Shame is an emotion that usually dwells incognito. So little attention has been given to shame in mainstream psychotherapy and self-help movements, that many of us don’t even recognize it as an emotion, let alone a key factor underlying the manifestation of other emotions and behaviors. And because shame is shamed like so many other unpleasant-feeling emotions, it is hard to give exposure to it, as the very nature of shame is to keep from being exposed.
Fortunately, the shadow of shame is starting to see the light of day, and as a result, more and more emotional biopsies are coming back accurately with some variation of shame. Though it is a complex and multi-layered emotion, strides are being made to identify and work with shame in a way so that it no longer binds us. Brene Brown has done tremendous work in this field and in bringing it to mainstream awareness.
Having said all of that, I want to talk about a particular variation of shame, a dynamic that I feel can be an intimacy and relationship killer – I call it reverse shaming. It is when one party projects their shame onto the other, in light of a conflict or confrontation, as a defense mechanism to what they might perceive as someone shaming them.
In the psychotherapeutic work I’ve been exposed to, I am familiar with the notion of “shaming” someone when addressing an issue or discontent with him/her. I think that happens often enough and can lead to defensiveness and reactivity that leaves both people drained and confused. It is something to be cognizant of when telling someone how you feel, as shaming undermines healthy and effective communication and can create more dissonance.
However, reverse shame happens when you are telling someone how you feel, in a straight forward and direct way and all they hear is shaming, blaming and criticism (because of their past relationships, conflicts with parents, their inner critic’s voice or because they already have their own shame around a particular issue that exists without someone else “shaming” them), and as a defense or deflection, they in-turn shame you by saying things like, “This is your issue,” “You’re hard to please,” “You’re insecure,” “You’re too sensitive,” “Get off my back,” “Not this again,” etc. All of the sudden they are treating your feelings as the ‘problem,’ rather than looking at the source of what you were addressing, and you’re left holding both the original feeling and now the shame around that feeling.
Have you ever wished you hadn’t brought something up because of this kind of backlash? Has anyone gotten angry with you for being angry with them? Reverse shaming can make you feel like your feelings are insignificant and invalid. And when we think our feelings are not recognized or valued, it often leads to us swallowing the feelings, internalizing them – which incidentally leads to more shame.
Reverse shaming looks like this:
A woman acts very flirtatious with men at a party. When her partner later cleanly expresses his hurt over this, she gets defensive and calls him insecure and jealous, etc. And he ends up feeling shame around his feelings, he feels small and weak, even though his sharing his feelings was vulnerable, authentic and courageous.
So much of the reason we’re not vulnerable (real and open) is because of the times when we were and it was used against us in a hostile and/or deflected way. We found ourselves being blamed for the disharmony that arose out of well-intentioned expression meant to be a bridge back to harmony.
Another example: A man makes a sexist comment, and when his girlfriend calls him out on it, he says, “This is your issue,” or “Why are you always looking for this stuff?” or “Is that how you see me?” Now the woman finds herself in a position of having to defend herself and her very feelings of hurt and disappointment, and may even try to soothe his feelings instead – because he has made it about him. Now, the onus/responsibility has shifted onto her and not her partner’s behavior.
In either instance, the person who was originally expressing her/his feelings was not met with empathy, compassion or openness, but defensiveness and reverse shaming, and is left feeling unheard and blamed for any conflict that has arisen. This may cause them to then feel shame for even having the feelings come up in the first place or for how they were expressed – treading ever so lightly the next time some feeling want to be expressed because they don’t want to set off the time bomb and end up feeling like it was their fault – because it was turned around on them!
It is important for both people to take ownership and responsibility. That would look like this: A spouse says something hurtful (even if unintentional) to his wife, and she says, “That hurt me when you said x, y, and z.” In his response he reflects for a moment on what he said or how he said it without making it about her and her problem and he offers empathy and acknowledgment of her feelings. He can see her pain and hear her. Really hear her. He makes an effort to understand, tells her it wasn’t meant to hurt her and gives further explanation if necessary. If he realized there was malice, insensitivity or passive aggression in what he said (even unconsciously) he admits it and apologizes. She owns her part by stating cleaning and clearly her feelings and then listening to where he was coming from.
One of the most important aspects to any relationship, especially intimate/romantic ones is to acknowledge and empathize with your partner’s feelings, especially pain, and to recognize the vulnerability it takes for them to tell you that they’re feeling a dark or difficult emotion. Opening up to this is not an automatic admission of your guilt, but it is an opening to understanding how the person is feeling and what may have prompted those feelings – it can show you if and where there may have been some fault so that amends can be made.
I struggle in this dynamic myself. When I feel unpleasant emotions come up like jealousy, fear, anger, hurt, sadness, etc. it is almost always initially accompanied by shame, especially at the thought of sharing it with the person these emotions might be tied to or evoked by. This is because in most of my relationship history, people were not okay with my feelings or their being implicated in them. But, I am aware when this shame comes up now and I make a conscious decision to push through and expose myself in my feelings, to be okay with my feelings even if others aren’t. To stay true to myself and let myself be vulnerable means I have to own my feelings, no matter what the other person’s reaction. If they are emotionally mature, they will own their feelings as well as whatever part they played in it and not use reverse shaming as a way to avert their own discomfort or wrong-doing.
Reverse shaming goes on in all types of relationships: romantic, siblings, parent/child, friends, co-workers, etc. Good communication on both parts requires being the space for the other to express themselves without being punished. Each person must own their own feelings, and be able to admit where things went wrong and ultimately do away with defensiveness and shaming, otherwise you’ll have a dynamic where people shrink back into a safety zone, afraid to express the truth for fear that it might be used against them.
If we can’t trust people with our feelings then the relationship container is no longer safe and over time can erode the connection. But if we can create a spaciousness around what someone else is expressing instead of making our discomfort grounds for shutting them down with shame (shaming them down), then there can be resolution, healing and growth.