Shame: the Silent Killer of Relationships

Man with We all know the feeling, but few of us want to talk about it. Shame often runs our lives and undermines our relationships, but we often keep it hidden. We’re ashamed of being ashamed. I felt it today when my wife reminded me of something I had said to her that was unkind. I pride myself on being a sensitive, caring man, and when she pointed out this shortcoming, I could feel the shame rise up in me. I felt myself getting warm. My first thought was, “I didn’t do it.” My first words were, “I never said it.” I felt confused and off balance. I wanted to run away and hide. I wanted to disappear.

I was awash in my shame, but I tried to cover my discomfort. Shame is such a wretched feeling, most of us try and deny we are feeling it, hoping that if we don’t look at it, shame will magically disappear. But shame is stubborn. The more we deny it, the more it sticks to us like glue.

Shame manifests physically in a wide variety of forms. “The person may hide their eyes; lower their gaze; blush; bite their lips or tongue; present a forced smile; or fidget,” psychotherapist Marc Miller said. 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.

“Man is the only animal that blushes,” Mark Twain once said. “Or needs to.” He reminds us how central shame is to the human experience.

When couples come to me for counseling, they rarely mention shame as a cause for their difficulty. Yet I’ve found that shame is at the root of most relationship problems. We know that couples often fight about money and sex. He gets angry when she spends money on things he thinks are not important. Underneath his anger we often find feelings of inadequacy. Beneath her spending patterns may be feelings of loneliness and unworthiness.

One partner wants more sex, and the other feels tired or withdrawn. One gets angry. The other feels hurt. Shame is rarely discussed, but is always present. One may feel like a lousy lover. The other may feel unattractive.

Helen B. Lewis, a pioneer in recognizing the importance of shame to psychotherapy, argued that shame really represents an entire family of emotions. This family includes humiliation, embarrassment, feelings of low self-esteem, belittlement, and stigmatization. Shame is often experienced as a critical inner voice that judges us as “damaged goods,” inadequate, inferior, or worthless.

Shame in Men and Women

I’ve found the things that trigger shame differ in men and women. 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 we don’t feel strong. 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.”
I’ve also found that men and women often react to shame differently. Women often blame themselves when they feel ashamed. They often look embarrassed. They turn inward. Men often blame others when they feel ashamed. They often look angry. They may explode outward.

In fact, male violence is often an attempt to ward off shame. Dr. James Gilligan has spent more than 30 years researching anger and violence in men. He says, “I have yet to see a serious act of violence that was not provoked by the experience of feeling shamed and humiliated, disrespected and ridiculed, and that did not represent the attempt to prevent or undo this ‘loss of face.’ ” Respect is important to all of us, but for men it is essential. Feeling disrespected or “dissed” can cause a man to strike out in rage.

Self-Disclosure and Empathy

The most difficult thing in the world to do when we are feeling down on ourselves is to admit how we feel. Yet self-disclosure is what we need to do to stop the cycle of shame and blame that so many of us get caught up with. It’s harder than hell to say to my wife, “You’re right, what I said was unkind. I’m sorry.” But that’s the key to washing the shame away.
It feels counterintuitive. We’re afraid that if we admit our faults, we’ll feel even more ashamed. But the opposite is true. The more we’re able to say, “Yes, I messed up,” or, “Yes, I made a mistake,” or, “Yes, I’m sorry for what I said,” the better we feel about ourselves.

We all know the good feeling we get when we can own our mistakes and be forgiven. But that takes empathy on the part of our partner. Our partner has to be able to feel with us, not blame us or put us down. For men, it often means admitting our weakness. And for women, it means accepting that we can still be strong, adequate men, even when we are weak.

Men need also to practice empathy with the women in our lives. We have to understand the things we do that shame them, the subtle ways we may put them down. And we all need to be more empathic with ourselves. We don’t have to be successful at everything, all the time. We don’t have to be strong all the time and hide our weakness. We can learn to love and accept the wonderful, flawed, human beings we all are.

© Copyright 2012 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Jed Diamond, PhD, LCSW, therapist in Willits, California

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Serena

    Serena

    November 21st, 2012 at 11:41 AM

    Shame is something that all of us experience at times but never accept or admit to having.And why exactly this happens is because we think it is something negative it is undesirable it is something that only we have at the moment and hence it can become embarrassing.I think the best way to overcome this is to understand that nobody is immune to the feeling and that there is nothing wrong in having the feeling ourselves.It may be uncomfortable at first but accepting our mistakes,as has been pointed out here,will ultimately lead to a better feeling.

  • simon

    simon

    November 21st, 2012 at 11:30 PM

    Shame has so many meanings and so many implications..if I’m ashamed of something I said or did and then have difficulty seeking forgiveness then that us shame too..but going beyond that and still apologizing is what makes us better..shame is like a hurdle that’s present and will trip us if we don’t go above and beyond it, it can bring us down but at the same time it can teach us a lesson or two in life.

  • glenna

    glenna

    November 22nd, 2012 at 6:26 PM

    well shame is often what leads people into trouble.I see so many people react and behave irrationally only because they have shame inside. and speaking of gender differences,I think women get a raw deal here.there is just so many things for women when it comes to shame.men can lash out and that is it for them while women punish themselves I believe as I can say from experience.

  • Jed Diamond

    Jed Diamond

    November 23rd, 2012 at 6:52 AM

    Thanks for the comments. Shame, indeed, impacts us in various ways. We can learn to breathe through it, learn the lessons it wants to teach us, and deepen our commitment to knowing that we are 100% lovable and wonderful, just the way we are in all our magnificence, flaws and all.

  • mia

    mia

    November 23rd, 2012 at 8:28 AM

    Is some of this about shame or is it about not being able to fully communicate with your partner or spouse?

  • Jed Diamond

    Jed Diamond

    November 23rd, 2012 at 9:49 AM

    I think shame and communication problems are related. When we’re awash in shame our communication becomes distorted and unclear.

  • Rhianne

    Rhianne

    November 25th, 2012 at 5:14 AM

    If I can’t talk to my spouse even when it is over something that I feel remorseful or shameful about, then who am I supposed to talk to? This is the person that I have committed to spending my life with- don’t I deserve to have a comfort in knowing that he will accept me no matter what? I would do the sae for him, and I hope that all of my daily actions show that to him.

  • Mkhululi

    Mkhululi

    March 10th, 2013 at 2:50 AM

    Shame has always been my best friend, even though I try to get away from him- he is always there to remind me of how I should feel. I have been battling with this feeling for a long time, I have gotten to the point of just accepting it as part of….maybe if I stop fighting it, then I won’t suffer so much….

    @This family includes feelings of low self-esteem –

    I have tried many books, audio and dvd’s clips, therapy but shame doesn’t want a divorce….

  • James

    James

    April 26th, 2014 at 12:26 PM

    Great article, but for one thing, it generalises male and female to much. In my experience, it can be in reverse, tho I would agree, certainly the mens need to be respected and strong is accurate, but he is unlikely to want to admit weakness to a woman who has shown him disrespect, and feel vulnerable to manipulation. Women hit too!
    And often therapists fault to recognise whats going on, i.e. narcism, gas lighting, and projective identification, in which the inadequate person the relationship unconsciously acts out the aggression of the outwardly passive person. Empathy is often missing. Saying sorry requires strength, and builds strength !

  • Anon

    Anon

    January 1st, 2015 at 5:17 PM

    I’m sure the genderised shame roles were generalised here, but I’m a woman and my shame is more to do with strength/weakness. I don’t want to look weak and because I shame myself so much, I often do look weak, and then I feel more ashamed.

    I’m not sure that admitting responsibility does cleanse us. I tend to do this very, very quickly, but what cleanses us is not admitting our responsibility but forgiving ourselves for being human. I have always been overly willing to admit to my flaws and my wrongs (other people DO take advantage of this…not that I should stop doing it, I think it’s right, it’s just that I should walk away from those who shame me further). But the problem I have is self-compassion. I admit my flaws openly to myself and to others, but then I am unable to forgive myself for them and the well of shame I collapse into leaves me vulnerable to taking on other people’s shame too (if they tell me I’m responsible for their emotions, thoughts and behaviour when I’m already ashamed I will gladly agree and take on their responsibilities too…)

  • Cowboy

    Cowboy

    December 14th, 2016 at 7:34 AM

    Shame for me is been true to myself, Admit my mistakes, not been afraid to confronting them .. even if the other person don’t want to listen or communicate. I take that Risk with them. Even if they respond. I set myself free. Accept my mistakes and let the other person deal with themself . Unless they out of control in Rage ! I leave it Along. The very thing I’m afraid to confront , I can’t conquer ! Life taught me deal with it even when I’m afraid. Even when my spouse don’t want to deal with it. I found another way to come in love! Knowing my spouse Ways !

  • Betsy

    Betsy

    March 29th, 2018 at 11:55 AM

    Shame can be a killer. Suicide attempts often are based on feelings of shame. I have personal experience with this having felt shame by my then-husband towards the end of our marriage to the extent that I felt I couldn’t bear it and took all the sleeping pills on hand. Fortunately, after the argument we’d been having, he returned and was able to get me to the hospital in time. It has taken a lot of therapy and courage to face my own issues and forgive myself. I thought there was something ‘wrong’ with me. Instead, I’ve learned that I am human and humans make mistakes. It’s not the end of the world. (Besides, the true story is I had NOT made a mistake – HE had by shaming me.)

  • Raymond

    Raymond

    May 13th, 2018 at 6:47 AM

    Read Dr. Brene Brown’s book called “Daring Greatly.” There is a great section on the ways in which women shame not just men, but even their own sons. One of the great problems with toxic masculinity right now is that it is viewed only as a man’s problem. It isn’t. Both genders are guilty, Everytime a woman marries a stalwart, emotionless knight in shining of armor who would rather die on his horse than fall off of it, she is modeling behavior for her daughter which teaches her “this is what an attractive man is.” Obviously, the sons are picking up on the behavior as well. Moreover, nearly all cultural institutions that girls are exposed to, whether it’s Disney films, romance novels, Sex In The City, comedy routines, the Bachelor, Romantic Comedy movies, Cosmo Magazine, etc., shames male emotional vulnerability. They teach girls that guys who convey weakness, indecisiveness, indecision or being scared at times is unsexy. Moreover, it shows that men can’t always protect them and provide for them. That they are humans, and that these are shared responsibilities. The result: women get disgusted by men who express vulnerability. They lose sexual interest. They question, “is this the right man for my kids.” It is so contrary to their experience that even if they know it is right to accept male vulnerability, it is simply impossible to unless women have experienced enough bad relationships and undergo enough therapy to where a transformation takes place, or if they are blessed enough to be in a family where their dad was emotionally vulnerable and where their mommy accepted it and encouraged it as a positive relationship quality that could only draw them closer together. I have experience far too many women in my younger years who said they wanted one thing and then behaved the opposite. Fortunately, as a 44 year old male, dating is easier these days. I don’t want kids, and the women I date don’t want them. Life situations are tougher, and you just start to soften. Closeness matters more. You’re done trying to fulfill some relationship ideal.

  • Jed Diamond

    Jed Diamond

    May 14th, 2018 at 8:17 AM

    Raymond, Excellent comments. You’re right that we have to look at the problem of shame in a broader context and recognize the reality that women often shame men without being aware they are doing it and the dominator culture we all share keeps us from recognizing the toxic masculinity that is so much a part of the our lives.

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