.
You can find a wonderful speech on this topic by Brené Brown here.
In this article we want to look at the different forms of shame, when this emotion is useful, when it is destructive, and how we can deal with it in a healthy way – in life, in relationships and in sexuality.
Healthy shame helps us to live in community
Shame is a taboo subject in our society. Of course, shame is not a pleasant emotion, but it is a useful one because it helps us to live with other people and to survive in society.
This emotion helps us recognize when we’ve made a mistake or when we’ve hurt someone. To feel remorse and apologize.
Shame also helps us to conform to societal norms. It helps us to adhere to the boundaries of others and to respect others.
People without shame are often psychopaths who cannot feel remorse and have no empathy for others.
So if I have hurt my partner through my actions or words and I feel shame, a healthy way to deal with it would be:
- Being aware of the emotion
- Questioning why I did what I did and cultivating compassion for myself (what was my good reason for doing this?)
- To learn my lesson (what can I do to avoid this in the future?)
- Showing vulnerability and asking for forgiveness
If I succeed and my partner forgives me, a mistake can even further deepen and strengthen the connection in the relationship.
However, if I follow the impulse of my shame and try to hide the problem, or if my pride prevents me from acknowledging the mistake and apologizing for it, then the issue will only grow bigger over time and will cause great pain sooner or later .
The consequences of this cover-up are usually greater than expected.
- First of all, there is of course always the risk that the topic will come up at some point and the partner will then be even more hurt because I tried to hide it
- Secondly, the shame tends to increase and trying to hide something always leads to emotional distance from my partner.
- Third, I can’t learn my lesson if I push the topic aside, don’t look closely at it and understand why I acted the way I did.
- Fourth, my own self-esteem and respect for myself decreases if I don’t act according to my own values
and maybe even judge myself for doing so
Even most companies have already recognized that covering up mistakes not only damages the corporate culture and the emotional climate in the team, but also simply generates high costs.
That is why many companies introduce an open “error culture” in which errors are deliberately not punished but rather acknowledged if we handle them openly and report them directly.
In my work in business consulting, I was able to observe for myself the enormous effects it had on team spirit as well as on the company’s success when this error culture was not only on paper, but actually lived.
I wish for this open handling of mistakes in relationships and families, too.
Most of the time, children are ashamed enough when they break something, why do we have to punish or shame them as well??
Most of the time, our partner has judged themselves enough by the time they come to us to apologize.
What if we were able to face them in that moment with compassion instead of judgment? With gratitude for their openness to show vulnerability? With forgiveness instead of punishment?
Of course, that isn’t always easy.
It’s not easy to ask for forgiveness.
It’s not easy to forgive.
But it is imperative for a loving relationship.
It’s a question of what kind of relationship we want to live in. Whether we want to find someone to blame, put ourselves above our partner and take revenge, or whether we want to create a culture of compassion, forgiveness and healing with our partner.
Of course, this means not suppressing your own sadness, anger or disappointment, but rather creating a room for everything that is there.
In this way we can always allow more space for opening and healing.
Because in the end, compassion is the best way to deal with shame.
Compassion for ourselves.
And compassion for our partner.
It can be helpful to establish a regular forgiveness ritual in the relationship.
In it we can let go of the old that stands between us and meet in a new way.
It is a ritual in which everyone admits their mistakes and asks for forgiveness. This can be very helpful in opening your heart, showing vulnerability, and getting rid of anything that is hindering your deep connection and love for one another.
Cultural shame can be questioned
Another type of shame is the shame that has developed in different cultures.
In today’s Western society, sexuality and vulnerability are among the topics that are still taboo. Hereby shame revolves in relation to “negative” emotions, such as anger, fear, sadness, depression and – in relation to sexual desire – fantasies, sex with different partners, sexual preferences that do not correspond to the “norm”, and much more…
Here we can ask ourselves whether the norms that we have been given by church and society still make sense today?
It is important to become aware of our own beliefs and question what we have been taught about sexuality and vulnerability.
We can feel shame for:
- Sexual fantasies that lie dormant within us
- Our dissatisfaction with our own sex life
- Our body
- Our own sexual preferences
Again, there is the impulse to hide and not talk about it.
I still remember one of my first Tantra courses when I was supposed to talk to strangers about my sexuality. I had many inhibitions and shame in this area.
I got to question several beliefs, such as:
“You don’t talk about sex, you just do it”
“I have to hide my thoughts about sex so I won’t be judged”
However, it helped me a lot to overcome the shyness in this area, to open myself up – like everyone else in the group – and to realize how liberating it is to find out that many other people feel the same way as me. As a result, the shame quickly dissipated.
In the relationship, it was also very healing for us to create a safe space for each other in which openness was repeatedly rewarded and we encouraged each other to show vulnerability instead of reacting with judgment.
As a result, it was much easier for us to talk openly about our needs, desires and fantasies, to get closer, to develop more understanding for each other and to also take our sexuality to a completely different level.
We can create so much more connection to our partner if we dare to show ourselves vulnerable, to open up and to show ourselves with all our imperfections, our longings, our fantasies, our emotions, our fears and also our shame.
So what specifically can we do to free ourselves from this shame?
- Be more aware of our thoughts and emotions and especially our own shame in relation to sexuality
- Question beliefs
- Create a safe space in the relationship in which openness is not punished but encouraged
- Communicate openly with our partner
- Practice compassion
Toxic shame needs to be healed
In addition to healthy and social shame, there is also this voice in our head that shames us for all sorts of things.
It is mostly our parents’ voice and has arisen from previous wounds in childhood.
The phrases we keep saying to ourselves are often:
“You’re not smart / pretty / fast / strong / … enough”
Here we speak of self-shaming, or toxic shame, because it makes us feel inherently wrong.
This often leads to the belief that something is wrong with us, that we are not good enough or even that the world would be a better place if we were not there at all.
We have often internalized this shame in such a way that we push ourselves to “be perfect”, to “function”, to “behave”, to “be good”, to “be there for others” etc., in order to earn some form of love and our place in the world.
There is a voice within us that wants to squeeze us into a certain image. While it sometimes helps us to be successful or to function in society, it also gives us the impression that we need to constantly be doing something and achieve something in order to be loved.
This shame causes us to stop trusting our impulses and feelings, instead fulfilling others’ expectations and playing perfect roles in order to earn some kind of inauthentic love and approval of those we care about.
Toxic shame separates us from ourselves and from our caregivers, and thus we can never be fully connected and in unity.
So we have learned to build a “false identity”, “a false me” and forgotten how to really be ourselves. This is often the consequence of “education”. However, this toxic shame no longer serves us in our adult lives.
But why are we doing this?
Why don’t we stop shaming ourselves?
How can we be more gentle and loving with ourselves?
In my experience, breaking free from this toxic shame is a process. Possibilities are:
- The spiritual path is one possible answer to the question “who am I?” to rediscover and live your authentic self
- Dealing with your emotions, really feeling them through and treating yourself with compassion
- Meditation and awareness work
- Healing work in relationship and with Tantra
In my experience, Tantra has helped me a lot on this path of healing from shame.
In Tantra we want to use all emotions and all energies for our life. We want to be free, away from judging, towards acceptance.
We want to accept and love our partners as they are and love ourselves as we are.
We consciously explore our shadows so that we can get to know ourselves more deeply and therefore become more and more free, break down all fears and limitations and choose love as our compass.
If we can do that, we can also grow with our partner and enjoy life to the fullest.