What is shame?
Shame is powerful! It can keep you hidden from your friends, your partner, and even your own self. Because of this, shame threatens (and frequently succeeds) to destroy intimacy and make deep connection with others impossible.
Shame has been around since humans have roamed this earth. If we look to the earliest of our biblical stories, we see a powerful story about intense shame. In some ways, the story of Adam and Eve is all of our human stories – it describes the process of moving from unburdened innocence to deep shame. After their fall from grace, Adam and Eve hide from themselves and each other, covering themselves with primitive garments made of fig leaves. In so many ways, this scene captures the core of the human experience. Covered with primitive defense mechanisms, we hide from our partners for fear they may see that which we are most ashamed of – things we would never want revealed to another, and deep fears that we are defective or worthless at our core.
Where does shame come from?
Early in life, we form pictures of ourselves based on how we were seen and treated in our families. We may have grown up being seen as “stupid”, “bad”, “the responsible one”, or any number of other pictures – all of which became internalized as part of our core self. If we are not given validation or accurate mirroring growing up, our understanding of who we are is distorted. This leaves us feeling disoriented, confused, and believing that we are lacking in intrinsic worth. Eventually these feelings become internalized as shame.
What do we do with shame?
Just like Adam and Eve’s use of fig leaves, we create primitive defense mechanisms to hide our shame. We try to protect ourselves with defenses like narcissism, working to always be successful or intellectual, by always being the funny one or the life of the party, or by trying to stay invisible. Psychoanalyst Carl Jung said that all of these defenses are attempts to hide shame and create a “persona” that will make us look ok and will cover the “shadow” that we are afraid will be seen.
In the early stages of a relationship, there are essentially two “personas” interacting with each other, which means that both partners are putting forth their best, most accomplished, and most attractive sides of themselves. Neither one risks talking too deeply about their vulnerabilities, family dynamics, or parts of themselves that they are afraid will cause rejection. Who wants to know all about the history of mental illness in your family, your last breakup, or the fact that you were bullied in elementary school?
In these early days, relationships feel wonderful because the couple has not yet connected to any depth of understanding of each other. All too often, we hear couples in our offices say, “I never knew that about him” or “she never shared that with me… now I understand her”. These discoveries happen only later in the relationship, if at all, because true intimacy demands incredible courage from both members of the couple. It demands the courage to metaphorically “undress”: that is, to strip off our primitive defenses and allow more of us to be seen.
True intimacy requires both the courage to be real, and an empathic response from our partner that encourages more sharing and revealing. Couples who continue to grow together get to know each other more deeply with time, which necessitates slowly lowering defense mechanisms and sharing more deeply. This process can lead to a deep sense of relational intimacy, if all goes well.
But, how do I begin this terrifying journey past shame and toward intimacy?
In order to “be real”, we must first be honest with ourselves. When we have become adept at hiding and showing only that which we believe is acceptable (the intelligence, athleticism, beauty, etc.), it is hard to begin to accept the less “acceptable” parts of ourselves that we’ve spent so long rejecting. We may not even be able to name these parts because we’ve defended against them so successfully – we are terrified to face ourselves. Sometimes, the process of facing ourselves means that we need to ask for help from a skilled therapist who can help us better understand our defense mechanisms and what is underneath. Only then can we truly begin to face the shame that keeps us from connecting intimately with another.
After finding the courage to be honest with ourselves, we must then find the courage to begin to share more of ourselves with our partner. It can be frightening to begin to let another see all of us, but it is also the road to growth, healing, and intimacy. This is because the antidote to shame is grace and acceptance. However, it is impossible to experience grace and healing without the risk of being seen. Like the original couple, Adam and Eve, we have to eventually answer the call to stop hiding, let down our defenses, and take the risk of being seen. Then, and only then, we begin to move toward intimacy and healing and redemption.
This isn’t a one-way street. You might be afraid of being rejected if you show who you truly are, but chances are, so is your partner. Taking a risk to share first is fine, but also creating an atmosphere of mutual acceptance, tolerance and curiosity is essential. If your partner thinks you will judge or critique them, or use what they’ve shared in a fight later on, forget about building trust and intimacy. One important step is to see your partner as a fellow human being rather than the one who is supposed to make you happy. As the saying goes, “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about.” Easy to think that way about a total stranger, but so much harder to give your significant other that same generosity!
This journey toward self-discovery and relational intimacy is a long one, fraught with fear and sometimes pain. But we can also be soothed and healed in ways that we cannot begin to imagine now. Connecting with a partner who has the ability to hear us – all of us – without rejection or defensiveness, can bring a deep feeling of redemption. Perhaps we could argue that we are not fully alive or fully human, if our earliest fall from grace into shame is never met by the grace of acceptance and love that a true partner can provide. Without that gift, we are left scared and alone in the wilderness, believing that we are unworthy and reacting defensively to the terrifying world around us. Take the risk to ask for help. You, your partner, your relationship – you’re all worth it, and your children will be less burdened on their journey because of it.