shame: how do we get there? (2nd in a series)

Long time no post!  Life has been busy – as it is for everyone, I know.  But also, this shame stuff is tough to write about, and I find myself suffering from writer’s block at times.  There is a lot of thinking and processing that goes on before I even begin to type.  And it’s really easy to procrastinate and avoid tackling the difficult topics!   But enough procrastination – let’s dive back in!

In my last post, I wrote about how we develop shame.  There are many pathways, as I call them, but I started by addressing shame that is passed down from our parents, who get it from their parents, who get it from their parents, and on and on and on.  Conflict avoidance and conflict seeking behaviors are modeled in many shame-based marriages, and you can read about my personal experiences here.

Other shame-based behaviors that are often modeled to children are those of not expressing one’s emotions, and withdrawal (emotional).  I believe these go hand-in-hand (and that they are most certainly linked to both conflict avoidance and seeking), so I think it makes sense to address them together in this post.

I joke that until a few years ago I did not know I had feelings.  And while this IS a joke, as my husband likes to say, “many a truth is told in jest.”  In all honesty, it was not until my relationship with my husband that I began to think about and learn about my own feelings.  Sure, I knew when I was mad or happy or anxious.  I knew when I was hurt or embarrassed or nervous.  But what about all of those less obvious feelings?  What about how my feelings played into how I reacted to people or situations?  I never gave that an ounce of thought.  It was easier that way.  And really, I did not know how to do that.  I do not recall conversations while I was growing up that centered around feelings.  I do not recall being asked how I felt about something.  I cannot come up with a single time either of my parents shared their feelings with me or discussed their feelings in front of me.  This, of course, does not mean those conversations were 100% absent, but they definitely were not frequent, or even sporadic.

I’m pretty sure I know why this was the case.  As I mentioned in my last post, I have learned enough about my mom and dad’s own separate family histories to know that the topic of feelings was not a part of family discussions.  I am a child of the 70s, which makes my parents children of the 40s, which makes their parents… children who probably didn’t know they had feelings either!  I mean seriously, my parents’ generation was not big on all of the touchy-feely-let’s-talk-about-our-emotions stuff that occurs today, which means my grandparents’ generation likely placed feelings and emotions in the taboo category.

Of course not all families fit this mold.  My husband grew up in a family that spoke their minds and told each other how they felt on the regular, and I’m guessing it’s because he grew up in California and those Californians were so ahead of the rest of us – especially Midwesterners such as myself!  And it is because of his experiences that he was able to help me start to examine my own feelings.  It’s an ongoing process, by the way, and one I am still trying to navigate.

So how does not expressing one’s emotions tie into shame?  I imagine there are multiple answers to this question, but here is what I have learned in therapy:  Sharing feelings is an act of vulnerability.  Being vulnerable requires courage because we always risk rejection when we are vulnerable, and who wants to be rejected?  If we do not feel safe to share our feelings and express ourselves, if we fear we will be rejected or ridiculed or shunned (or shamed!), why in the heck would we open up?  It’s MUCH easier and safer to just keep everything tucked neatly inside, because then we can keep shame and other negative feelings at bay.

Unfortunately, when shame is a major player in a relationship, courage is pretty-much absent.  Shame takes over and says, “don’t open up.  Don’t risk it – it’s not worth it.”  So it’s tough to silence those voices and step out in courage, but it’s not impossible, and I would argue that stepping out in courage is absolutely vital to our emotional well-being.  You see, the problem with keeping everything inside is that the less we share our feelings and vulnerabilities, the more alone we feel, and the more shame has an opportunity to come in and tell us we are not worthy of the connection, love, and belonging we all need and desire.  If we do not share, we kill every chance of experiencing empathy and compassion and connection, and all of those things silence shame.

It’s not easy to open up when we are so used to keeping everything inside.  The best advice I can give is to just practice – starting with those who you know you can trust with your vulnerabilities.  A spouse, a sibling, a parent, a friend, a counselor… depending on the dynamic of the relationship, it could be any of these people.  In addition to practicing sharing, I have found it extremely helpful to spend time thinking about how I feel or felt.  This sounds so basic, but if you’re like me and feelings were not a part of your dialogue growing up, you probably did not think much about them either.  The simple act of becoming more aware of my feelings has helped me to better express myself and explain my reactions – both positive and negative.

Withdrawing is also a common shame-based behavior that is modeled in many relationships – especially marriage, and it is closely related to not sharing one’s feelings and emotions and avoiding conflict.  Conflict in shame-based relationships is often ugly, resulting in a tendency to avoid it at all costs.  And the act of withdrawing from the situation is a way to not deal with the ugly conflict AND the accompanying emotions.  Again, it is easier to just ignore it.  It will go away.  Except it won’t.  I admit I always want to withdraw in conflict or when I am feeling uncomfortable in a situation.  I just still don’t have enough practice managing my feelings.  Thankfully (although I don’t always feel gratitude in the midst of it), my husband will not allow me to completely withdraw when we are in conflict.  Sadly, when both partners are in shame and just want to withdraw, there is no one to prevent it from happening.  Consequently, the issues are ignored, they compound, conflict gets increasingly ugly (or is avoided altogether) and there is never true resolution.  When this is modeled to children, there is no opportunity to learn about conflict resolution, and those children (yes, I was one of them) grow up fearing conflict and withdrawing as a defense mechanism to their painful feelings.

I see this tendency to withdraw in my step-daughter.  She even shared with her father and me that in the midst of a difficult or sensitive conversation where she’s feeling things she doesn’t really want to feel, that she tries to ignore what is going on because if she does, it will just go away (her words).  I get that so much and my heart hurts for her that she has those desires.  Of course her dad and I told her that the opposite will happen – it won’t go away, and it will just get worse.  And I told her she is not alone – that I can completely relate to her desires.  As I am doing with myself, we are working on this with her, and it IS getting easier – for both of us.

I know it is tough to break the behaviors and tendencies that have always been a part of our lives.  I know it is scary to share our innermost feelings and emotions.  But I also know that stepping out in courage and being vulnerable often leads to a deeper more authentic relationship with the one you trust with your vulnerabilities.  I also know that all of us want to be truly known, and the only way for that to happen is to open up and share.  Break the cycle of self-protection and self-preservation.  Let others in and experience true healing and connection.


*I realize this blog does not lend itself to public comments.  The topic of shame is extremely personal and sensitive, despite the fact that no one is exempt from it.  I am guessing some of you may have questions regarding things I have written.  Or maybe you want me to address a certain topic that is related to shame.  If that is the case, feel free to send me a private message through the blog Contact page.  Alternatively, you can leave a comment on any of my posts.  I have to approve them before they are public, and if you would prefer I not publish yours, just state that in your comment and I will keep it private.  I look forward to hearing from you!

One thought on “shame: how do we get there? (2nd in a series)”

  1. Great job putting this out there, Valerie! What a great way to explain it and make us all feel “normal” with wanting to run from our feelings and shame. I hope this is opening up a lot of conversation for people either with others or in their own hearts. Way to be vulnerable!! :)

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