“Shame is the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging.” – Brené Brown
I sit in my chair facing Marcy and Lou*, the couple I’ve been seeing for a few months. They came for counseling after Lou discovered her substantial debt, which Marcy had kept hidden for several years. When it came out, Marcy was forthright and told him everything. “No more secrets,” she said as she unburdened herself from the weight of her deception. The consequences of this debt will be significant for them as a couple. Lou was shocked and devastated but willing to try to repair and heal as a couple. They hired a financial advisor, made a plan, and then sought couples therapy to rebuild trust. I can see that while they have made strides to work through this betrayal, it is still painful to discuss. Marcy looks down and away as Lou describes his complex feelings of hurt and anxiety. I know she is likely feeling ashamed as she hears about Lou’s pain. He needs to express his hurt to move through it, yet her shame makes it hard to stay present and responsive. Instead, Lou talks to me. Although Marcy is in the room, she looks a thousand miles away.
Healthy shame vs. Toxic shame
Marcy’s body language suggests that the shame she is feeling is intense. Not only is she experiencing guilt (the feeling that arises when we have done a bad action), but her body is also flooded with shame (a feeling that tells us we are bad). Guilt and shame are closely related but carry different messages. Both guilt and shame have a healthy function because they tell us something is wrong. We have done something wrong, or our internal integrity system is misaligned.
Healthy guilt prompts us to make amends and take corrective action. Likewise, healthy shame drives us to return to our values and remember who we really are, particularly in relationships (e.g., a person who treats others with kindness, no matter what). However, shame becomes toxic when we get stuck in our sense of badness and believe ourselves to be unforgivable and bad at our core. Toxic shame tells us that no matter how hard we try, we can never undo or repair the wrong we’ve done because those actions result from who we are, making us unworthy of acceptance.
Toxic shame disconnects us from others
As I sit with Marcy and Lou, I can see their emotional chasm. They desperately want and need to feel connected to heal from Marcy’s deception, but her toxic shame presents a block. I ask Marcy to describe her feelings; she says, “I feel so bad about myself as I listen to how I’ve hurt him. I also feel scared that I can never make up for it.” I ask her, “What would it be like to look at Lou now and tell him about the bad, scary feelings?” Tears slide down Marcy’s face as she replies, “It would be impossible to do that. I worry he will say that it’s true — that I am unforgivable. Whenever it comes to my mind,” she tells me, “I try to think about something else.”
As Marcy demonstrates, toxic shame is so painful precisely because it keeps us isolated. Toxic shame encourages us not only to hide from others but also from ourselves. Shame is painful because it often binds to other emotions, like sadness or fear, making the feeling more complex and intense. Specifically, toxic shame binds with the fear of rejection, making it even scarier to tell others about the shame we feel. Instead, we avoid sharing because it makes us feel safer — this adds to disconnection. Because the action tendency of shame is to hide, others are often unaware of our internal distress. Without that awareness, our partners, friends, or families close to us cannot provide comfort and reassurance. The disconnection only perpetuates the cycle of shame and isolation.
I invite Marcy to be present with the shame as it arises, and I ask her a series of questions. She willingly engages with her feelings of shame but tells me that it’s painful to “touch” it. She feels it in the pit of her stomach — the vicious voice that tells her she has messed up beyond repair and that she is unworthy of forgiveness. Marcy notices the voice compels her to avert her gaze away from Lou. She wants to avoid his eyes, worried that if she looks up, she’ll see Lou filled with disgust and anger. To an outsider like Lou, Marcy just looks away, says nothing, and generally carries on with life. But inside, she is experiencing deep, painful shame. She observes that her shame moves her away from Lou rather than toward him.
As Lou listens to Marcy share this new information, his face softens. Compassion and concern fill his eyes, and he turns his body towards her on the couch. I ask Marcy to turn and see what his eyes have to say. Slowly, she does. Seeing his love begins to soothe her pain; she can take the risk of telling him about her shame, fear, and regret. She can ask for his comfort, the reassurance that she hasn’t permanently damaged this relationship, even though she made a terrible mistake. Lou offers that reassurance genuinely; he tells her, “When I hear about the shame in your stomach, I instinctively want to comfort you. It’s not your shame that frustrates me; it’s more what it makes you do; avoiding the subject, carrying on as if nothing happened. But I’m getting it more now. And when you turn to me like this, I feel connected and hopeful about us and our future.” Marcy releases a deep sigh, her body relaxes, and she finally starts to release the burden of shame. Because of Lou’s compassion and acceptance, she can now begin to reconnect with him, meet his eyes, and even hear about his experience. She can start to repair, make amends, and again see her value in this relationship.
As Marcy is discovering in this therapy session with Lou, shame can be a resource and a great teacher. It teaches us about who we are, our limitations, our imperfections, and our humanity. Shame helps us learn how to live with integrity and makes us more compassionate toward others. Overcoming shame requires risk because it is often a scary feeling to explore. But we can heal from shame when we face it head-on. When we meet shame with compassion, we can reduce its burden and move forward with integrity.
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