How does shame impact the intimacy of your relationship?
I realized shame was gone from my relationship on a July evening. I had carried that shame since my daughter was born.
The day was hot, but our porch was cool. My husband and I were eating Cobb salads for dinner. That daughter and her younger brother were now grown and gone and, as the crickets began their evening chirping, I asked my husband a question, “If you were the only one in charge of my career—and I mean everything HOW I made money, how MUCH money I made, and how I spent my TIME—what would you have me do?”
He dropped his gaze and fidgeted with the napkin in his lap. “I’m embarrassed to say,” he started. I knew I was gonna get a clean answer.
That’s when you know. That’s when you know that shame won’t be able to have power over you anymore. When you get to that intersection of brave questions and then WANTING to hear the clean, clear answers.
The biggest shame in my relationship
When our daughter Kaitlin was born, I got washed in the vulnerability that so many young mothers feel: how was I gonna continue to work AND tend to this little baby?
Every young parent faces this conundrum. For some, leaving home to go to work where they can focus and accomplish something unencumbered, fuels their tank so they can come home and devote themselves to their child.
Other parents are able to embrace the relentless work of parenting all day and support their family by raising the kids without the need for costly daycare.
Most people fall somewhere in the middle. You’re madly in love with your kid and don’t want to leave them, but you can’t pay all the bills and you also want to feel like a person, not just a parent. You want adult conversation and the sense of accomplishment that something tangible got finished today.
This is where the biggest layer of my shame was born. Smack dab in the middle of Am I a good enough parent vs Am I a good enough provider?
Since the beginning of 2023 we talked about the Lover in your relationship who keeps your relationship exciting. (Here & here.) We talked about the Partner who is the engine of your relationship, managing key details of life. (Here & here.)
How shame blocks the companionship you feel in your relationship
Today we’re talking about the Friend. Of these three roles in your relationship—Partner, Friend, and Lover—the Friend is the one who will be your companion. When the Friend is healthy in your relationship, you feel known and you feel like your relationship is the core spot where you belong.
Shame is one of the things that blocks your companionship. Shame alienates. Shame misinforms. Shame will keep you lonely.
To illustrate how pervasive shame can be let’s use a metaphor. When I was a kid, my step-father smoked a pack of cigarettes a day. Our house smelled like cigarette smoke. And, consequently, I smelled like smoke when I went to school.
I didn’t know that I smelled like smoke all the years I was in elementary school when my friends were playing horses with me on the playground.
It was my high school boyfriend—the man I married—who first made me aware of this cigarette smoke smell I wore on my clothes.
My then boyfriend called me from his family vacation in California, “I just walked into my hotel room and it smelled like you so I wanted to call,” he said on the phone. We talked a lot on the phone as only teenagers can do.
I couldn’t imagine what it was about the hotel room that would remind him of me and I asked, “What’s it smell like?”
He answered quickly and casually, “Cigarettes.”
As I’m reflecting on this now, I can hear how little he cared that it was a cigarette smell that reminded him of me. We were in love, and everything about each other made us feel goo-goo-eyed.
But from my perspective?
I didn’t want him to associate the smell of cigarette smoke with me. I wanted to smell fresh and cool, like this summer evening on my porch where I’m eating Cobb salads with my husband.
Shame is hard to recognize
This is how shame permeates your relationship. Shame is a toxic stench that hangs over everything. Sometimes your sweetheart doesn’t recognize your shame, like my husband didn’t recognize that a cigarette smell wasn’t how I wanted him to think of me.
We get so accustomed to shame we don’t even notice it’s flavoring our lives.
It’s critical, however, to recognize the layer of shame you carry because it’s pervasive and toxic to the intimacy you crave in your relationship.
How can you recognize shame?
Can you recall a time you felt ashamed? What caused that feeling? Where do you feel that shame in your body?
Shame begins with a feeling of unworthiness, embarrassment, or humiliation.
Today I’m not talking about the kind of shame someone else has given to you. If you had a parent or an ex-lover who constantly battered you with words about why you’re not worthy of the air you breathe, I’m not talking to you today about that. For that sort of shame, it helps to dig in with a therapist. Washing away a layer of smokey shame like that requires help.
I’m talking about the kind of shame that grows organically inside you because your actions don’t match your values.
When I was a young mom and I met another mom on the playground, she asked me that classically lame question, “What do you do?”
Shame dripped out of my answer, “I work for The University of Colorado’s Speech Language Hearing Sciences Center. I run a research grant that is funded by the National Institute of Health.”
How do I know this answer is hazy with shame? Because it’s dripping with justification. I’m trying to justify the worthiness of what I do by cramming every fancy and WORTHY institution in there that I can.
University! That’s gotta be prestigious, right? Speech Language Hearing SCIENCES. Anything that complicated sounding and ends with the word science has to be worthy, right?
But what I knew was that I barely earned any money. It was a paltry amount. And I knew that. INSIDE I was judging myself with the metric of: the amount you EARN equals how much you’re WORTH.
This is a lie.
But it’s a lie we all live with to some degree. Earning and worthiness are big culprits when it comes to the shame haze you wear.
If I answered that same mom on the playground about what I do as a parent—the other worthiness metric according to my value system—I’d casually mention all the sacrifices I was making. “I was up at 4:30 working before my kids awoke.” Because I don’t have daycare.
Again, I’m justifying my worthiness as a parent based on the largess of my sacrifice.
But what I knew was that I was so sleep deprived my temper was paper thin and I lost it so completely that I threw a roller skate across the room which landed…well…not far enough from my children.
Shame is that stuff we keep hidden: the paltry bank account. The roller skate incident. Shame convinces us that if people only knew the truth about us, they’d know how lame we really are. This terrifies us.
So, our shame hides.
Shame wears a disguise like blame, or braggadocio, or control.
These are things that got in between my husband and me for years. When I needed to talk about anything financial, the shame I felt about my small earning contribution would waft into the conversation and I’d say, “I can’t believe how much you spent on this pair of boots.”
When I look back now and see those boots, I wish I could have said and more so FELT, “Wow. Those are nice boots. I can see how much you love them. The problem is, I don’t have enough money to pay this electric bill now. What do ya think we should do?”
Even now, all these years later, I struggled to find a way to create that sentence. I struggled with how to say it clean. Because the smokey haze of shame is so thick.
I knew I wanted to affirm David’s grown up right to spend our money. But it took me some time to then offer him the responsibility to deal with the consequences.
When you feel shame, you think everything is your fault. Everything is yours to fix.
My husband didn’t know about the electric bill. He was busy in medical school and I was trying to prove how worthy I was by handling all the details of our lives.
In those early days of our marriage, I didn’t know how to give him responsibility to deal with the electric bill problem caused by his expensive boots.
But I had no hesitation shaming him because he spent too much.
See how shame pollutes your relationship? It’s sneaky and pervasive. And so hard to recognize.
How is shame leaking into your relationship? Do you feel responsible for things that aren’t yours to fix? Does the flavor of your blame drip with shaming accusations?
How do you overcome shame in your relationship?
Let’s identify the culprits that create shame:
Number 1, Comparison:
We look at the façade of others and compare ourselves to their picture-perfect-exterior. We imagine they are hiding nothing and that everything in their life is as lovely as their Instagram feed. Even when you consciously know this isn’t true, if you expose yourself to a constant diet of looking at others’ picture-perfect lives, that comparison-brain eats away at your self-esteem and you feel ashamed of how you don’t measure up.
Number 2 culprit that causes shame in your relationship is perfection.
We create impossible standards for ourselves that no one could live up to it. Then we beat ourselves up for not living up to it.
And the 3rd culprit causing shame in your relationship is where we focus.
When you focus on how you fall short of your values rather than focusing on all that you’re managing to handle well, you constantly feel you should improve. You feel less-than. And shame has fertile ground to grow.
I began to wash away my haze of shame by changing my focus. It happened by accident. Remember how I didn’t realize I smelled like cigarette smoke because my nose was accustomed to that smell? Well, I also didn’t know how to find my shame, let alone wash it away.
The first shift of focus happened when I wrote a book about the importance of reading to your children. You can watch my TEDx Talk to get the gist.
As I wrote that book, I was trying to convince other parents about the value of stories when it comes to raising your family. I believe telling stories about other people (or stories from your family’s history) is the most effective way to teach your children values and provide calm discipline.
I watch as parents sacrifice time with their kids because there’s always more their boss wants from them.
Suddenly, I saw my history differently. That paltry amount of money I’d made at the University of Colorado was a job that allowed me freedom to read to my children. When this occurred to me, I went to my husband and said, “It’s a big deal that I was able to be home with the kids and read to them so much.”
“No duh,” said my husband. “This is what I’ve been trying to tell you for years. It’s why I felt so lucky that you were so supportive of my career change. You took such great care of all of us.”
Had he really been saying that? For years? I don’t remember that.
And this is another little cloak and dagger mystery about shame. It’s so powerful that it can get in the way of actually seeing the life that’s unfolding around you. Even when that life is what you desire.
I’d always wanted David to value how dedicated I was to parenting. Come to find out, he’d always been valuing it. I just couldn’t FEEL the value he felt.
Shame is a HUGE reason people can’t feel the love and respect that is surrounding them.
Let’s go back to the summer evening on my porch. As my husband looks down at his napkin, I get afraid. I just know he’s going to tell me he’s tired of being the bread winner and he wishes I’d provide more financially to our household.
He looks up sheepishly and says, “I’m so embarrassed, but I want you to be available whenever I want to play. When I want to go skiing, I want you to be available to go with me. When I want to take a vacation, I want you to be available to take the trip with me. Basically, I want you to be my beck-and-call-companion. Isn’t that horrid?”
When he made his outrageous demand, he dissolved my fear. It wasn’t my earning potential he valued. It was my company he valued. Whoosh! It was as if we could both feel the haze lift. And we laughed.
What layer of hazy shame would lift if you changed the way you were looking at what frustrates you? How could you change your focus?
I changed my focus to looking at what I VALUE: steeping my children in a world of good stories.
When I focused on my values, I realized I valued time with my kids far more than I value money. I realize that I’m a very privileged person because I had access to safe, low-income housing.
Are you facing a tug-of-war inside you that is causing you shame? Maybe you long to make a change in the world and you want to run for political office, but you also value your privacy. Maybe you love being the life of the party but that can compromise your health which is so important to you. Maybe you want to be an artist but you need to pay the bills.
If you’re facing a tug-of-war inside, change your focus and look at all the ways you’re currently succeeding at each of the things you value.
First, identify an area of your life where you’re likely to squeeze yourself with perfectionist tendencies.
If you struggle to identify those, you can look at the symptoms of perfection: blame, control, and bragging.
When are you most likely to brag? (And I’m not talking about the bragging I’ve been teaching you to do when it comes to your invisible work. I’m talking about braggadocio.) And what makes you get hyper controlling? When are you most likely to blame your sweetheart?
Can you recognize a perfection desire in your brags, control, or blame?
- Maybe you brag about the food you eat: so clean or vegan?
- Maybe you control the bank account: because we don’t want to waste a penny!
- Maybe your blame centers most on messing up the house: “There are fingerprints on this fridge again!”
After you’ve identified an area where you have a perfectionist tendency, now list out all the ways you’re making an effort toward that value that makes you strive for perfection.
I eat clean food 90% of the day. Then get very, very specific about how you got to that 90%.
- Then notice the small bowl of yogurt you ate first thing so your stomach didn’t get angry when you took your vitamins. Tell yourself why that’s a big deal. Taking vitamins is important to you and you forget if you don’t take them first thing in the morning. But if you don’t eat a little bit, your stomach complains about that habit. This is you listening to your body and figuring out how to accomplish what matters to you. Notice how your setting yourself up for the life you want to live.
- Notice how you chose to chop of veggies rather than grabbing fast food at lunch.
- Notice the cup of peppermint tea after dinner that helps with your craving for a sweet bowl of ice cream.
When you get granular like this, you bring your focus to all the choices you made that supports your clean eating value, rather than caving to your tendency which is to focus on the foible: that mocha latte at 3:00 that helped you finish out the work day.
The Perfection Monster hates it when you get granular like this because perfection is an IDEAL not a practice. The Perfection Monster melts away when you notice your 90% success ratio and all the details that served to make it happen.
And when perfection is melted, the haze of shame lifts.
Shame hides in righteous places like perfectionism. This habit will help you expose those hiding places so shame can be seen, questioned, and washed away.
Want to listen to my podcast about this topic? Click here.