We are born needing physical and emotional contact to thrive. In addition to food and shelter, we need soothing touch and attuned mirroring to develop an emotionally stable self. We learn to trust our place in the world when we are welcomed with delight.
If the adults around us do not provide soothing touch and welcoming delight, we learn instead that we have to earn our place in the world by being quiet enough, or strong enough, or unemotional enough. We believe, before we have words, that there is something terribly wrong with us. We question our right to exist. We feel ashamed to the core.
An interpersonal problem
In her book Understanding and Treating Chronic Shame, Patricia A. DeYoung disagrees that shame is an individual problem. She defines shame as an interpersonal problem: an experience of one’s felt sense of self disintegrating in relation to a dysregulating other. The dysregulation can come from overt emotional, physical, or sexual violence. Or it can be more subtle, someone turning away from our needs and emotions instead of turning toward us at crucial moments.
When someone notices our moments of disintegration and repairs the connection, we learn that shame is repairable. We implicitly learn the difference between guilt (“I did something bad”) and shame (“I am bad”). We learn about remorse, apologies, and amends in response to guilt.
When there is no repair, we are left alone with unbearably painful disintegration. We flinch away from it with a sense of worthlessness, contempt, or disgust, and then dissociate from that. We reflexively veer away from further disintegrating encounters by making wordless rules.
- Don’t reach out to that person when they’re drunk.
- Don’t reach out to that person.
- Don’t reach out.
With our relational circuits shut down, we stumble through interactions with the people around us. We cope with isolation and ongoing pain through perfectionism, addictions, and the very best self-care we can manage.
Include the shamed self
We cannot reason our way out of chronic shame by dutifully repeating affirmations or deciding we should be over it. We imagine that healing means leaving behind our flawed, shamed self and building a new, whole, acceptable self. To truly feel better, we have to bring the shamed self with us.
Shame heals in small shifts, like one of those Japanese puzzle boxes that require many small moves on different sides before the lid finally slides open. Each time we encounter someone who offers warm, attuned emotional presence, the small wordless shamed part of us pays attention. We take tiny risks to reach out and see if they reach back. Stealthily, guiltily, we take in a sense of being protected and liked.
If we dare to feel or express a need and receive no response, we become inarticulate, frozen in shame. If the other person notices the misstep in the relational dance and makes space for the need, the unexpected repair alters our deep expectation of abandonment and disintegration.
Shame, contempt, and worthlessness sneak into our interactions despite our best efforts. Sometimes we can see that someone is projecting their shame on us, and we can do our best to hold that gently, and keep our distance when we need to. Sometimes we project our shame on others, and they can see it as well.
Sometimes we get entangled in a mutual shame projection, as if two Japanese puzzle boxes were locked together. Our shamed reactions trigger theirs in a loop, and the relationship becomes painfully difficult and confusing.
Even when we try to own our projections, we cannot own disintegration. As hard as we try, we cannot seem to fix the other person, or ourselves, or the situation. We struggle with trusting our perceptions about how best to protect ourselves. We want to flee the pain, and at the same time something inside says to pay attention, and wait.
Note: If you feel a clear impulse to leave, pay attention to that. It is not healing to override your perceptions of danger to stay in a situation because it might be “good for you.”
Make room for change
The small shifts of healing shame can be preceded by a miserably long period of feeling stuck. Here are some suggestions to make room for change.
- Reach for outside support. Listen for feedback that honors your process and bolsters your self-trust.
- Generously assume good will when there is room for doubt.
- Invite each other to be on the same side.
- Offer small gifts of trust, vulnerability, and kindness.
- Step away when you need to.
- Watch for small changes in the stuck pattern, and welcome them.
- Stay grounded in your truth. You cannot heal shame by abandoning yourself.
- Forgive yourself for enacting shame, including abandoning yourself. You are doing your absolute best to relate and heal.
Shame says, we should be able to solve the puzzle of a mutual tangle more easily and quickly. Shame says, figure out who to blame and apply the rules about when to stay and when to leave. When nothing works, and we sit with the boxed-in frustration of that, eventually our deep implicit rules about relating begin to change.
Shame says we do not deserve to take up space, and we do not matter to anyone. Even when we feel isolated, we are more connected than we realize. Our brief kindnesses live in others’ memories, as theirs live in ours. Our presence matters, even when it is unacknowledged. We can grieve for the dense network of support we want, and still acknowledge the sparse network we have.
Take some time to sense into the space you would leave behind if you decided to leave town. Who would you have to notify? Who would miss you when you did not come around after a while? What if you left your online “neighborhood” as well?
Too often we do not tell people how they matter to us until they are leaving, or we regret what is left unsaid when they are gone. Consider asking someone to tell you how you matter to them. Consider letting people know how they matter to you, perhaps with an email or hand-written thank you note.
You deserve to exist
You deserve to exist, exactly the way you are right now. You deserve to have your physical and emotional needs met. You deserve soothing when you are in distress and celebration when you are joyful. How you were treated in the past was not your fault, and does not predict how you will be treated in the future. Invite yourself to breathe in as if you deserve to take up space in the world.
- In her book Understanding and Treating Chronic Shame, Patricia A. DeYoung explains her definition of shame and how to help people heal with compassion. She includes both lively client stories and dense psychological theory.
- Cracks in Japanese bowls are repaired with gold, making them more valuable. Here is a video of Peter Mayer’s song “Japanese Bowl” with photo montage by John Vandermey.
- Photo by Quinn Dombrowski, cropped, Creative Commons license.