shame: how do we get there? (1st in a series)

I have spent some time talking about what shame looks like in my life, but I realized it may help to explore how we develop shame.  I think this is really important to learn about because when we know where it comes from, we can better recognize when we are in shame, manage the feelings, and more easily make our way out of it – at least that is what I am finding in my own life.

As I mentioned in my first post, I first started to learn about shame in my therapist’s office.  I first talked about shame, however, with my sister.  At the time, we went to the same therapist (and in case you’re wondering, no, not together – our relationship is perfect, ha!).   I cannot recall the exact conversation, but I do recall feeling uncomfortable when she brought up the concept of shame.  In fact, I think I probably said something like, “well, that’s interesting,” and quickly changed the subject because I did not think it applied to me.

When I actually started to explore shame and found out it does, in fact, apply to me, I was pretty shocked because I learned that I acquired my shame in many different ways.  I call these the pathways to shame, and in an effort to bring more awareness to shame and how pervasive it is, I want to explore these pathways – in no particular order of importance.  I have learned about how we develop shame in my therapist’s office and by reading Brené Brown’s books I Thought It Was Just Me (But It Isn’t), and Daring Greatly, and there is much to cover.  I hope you will stick with me as I dive into how we “get” shame.  Trust me, figuring out where it comes from is a big piece of the “how we deal with it” puzzle.

To be completely honest, this first post in what will be a series was extremely difficult for me to write.  I knew for a very long time that I wanted to write it, and I started it weeks ago, but then what I started stayed in draft form on my computer.  I was stuck.  I was, truthfully, scared.  This post, as well as those that will follow, is deeply personal – not only for me, but for those I love.  By delving into how I became who I am, I necessarily have to address those who raised me and those who raised those who raised me.  My family.  My people.  I thought deeply about how to write about my history, and every word was chosen with care.

I want to be clear on one thing:  much of our shame is acquired honestly.  In her book Daring Greatly, Brené Brown states, “We learn shame in our families of origin…”  I believe that shame is, for the most part, passed along innocently and with no intent to harm.  Unless you are a therapist or social worker who has studied shame, or you have sought out information on the topic yourself either through therapy or out of a desire to learn, I think it is impossible to know the (sometimes devastating) effects of these actions.  So what I am saying is that I “got” shame mostly from my family of origin, but please hear me when I say I do not blame my parents for how I turned out, and I am not disrespecting them when I talk about how I acquired my shame.  Yes, they handed down certain shame-based behaviors and tendencies, but I know it was not done on purpose.  Honestly, these were also handed down to them.  I have had enough conversations with family members over the years to know how I ended up with much of my shame.  I love my parents dearly, and as I learn more and more about my own shame, I have tried to have open conversations about it with my parents.  It has not been easy, but it has been healing.

So how is shame passed down from parent to child?  Well, it’s pretty simple:  shame-based people marry each other and stay in their shame, hoping the other will “heal” their old wounds.  This hope is probably not a conscious hope, but if you have done any amount of therapy, you will know that we gravitate toward mates who have what we are looking for emotionally, only to later find out that looking to someone else to heal our wounds is not at all realistic and just does not happen.  And since the healing does not happen, the marriage is based in shame and that is modeled to the children who become, in the words of my therapist, “little shame-ites.”  I love that.  I can say I love that because I know I became a little shame-ite but I’m working toward NOT being one anymore!

So what behaviors, exactly, are modeled?  Well, conflict-avoidance, conflict-seeking, not expressing emotions, no boundaries, unfair fighting, and withdrawal, to name a few.  Today, for the purpose of not bombarding you with too much information, and to avoid this post reaching epic lengths, I want to talk about conflict-avoidance and conflict-seeking.

Now I’m not trying to brag, but I’ve gotten pretty good at conflict.  After all, I’ve had a lot of practice… throughout the past almost four years, that is.  Why the past four years?  Well, that is the amount of time I have known my husband.  Before he came into my life, there was little conflict.  After he came into my life, there was conflict – sometimes a lot.  And there is good reason for both of these facts:  (1) I saw little-to-no conflict within my family of origin, and (2) he saw a lot of conflict in his family of origin.  You can imagine how well this worked for us in our fledgling relationship and then in our marriage.  For a very long time, I was terrified every single time we had an argument.  In my previous marriage, I recall ONE argument in the course of 5 years together.  ONE.  Of course, being the conflict-avoider that I was, I thought this was awesome.  Turns out, though, it was far from awesome because as I have since learned, if you are not having (healthy) conflict, you are not truly communicating, and among other things, that not communicating thing was a major factor in the demise of that marriage.

So other than the fact that my husband and I were raised differently and had to get used to each other’s style, what’s the big deal about conflict-avoiding and conflict-seeking (and to be clear, my husband is not a conflict-seeker, but he is definitely not a conflict-avoider as I am)?  Well, they can both be shame-based behaviors.  How is that so?  I cannot speak from personal experience on the conflict-seeking aspect, but I have learned that it can be a way to divert blame from ourselves.  If we’re not to blame, then we cannot be wrong and feel shame.  It makes sense, really.  Who wants to be the “bad actor”?  The conflict-seeking approach is definitely proactive – more of a strike first and protect yourself mentality.  And while I get that, I am way more acquainted – intimately acquainted, in fact – with the conflict-avoiding approach.

What I am working on figuring out is how conflict-avoidance ties into shame, and so far what I have learned is largely based on examining my own behaviors and motivations.  I have learned that despite all of the conflict experience I have acquired in the recent years, I still feel deep discomfort when it arises.  Rather than face it head-on, given the choice, I would avoid it all day long.  Seriously, if I avoid it, it will just go away, right?  WRONG.  In case you haven’t heard, that issue that you avoid and stuff down will rear its ugly head somewhere in your future.  And the issue will magnify.  And I know this, but I would still prefer to ignore and avoid.  And why is that?  Well, if I really get honest with myself, it’s because avoiding it is safer.  Hiding myself is safer.  If there’s no conflict, I don’t have to face the issue, whatever it is.  If there’s no conflict, I cannot possibly be wrong (and being wrong is certainly a tough concept for a shame-ite).  If there’s no conflict, there’s no chance I will be called out.  Blamed.  Feel my shame.  But more than all of that, if there’s no conflict, I don’t have to be vulnerable.  And vulnerability is so incredibly difficult for someone like me who struggles so much with shame.  If I don’t have to be vulnerable I can stay tucked away in my dysfunctional little conflict-avoiding “safe” world.

So why is this dysfunctional???  Well, as I mentioned above, if there’s no conflict, there’s a really good chance there’s no real communication – someone in the relationship is doing a whole lot of stuffing.  Now, I am not saying we should experience conflict in EVERY relationship we have.  Obviously, relationships vary in depth.  But those deep relationships where there is honesty and trust and vulnerability?  Yeah, those should have conflict.  There are two people with two different opinions and viewpoints and desires and life experiences.  We cannot agree about everything all the time.  But the conflict needs to be healthy.  It cannot be grounded in shame and blame.  Both people need to listen to the other, and try hard to understand the other’s point of view.  Empathy should be present, and a spirit of cooperation is also really helpful.  In conflict it is so easy to view the other person as an enemy (my husband and I have fallen into this trap too many times), and when that happens, empathy and cooperation tend to fly out the window and shame settles in.  If we view conflict as evil, the natural result if to view the one with whom we are having conflict as the enemy, and do we ever want to cooperate with the enemy?  But if we view conflict as another means of communication, with the goal of coming to a place of compromise and understanding, working together as partners can actually happen, and the likelihood of shame coming to play is very low.

I joked earlier that I have gotten pretty good at conflict.  I still suck at it, actually, but I am no longer terrified every time it is present.  I am still working hard at keeping my shame in check in the midst of conflict, and that is really really hard.  It involves a lot of deep breaths, thinking before responding, and serious self-talk.  It also involves remembering that the party with whom I am in conflict is not my enemy.  That party is typically my spouse or a member of my family, and under peaceful circumstances I would never view that person as my enemy.  But the danger of avoiding conflict is that the conflict actually becomes its own monster.  The fact that there IS conflict becomes bigger than the conflict itself.

I am beginning to understand why conflict was avoided in my family of origin.  The collective stories from both sides of my family help me make a lot of sense out of the way I was raised.  I wish I had learned healthy conflict within my family, but I learned many other healthy habits and values for which I am so grateful.  And as you can tell, it truly never is too late to learn healthy conflict skills.  I have seen my closest relationships transform by putting into practice what I am learning (when I take those deep breaths and think before I speak, that is).  I even recently had a family member express gratitude to me for the issues we have worked through over the recent past.  I never expected to receive this expression, but when I did, I felt so encouraged.  That relationship, by the way?  Yeah, it’s deeper and stronger than it ever has been.  It’s not perfect – no relationship is, but it’s growing, and that is what matters most to me.

I am the first one to recognize and acknowledge that conflict is hard.  As I stated above, I still try to avoid it at all costs.  If you can relate to being a conflict-avoider, then I encourage you to seek help developing healthy conflict skills and begin to experience positive transformations in your own relationships.  If you recognize conflict-avoidance in your own family, be the one to break the cycle and model healthy conflict to the ones you love.  Your actions alone can promote health and healing that will last lifetimes.

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