How Does Shame Affect Relationships?

Even though everyone feels occasional shame, chronic or persistent shame can affect every part of your life. Shame coincides with feeling unworthy, which can deeply affect the quality of your relationships.

Unfortunately, shame persists and shows up in insidious ways. It can erode even a healthy relationship, and it sometimes contributes to patterns of unhealthy interpersonal dynamics. Shame also often creates a reluctance to open up safely, creating intense barriers to authentic connection and intimacy.

Here are some signs shame may be impacting the quality of your relationships.

Shame Perpetuates Secrecy

In her bestselling book, The Gifts of Imperfection, BrenĂ© Brown said, “Shame loves secrecy. The most dangerous thing to do after a shaming experience is hide or bury our story. When we bury our story, the shame metastasizes.”

This is because shame has such a twisted way of convincing you that you’re worthless or unlovable. It’s that fear that if people really knew you, they wouldn’t like you. This powerful belief keeps people in the dark from others. You might present to the world one way, but your internal state doesn’t match how you externally carry yourself.

Unfortunately, this creates a powerful guarding effect in relationships. If you feel shame about yourself, it can be hard to be vulnerable with your loved ones. But the very act of keeping secrets- especially in a relationship- also drives more shame and stunts vital emotional connection.

Shame Can Cause Avoidance and Withdrawal

Many people who experience shame feel disconnected from others. For example, even if you value closeness, the fear of being judged magnifies self-doubt, making it difficult to open up and truly feel safe around people.

With this, you may find yourself shutting down at the very moments you want to be vulnerable. Or, when shame is strong, you might isolate yourself, leaving little room to engage in loving relationships.

Shame Can Augment Other Negative Feelings

Everyone experiences feelings like anger, sadness, anxiety, and guilt. But shame can add more charge to your emotional distress. This is because people tend to feel ashamed for even having emotions in the first place. You might think, I’m overreacting, or, Other people have it so much worse than me!

That inner critic can be quite convincing, but it also reinforces more feelings of shame, and it can make negative emotions fester much longer than they normally would.

Shame Creates a Sense of Aloneness

Human beings are social creatures, and we rely on healthy relationships to support our well-being. When we’re in pain, it’s important to feel validated and cared for by others.

But shame makes this quite difficult. Shame- and particularly toxic shame– feels like such a lonely, individual experience. Even if you’re surrounded by positive support, you may feel like you’re the only person who has ever felt this poorly. This is the heart of loneliness. With that, it’s also common to feel like nobody can really understand the cadence and intensity of your emotions.

This feeling of aloneness unquestionably affects intimate relationships. There’s this deep sense of feeling flawed, and you may look for evidence that supports that belief. You may also find yourself rejecting support or safety because you don’t believe you deserve such grace.

Shame Can Cause You to Act In Ways You Later Regret

Shame underlies compulsive self-criticism and self-defeating emotional problems. If you feel like an inadequate person, you may very well act in ways that reinforce this belief.

Sometimes people engage in self-destructive behaviors to briefly numb the shame. If you feel bad about yourself, you’ll do whatever you can to experience relief- even if that relief is temporary or leads to more problems.

With that said, self-destructive behaviors also tend to coincide with deceit and denial. These also hinder connection and can prevent you from feeling close to the people who matter most to you.

How Therapy Helps Break Up Shame

No matter how thick your shame might feel, it’s possible to work through your powerful feelings and reclaim joy and meaning in life. Shame often speaks to learned messages from childhood; it’s very possible that you grew up with shame-based beliefs without realizing their true impact.

Therapy can deepen your self-awareness by supporting you in understanding how toxic shame shows up in your life. It can also give you practical skills to improve low self-esteem by practicing more self-compassion and healthy coping strategies. In some cases, therapy provides a much-needed roadmap toward sustainable self-forgiveness.

If shame is preventing you from having a fulfilling relationship, you may benefit from seeking professional guidance. I will strive to provide a safe space for you to unpack your feelings and find your authentic self.

You are not alone, and support can make a big difference in how you feel. I welcome you to contact me today to schedule an initial consultation.

4601 Spicewood Springs Road Building 3, Suite 200
Austin, TX 78759
(512) 988-3363

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