Shame Sucks the Life Out of Relationships

February 2017

If you don’t know what shame is – spend 20 minutes on Facebook or reviewing the reader’s comments to any news story.  People shame others by; name-calling, negative labels, sarcasm, ridiculing, shunning and expressing disgust.  Shame sends the message – YOU are stupid, defective and unworthy– and you deserve to be ostracized, persecuted and rejected.

Brene Brown, the most well-known researcher and author on shame, explains; “Shame is the intense painful feeling or experience of believing we are flawed and therefore unworthy of acceptance and belonging.”

Self-loathing becomes an identity statement: I’m stupid. Nobody loves me.  I’m a failure. I’m not good enough. I’m a mistake.  People see me as an idiot.  There’s something wrong with me.  I’m bad.  I’m a fraud.  If people knew me – they wouldn’t like me.

Shame in Childhood 
The first time most people experience shame is childhood. Typically, shame is used by parents, teachers or coaches to keep children in line with the rules of the school, society or the family. After a child is shamed, they will either: (1) use shame as a bullying weapon against their peers and classmates and/or (2) self-shame themselves.  Children who get into a lot of fights or bully other children are often heavily shamed at home.

Shame in Adulthood
Offra Gerstein, Ph.D., explains why adults use shame: “The most common reason why people shame others is to quell their own feelings of hurt, annoyance, irritation, insecurity or displeasure. The attack is a way to feel empowered by disempowering.”

Jane Middelton-Moz, Ph.D., author of Shame & Guilt: Masters of Disguise observes the following:

  • Adults shamed as children fear exposure of their flaws.
  • Adults shamed as children may appear grandiose/narcissistic/self-centered or seem selfless.
  • Adults shamed as children frequently blame others before they can be blamed.
  • Adults shamed as children may suffer from debilitating, “It’s my fault.” These individuals apologize constantly. They absorb responsibility for the feelings of those around them.
  • Adults shamed as children feel they must do things perfectly or not at all. This internalized belief frequently leads to performance anxiety and procrastination.
  • Adults shamed as children block their feelings of shame through compulsive/excessive behaviors; drinking, exercise, workaholism, eating disorders, shopping, substance-abuse or gambling.
  • Adults shamed as children build false boundaries through walls, rage, people pleasing or isolation.

What to do:

  • Notice if there’s one person in particular who makes you feel bad.  Listen carefully to the way they speak to you. Counter their negativity with healthy self-talk: “That negativity belongs to them – it’s not mine to keep.”
  • Set healthy boundary with the person who consistently shames you.   Speak firmly and in a calm voice, “I’m asking you to stop speaking that way to me.  You’re tearing me down. I will stop you or leave if you continue.”  Then take the action, if they continue.
  • STOP negative self-talk. Own that it belongs to you – and calm it:  “No, he is not saying I’m stupid – my boss merely pointed out that I had a typo in my presentation.  And, he’s right – I did make a mistake.  I’m human.  I’m not stupid.”
  • Surround yourself with healthy people who are both honest and kind.  Supportive friends, family or trusted acquaintances are a great reality check of your self-perception and negative shaming statements that are not true.
  • Distance yourself from people, places, things that exude negativity: Facebook, the news, tweets, discussion boards, gossipy friends, pot-stirring co-workers, nosey neighbors and family members who put you down and then say, “I was only kidding!  You’re too sensitive.”
Finally, if you ever see a child being shamed, teased or bullied — step in to stop it immediately.  Notify their parents, the parents of the children who are bullying and the teachers.
You never know — you may have just changed the course of that child’s life.

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