Loneliness is partly because we are ashamed of admitting that we’re all flawed, imperfect, wounded creatures.
I bet you’ve clicked on this blog because you want to banish shame forever.
Perhaps you’re struggling with the fallout from an affair or you’re single and feel ashamed about it. Perhaps you worry if someone really knew you – perhaps even your partner – they wouldn’t love you. We really need a cure for shame because it is the most toxic feeling of all. It stops us connecting with other people and, in my opinion, we were put on this planet to connect.
To be honest, I’m a little ashamed myself because this blog title is a bit of a come-on. You think I’m going to tell you how to stop shame feelings and I’m not. In fact, I’m going to ask you to accept shame, witness it and not run away. Before you click away in disgust, horror or anger. Let me explain, accepting shame is the best way to deal with it, to connect with other people and to finally feel whole.
I’d like to thank Catherine who saw a link between my work and that of Brene Brown – a US researcher and academic – on the subject of vulnerability:
Five ways to stop shame
1. Accept the shame
Everybody feels shame and sometimes it’s for a good reason. However, because you’re terrified of shame you justify to yourself (you’re not ‘THAT bad’, ‘there’s somebody down the hall who is far worse’ or you did it for a ‘good reason’) or you switch off (by working too hard, watching TV or playing computer games) or block out the feelings (by having a drink, flirting with strangers on line or contacting your mistress / lover who’ll say you’re wonderful).
Unfortunately, you just set up another heap of shame poured over your head. When you justify yourself to your partner, he or she gets angry and tells us you’re worthless, less than human or even unlovable (and reminds you of how much you hurt him or her). Burying yourself will get the accusation – ‘you don’t understand’,’ you’re minimising’ and ‘you don’t care’. Meanwhile getting drunk or re-establishing contact with your ex will make you feel worse the next morning, not better.
2. Witness the shame
Take a deep breath and another and another. You will feel a little calmer. Tell yourself: ‘I feel ashamed and that’s OK. In fact, it’s a good sign that I can witness it.’ The alternative is to push it away but everything that’s cast into the shadows become more frightening and grows more power.
It is also much better to witness rather than trying to shame your partner for making you ashamed – ‘why can’t you get over it’ or ‘how can we move on if you keep harping on all the time.’
3. Report the shame
Tell your partner: ‘I feel ashamed about my behaviour’. It is also powerful to explain why (for example ‘I shouldn’t have name called’) and to acknowledge the impact (‘I must have made you feel terrible’). You could also apologise too.
4. Learn from the shame
One of my new messages is that our feelings are trying to tell us something. So what is your shame telling you? What would you like to do differently? Why did you slip into shameful behaviour? How could you avoid it next time round?
5. Make amends for shame
Think about how you could make up for the hurt. Time and again, after an affair, I find the discoverer is stuck because he or she is so full of shame that they are unable to act or keep saying ‘I can’t turn back the clock’. However, they could be more loving today, they could do those jobs around the house that they’ve never got round to doing, they could try and become a better version of themselves.
At this point, you will be able to forgive yourself and feel whole again. Maybe, your partner will also forgive especially if he or she can see that you’ve understood the full impact of your shameful behaviour.
There is more about the toxic impact of shame in my book My Husband Doesn’t Love Me and He’s Texting Someone Else.
- What have been your experiences of shame?
- What’s your take on how to stop shame feelings?
- Does trying to be perfect makes things better or worse?
Please post your comments below.
Great blog Andrew! Shame is indeed a toxic emotion.
My shame, unfortunately, comes in two doses. First, I grew up not feeling I was ever good enough so I always tried to earn my parents/friends love & acceptance. Low and behold as I am going through counseling now I have come to learn that it has been shame that has been eating away at me slowly but surely. All of this shame has manifested in the second ‘event’, my partners affair! It was as if all my childhood shame was exposed at once and I felt rejected again, a victim, it was all my fault, and I simply wasn’t good enough b/c my partner cheated on me and fell in love with someone else!
Unconsciously, I suppose, I tried everything to block my own shame. I looked for strategies to win them back (I’ve read all your books at least 3 times plus 8 others), I tried being perfect, and I tried competing. All of this just made me feel worse about myself and none of these ‘activities’ ever worked… I’m still separated!
If I’m honest, I haven’t been able to stop this feeling but I am more aware of it b/c I finally gave it a name – shame. I am learning to love myself and have the courage to be vulnerable with my partner even though the threat remains.
On top of all this is my partners shame too so it’s a perfect storm of shame! My partner won’t openly address their shame and I’m not sure what I can do about that so I just focus on me.
I am being loving and supportive and each day I am trying to be more open. I apologise when I mess up (outbursts), be more assertive (even though they are avoidant), but more importantly I am trying to be a better me without shame.
Wish me/us luck….
Andrew G Marshall says
It sounds like you’re on a great voyage of discovery. I have a saying that I share with my clients that might help you too ‘From the crooked timber of humanity nothing straight was ever made.’ It’s from the philosopher Kant. In other words, we’re all flawed and it comes with the territory of being human. However, if you can acknowledge your shame it will make 100% easier for your partner to address their shame too. So good luck to both of you.
In Limbo says
I am taking stock of my numerous mistakes in my marriage that have contributed to my wife of 10 years requesting that she take the kids and move across town for some “space”. I made fulsome apology as Andrew has suggested in both “My Wife” and “ILYB” and I have started working on myself and my wife has acknowledged that she has seen a dramatic change in me. I am fortunate that we have been going to couples counseling and we are both seeing an individual therapist. All that being said she still feels that she needs to separate and told me last night she has found an apartment. My heart literally feels like it’s breaking and I am reading and re-reading Andrew’s book amongst others.
My wife and I are both currently feeling tremendous shame for different reasons. I now recognize how miserable and alone my wife wasis feeling and how I was blissfully unaware of serious the nature of the problem. I was discounting her feelings as just a “blue” period.
She is feeling shameguilt that although she sees changes in my attitude and my helpfulness, and she realizes that our children’s lives will be affected she still feels like she needs to leave. I have used Andrew’s strategies in negotiating the separation and will continue to negotiate the ground rules with our therapist.
I am still resolute to do everything in my power to save our marriage. I know that my wife is still willing to see the counselor and to talk about our marriage. I hope that we can both come to grips with our shame, resentment, and anger and hopefully discover that there is still a strong love buried there under it all. Andrew, your books, videos, and site help a lot. I wanted to thank you for that. Two months ago I had never visited a self help site or read a book, I now realize just how crucial this work is. Kant was completely correct, we all come from crooked timber.
Some advice says
I am in your situation my friend, though slightly more complicated (HCITYA).
Some advice if I may. Ground rules are key for a separation both the rules themselves and how you discuss them. My wife and I got off on the right foot by ‘being on the same page’…this was a great help but easily undone if you panic, which I did =).
Second, the separation is going to be very very difficult so ‘phone a friend’ as they say but be careful what to you say and to whom. Andrew says don’t panic, which is far easier said than done I’m afraid – trust me. When you make a mistake, and you both will, use it as an opportunity to learn together if you can.
Third, shut up and listen. Put a tack in your shoe and step on it if you have to but for God sakes shut up and listen to your wife. Again, trust me on this… plus the tack hurts a lot less than what you are going through.
Fourth, she won’t trust the change – at all. So give it time, a lot of time, and don’t voice any frustration if she doesn’t reward you. She will think that you are only doing this to win her back – again trust me on this.
Finally, Andrew is right. No one, I mean no one, throws away 10 yrs of marriage and kids with out thinking it through. This is her thinking it through, which means there is still hope otherwise she would have been gone by now. Keep telling yourself that…it may not be a convincing message to start but eventually you will convince yourself all is not lost yet. This is also probably her teaching you a lesson but I’m no therapist, just a guy separated from his wife feeling the same pain every day. My experience tells me that your goal should be damage limitation in the first few weeks/months b/c you are likely to make mistakes when under a lot of pressure.
Listen + Shut Up = A chance
Andrew G Marshall says
I am truly in awe of the great guys who read this blog.
In Limbo says
I thank you sincerely for your insights. I am hurting and confused, however thanks to the power of the digital age I have not yet hit a panic stage. A simple google search of “I love you but” brought me to Andrew’s book which fortunately was available on Kindle so I was reading his advice the day after my wife told me. Thank God for small favors.
I imagine when the moving truck backs up my driveway that will be invitation number 1 to enter full panic mode. I have not lost hope, naturally it was a blow to hear that my wife still felt she needed to move out. I think we were making some very positive progress taking time to simply talk. I have become a much better listener and realize I still have a long way to go. Maybe I’ll start using that tack suggestion : ) I tend to fill the uncomfortable silences with chatter, you can tell by my wordy posts I am verbose. I need to make sure we’re having a dialogue rather than my having a soliloquy.
Establishing these ground rules will help me know where we stand and how we should expect to interact. The greatest thing I have learned in this is that I am truly blessed with loving and caring family and friends. I have kept my circle very closed mostly people who need to know: my parents, brother, my priest, and a close friend at church. I have told my wife that I told these individuals so there are no surprises. I don’t know the extent of people she has told besides her family, but I know some friends have been told.
We had a birthday party for her dad yesterday and her family all took the time to pull me aside individually to tell me that they were thinking of me and told me how much they loved me and that even if worse came to worst I would always be their brother. In her father’s case he told me he considers me his son. I was flattered and naturally moved by the kind words and I assured them all that the feeling was mutual. I asked them to pray for us. I refrained from discussing details other than acknowledging that I was feeling sad yet hopeful and that I believe that we can still work this out.
The journey is long and arduous and is just begun. I wish you all the luck in the world with your marriage as well.
opuntia monocantha v says
Thank you for this blog post Andrew, I’ve been thinking about it all week.
Just before reading it I came across another article by a lady called Callie Glorioso-Mays that talked about the difference between shame and guilt, she quoted a lady called Elizabeth Chapin who “wrote about the difference between shame and guilt by explaining that guilt is focused on behavior (e.g. “I did something bad”) and shame is focused on the individual (e.g. “I am bad”).”
For me the message that I received as a child was that even when I was good, I was bad… the result was that I have felt ashamed of my “self”. Who I was as a person was not good enough and it didn’t matter how thoughtful and caring I was, I wouldn’t be good enough. Sadly this wasn’t based on what I had or hadn’t done – it was based on a broken father who projected his own feelings of shame onto me.
Shame is painful and I did everything I could to push it away without realising what I was doing. The shame was still there and the belief that I was worthless pervaded and influenced my relationships. For example I found it very hard to take on board feedback from my husband about behaviour he found difficult without hearing it as a rejection of me, I mixed up what I’d done with a rejection of me.
It’s now nearly 4 years since my husband said the words I love you but… and in that time I think that one of the most significant emotions for me to face up to was shame. When you feel shame it makes it hard to connect, after all once they find out what you are really like, they won’t want to know you anymore will they? And when you hear I love you but… it confirms all those fears.
So, my reaction? After imploding, panicking, crying I decided that whatever happened I’d seek for good to come of the situation. Andrew’s books have really helped in understanding how your attitude and what you do can impact on a situation. As Andrew says shame stops us connecting with other people, and sadly I believe it also stops us connecting with ourselves. Which is why his wise counsel to face up to shame is so important, until you love yourself it’s very hard to love another person.
Andrew’s book’s helped me to recognise what I needed to change and the attitudes and actions that I needed to forgive myself for as well as ask forgiveness for.
I think it’s Martin Luther King who talks about forgiveness as a place where the evil act no longer has an impact on a relationship. I’ve still not got my head or heart around this; I think this is because the hardest part of forgiveness is vulnerability. To ask for forgiveness is to face up to the pain your actions have caused and this is a difficult response particularly for people whose childhood message has been that they are worthless. It can feel like an affirmation of that deep seated belief that you are worthless, rather than a message that your behaviour needs to change. For me this is the point where I needed to make a distinction between guilt (where my behaviour or attitude had caused harm) and shame (where I felt worthless).
Four years on my marriage is in a much better place and this thanks to the work of Andrew and also Beverley Engel whose book Breaking free from the cycle of abuse was so helpful in understanding my shame and the impact this has had, I highly recommend it with a health warning that it’s best read with the support of a therapist to work through the issues it will bring up.
Andrew G Marshall says
It is really helpful to articulate the difference between guilt and shame. Thank you.
Some advice says
As Easter approaches, and perhaps that truck, I was thinking of you. I hope all is going well and you are coping in this very difficult time.
I too had the ‘chat’ with my partners family, which was very reassuring for me indeed. I finally felt loved and part of the family even though my partner doesn’t (always) feel the same. Be careful of her family however. You want to stay close to them, which is understandable, but you don’t want to create the perception that you are using them to manipulate her. Truth, as they say, is in the eyes of the beholder so continued contact with her family, even if they are the ones to reach out to you, may come across differently to your wife – keep that in mind. This happened to me unfortunately.
As for me, well I am ok, more than ok actually. I have moved on with my life and I’m getting a life (though there are still bad days). I am just going to enjoy Easter and time with the family while I have it.
With that said, I do have a difficult set of circumstances to deal with over the next couple of weeks. So rather than worry too much, I’ve got a smile on my face, my head held high, and my chin is up. If I’m going to get hit again I’d rather it be in the face than stabbed in the back. I am only focusing on myself and the children and what will be will be and I will be ok no matter what.
Stay strong Limbo
In Limbo says
I appreciate your thoughts. Easter was surreal to say the least we were with my family and a causal observer might have thought that all was well. Naturally inside I was distraught and nasty thoughts like this could be the last holiday we spend as a family made my heart feel heavy. My parents and brother commented privately that they couldn’t believe how normally my wife is able to carry on.
After we had put the kids to bed my wife asked me why I looked so sad, I guess she could have figured it out, so I told her exactly what I was thinking. She responded to my fear of this being the last family holiday by saying, “We need to take this one day at a time”. I agreed and said that I am trying to live in the present still it is natural to have some anxiety about the future. Andrew you call it the “age of great uncertainty”. We ended up talking for over an hour about our individual therapy sessions. I listened without interrupting (progress) and shared with her some of the things that I am learning about myself.
I have to say that Andrew and Brene’s thoughts on shame have been a revelation. I now realize how much my short temper and defensiveness were coping mechanisms to keep shame and low self esteem buried, much like Opuntia’s story. I have allowed myself to be more vulnerable and to listen and speak more “whole heartedly”. My wife thanked me for sharing my vulnerability. It’s a tiny step yet it’s a step. There is love and respect there amongst the angst and deep resentment.
Some Advice and Opuntia Monocantha I wish you happiness in your journeys. You have done a brave thing sharing your experiences so that others can learn from them.
Some advice says
I am sorry to hear that Easter was tough for you. Some additional thoughts if you don’t mind.
1. Your wife is ‘pretending’ to act normal. She is putting on a brave face but trust me she is as scared as you and this is her way of getting through a tough painful time.
2. Her noticing and asking about you is a good thing – she is paying attention to you and effectively told you that ‘I am watching’. You absolutely need to focus on being positive – fake it until you make it and use your therapy sessions (diary writing etc) to get out all the excess emotions. Your wife will pick up on everything so you need a find a way to get the negatives out during these first few days/weeks/months so you don’t spiral into a panic driven crisis. It is also good you told her how you felt…be sure this doesn’t leak into a guilt trip (hence why getting your frustrations out else where is important), I made this mistake far too many times.
3. Of course your family will make that comment, it does appear a bit odd looking from the outside that one could be so ‘normal’ but they won’t be able to stand in either your or your wife’s shoes.
Perhaps a bit of encouraging news for you Limbo. My wife and I decided to get back together and ‘try things out’ again! So my hard work begins (as if the separation wasn’t hard enough!). Points on how I/we got through a separation that may help you :
1. Individual counseling helped us both get to a better place and deal with our own shadows.
2. Marriage counseling is helping us tremendously (Marshall Method), though it’s not easy at all.
3. I cherished every day together, became happy in myself, and did things for me (it took me months to be honest).
4. I stopped taking everything so personally, it literally drove me to depression (though I never sought medical help).
5. I was determined and patient. I told myself I am committed to saving my marriage everyday. When that didn’t work, I told myself I was committed to trying everything I could and being a better person. If that didn’t work then I told myself I was committed to being committed.
6. I came to a place were I was ready to let go if need be. It was scary but it relieved the pressure building in me and actually translated into positive thoughts/feelings in the relationship.
7. I am lucky. I married an amazing woman, who I love and respect despite our past mistakes.
Andrew G Marshall says
Great post and encouraging news. I just thought I’d comment on letting go (point 6) or what I’d call Radical Acceptance. Instead of struggling to change the situation, you accept where you are and THEN look at what needs to change. I explain more in the last chapter of ‘My husband doesn’t love me….’ – which I hope will also help men stuck in this painful situation too.
In Limbo says
I am truly happy for you. It sounds like things are progressing in a positive direction and I wish you well. It’s great to have this forum to share experiences and advice. I appreciate the help. I will take your suggestions and Andrew’s books to heart and try to remain calm. I have been exploring myself in session and out and working on what I can change. Naturally as a human being I have made mistakes and even with my attempts to be a listener and a supporter I have occasionally slipped into anger. Luckily I have been able to right the ship.
Our next challenge is to tell the kids about the separation. I am praying for strength to maintain a brave face. I also suggested a separation agreement to my wife per your book Andrew. She has expressed that she didn’t seem it necessary, but she wanted to honor my wishes. I think it will help to flesh out the expectations we both have regarding this painful time. Any advice on these two issues and anything else is appreciated. I will continue to be supportive to my wife while giving her as much space as she needs.
My therapist has helped me on that letting go piece, she actually advised me last week that I need to come out of this situation feeling OK regardless of the outcome. I am leaving the door open if both of us don’t walk through it together I need to live with that and move on.
Some advice says
I hope everything is going well. Apologies for the late reply. I assumed when you asked for advice you asked the expert but I thought I would throw my two pence in as well =).
1. Separation Agreement : I would ask your wife why she didn’t think it was needed? Through this conversation I am sure you will get the ground rules, which I think are very important. For example, how would you deal with child care, finances etc without discussing it? Also, it would be important to know her thoughts on other issues… do you date other people, have couple time/family time, do you tell other people about the separation etc? Best case, you use this to communicate and agree on almost everything. Worse case you don’t agree on a thing but you still communicate… win/win really.
2. The Kids : It all depends on how old they are really but ,what ever age, limit the information to age appropriate messages. It is also important to do it together and remind them that you both love them and that Mummy and Daddy just need to work a few things out. I always feared of the impact on our kids and trust me there was and they are under 6! Lack of sleep, running into Mummys room so she didn’t leave too, making a bed on their floor so Daddy had a place to sleep etc. It was heart breaking but showed both of us that no matter how young kids are they know something is going on even if they don’t understand it. To be honest, I think my kids were part of the reason my wife asked me back…it kind of shook her back into reality but I’m just guessing.
In terms of therapy, well it takes time to be honest. Intellectually I understood everything my therapist said and it all made sense in my head but it took me months to feel it (if you know what I mean). Right now ‘letting go’ and ‘you have to be ok no matter what happens’ may just be words but eventually you will be ready to accept them as ‘feelings’. Stick with it mate and good luck.
In Limbo says
It’s been a while. I’m feeling lonely and sad yet I’m hanging in. My wife and I have been separated for almost a month.. The kids are doing ok, but they have confided to me and their mother that they are sad. My younger daughter even approached her teacher about the situation. I am proud of her being able to share her feelings and I have done my best during my time with them to convey how much I love them and nothing will ever change that. I have also tried to explore any feelings and concerns they have had without getting into the details of our marriage.
I am taking Andrew’s advice and trying to be the best and most supportive fatherhusband, leaving her as much space as I can and keeping to the business aspect of managing the kids schedules. It is becoming apparent that my wife may be more interested on developing our co-parenting rather than repairing our relationship which has been a real blow to me. I know the process can be agonizingly slow so also per Andrew’s advice I have reread sections of ILYB and My Wife to recall strategies. It’s all very fresh and it stings.
Thanks again for your support. I hope you are all doing well!
Andrew G Marshall says
I would also suggest ‘Learn to love yourself enough’ so that you can begin to deal with any negative voices inside. Continue to be patient because better co-parenting can be the platform for loving again. You’re doing good, so be patient with yourself (as well as your wife).
In Limbo says
I am certainly trying my best to be well. Thanks for the affirmation, how did you know that was one of my primary love languages? : ) I recently had a 7 day stretch without the kids and it was an ordeal. I try to plan my “free time” to be filled with activities I am taking a class, I go on long runs or mountain biking, preparing elaborate meals, reading, attending church, etc. and in spite of that I still had a good deal of time to wrestle alone with my pain. I should have reached out to my brother or another confidant, but I chose to wallow a bit. I do feel like I love myself and that I am treating myself kindly. I will try to remain calm and patient. I have said previously, but this site is immensely helpful. I really appreciate your new article, obviously it is prevalent to my situation.
Dear In Limbo,
Are you doing better? I have a dark feeling that you did not get back together with your wife, but after so many month I hope you are recovered.
It is vital to believe in life after life. I lived the same torture unfortunately. But I am now back on the saddle. It can be done.