It took me years to truly understand the degree to which unacknowledged shame undermines my capacity to connect intimately with another. My most difficult patterns in a relationship have been motivated by protecting myself from some version of shame. And most of them were completely off my radar.
When I’m not aware of how my shame gets triggered, I’m likely to take others’ experiences of me personally leaving me little room for empathy and understanding. However, if I’ve gotten to know the part of me burdened with this feeling and get that making mistakes doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with me, I have more space to be curious about their experience.
When I first began dating my wife, there were certain ways I acted that were “difficult” for her. When she’d bring them up, I’d nod my head like I was really getting her but inside I was saying to myself, “I just can’t do anything right for her. She expects way too much,” It was off my radar that what was really happening was my shame was getting activated. Over time as I learned how to be with these feelings and know when I was getting triggered, I could slow down and respond with something like, “I’m glad you told me. Sounds frustrating. I’m going to look at that.” Once I began to get my impact on her, there was room for me to share something like, “Your reaction brings up a feeling of never being enough.” With that exchange, we were in real conversation and moving into a deeper connection.
Once we begin working on getting to know our shame, where it comes from, what triggers it and how we behave when we’re trying to hide it, we can begin to hear our loved ones in a completely different way. When a partner or friend shares something, it doesn’t mean we necessarily did something wrong because they’re impacted by us but ideally we want to care that they’re feeling something, be curious where it’s coming from and discover if we contributed to their pain in any way. This is something we can learn in relationship that will bring us closer and none of it means that we’re bad or not enough. It only means that there is more to learn about ourselves and those we love.