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What role does shame play in a relationship?

There is a lot of talk these days about shame. What is shame and how it affects relationships. Therapists often differentiate shame from guilt and disgust. Most therapists agree that shame should be healed.

Before we dive into shame, remember that emotion at its core guides behavior. There is a lot of talk lately about the brain, but it is important to remember the brain is relational. Humans are social creatures our emotions are born out of the need for us to be part the group. We blush when we feel ashamed. The brain constantly scanning for inclusion, “Do I belong?” or “Am I safe with you?”

Shame serves an important function. The shocker is shame IS adaptive. All of the talk these days tells us that shame is something to be avoided. Shame tells us, “you could have done better”, or “you let yourself and others down.”

For example, imagine you are part of the wolf pack and you ate more than your share of the kill. The wolf pack will be mad at you. They may even force you out of the pack or limit what you eat in the future. Indeed, you should known better than to eat more than your fair share.

The real problem with shame isn’t the emotion itself, rather what people do with it. Shame at its core is about disgust at the self. Shame tells us that we should be different or could have done better. The action tendency with shame is to avoid or withdraw from people. The physical posture is a slumped head and averted eyes. The real problem is shame isolates the person experiencing it, it’s impact blocks connection.

The isolation happens in one of two ways. One is reactive shame. It presents itself as arguing, yelling and defensiveness. It sounds like, “I already told you I am sorry, what do you want from me?” This is meant as a push away and can be abusive.

The other is toxic shame or absorbing shame. This type of shame presents itself as self-loathing and worthlessness and also has an isolating quality. It sounds like, “I am so bad, I am a terrible person, I don’t deserve love.” The other partner in the relationship is faced with a dilemma. Comfort the shame-filled person and lose the validation of the hurt or let the shameful individual spiral further. Neither works to create connection or repair the hurt between them.

Sometimes shame can cause further isolating behaviors such as addiction and compulsive behaviors. These behaviors initially mask the pain of the shame, but eventually exacerbate the shame.


Shame can be productive, it reminds us that we can do better, grow and heal relationships. Next time when someone tells you that you let them down, remember they are asking you to be close and restore what was lost between you. Tell them if you feel shame for hurting them so you can move on together.

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