June 19, 2014

3 Things to Know About Shame & How It Affects Relationships. ~ Alexandra Muirhead

Photo: D. Sharon Pruitt

Shame: we will do anything to avoid it.

But understanding shame can help turn a painful situation into a deep connection with loved ones.

Here are three things to know about shame and how it plays out in relationships:

We only experience shame when we care

When a couple is angry and loud, they care deeply for one another.

Anger, jealously, sarcasm and stonewalling are ways to avoid feeling shame. Being polite, or “people pleasing,” are also coping mechanisms to disguise shame, and if these things exist in a relationship, there is hope.

That is because the only time we are in danger of feeling shame is when we care. If we lose interest in someone or something, we will not experience shame.

Shame is always an attempt to protect

Couples avoid talking about what’s really going on because they are afraid the other will not receive them.

Shame develops in our earliest childhood relationships where our needs or behavior may have been rejected, judged as “too much,” “too little” or “inappropriate” by our family of origin.

At such a young age, we do not have the capacity to know the difference between messages about our actions and messages about ourselves (especially if it’s consistent); we learn that if we want to be accepted, we must hide certain feelings.

Healthy shame helps to pull us back and protect us when the environment is not supporting us.

The problem is, over time, our more “acceptable” ways of being become our automated way of operating in relationships, and they prevent us from experiencing full connection.

If your partner is lashing out or shaming you, they probably believe they will not be accepted and are attempting to protect themselves. It’s called a shame-attack.

Don’t believe anything your significant other says when they are in a shame-attack, they don’t really mean it. They are just trying to escape their own shame and cover up their need (which they may not even be aware they have).

Try being curious about what is happening for them, let them know you hear them, and offer support.

Where there is shame, there is yearning

Underneath our shame and the behaviours we use to disguise it, there is a yearning to be held, loved or understood—even though we may not be able to recognise it at the time.

If a person, or certain parts of them, has not been received continuously in their lives, shame has attached to that way of being in the world. So whenever that yearning to be received comes up, shame cuts it off.

The good news is that just as shame is formed in relationships, it can also be healed in relationships.

At one end of the continuum there is shame, and at the other end, support. We cannot rid ourselves of shame completely, but we can choose to hang out at the other end of the continuum, in relationships that offer love and support.

We can use the safety of our relationship to help each other express feelings that are difficult to share.

Turn the experience of shame into an experience of connection—show your lover that they can be received, warts and all.


Robert Lee, The Secret Language of Intimacy: Releasing the Hidden Power in Couple Relationships (GestaltPress, Santa Cruz, California, USA, 2008), 25-27.

Robert Lee, Gestalt and Shame: The Foundation For A Clearer Understanding of Field Dynamics (British Gestalt Journal, 1995 Vol. 4, No. 1), 14-22.


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Photo: D. Sharon Pruitt/Flickr

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Alexandra Muirhead