(Photo Credit: By carlos gonzalez (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons)
Shame is a powerful feeling that is not only an emotion but can also be a state of being – a form of existence. Shame results from comparison, when you look deep inside and evaluate yourself as not good enough. It can start from someone else’s criticism or from your own criticism directed inward. Guilt is when you feel you have DONE something bad. Shame is when you feel YOU are bad.
Huby and I spent two sessions discussing shame with our couples counselor now and my mind is blown. We both apparently have shame triggers, what the counselor calls shame gremlins, responsible for our patterns of arguments, misunderstandings, lack of intimacy, and poor communication over the years. Counselor said the only way to kill a gremlin is to shine light on it. (remember what happened in the movie?)
Okay, he had my curiosity, again. He was either crazy or brilliant, so I paid close attention because either way is interesting to me. He said shame makes us wants to hide, alone, in the dark. (ding, ding, ding – not sounding crazy) We naturally don’t confess we are feeling ashamed and may not even recognize it. Instead we go into defensive and self-protective mode automatically. (wow not crazy at all…) What are your automatic reactions? Do you get angry and yell? That’s what Hubby does. Do have an urge to leave the room, run away, hide and be alone? That’s what I do.
Shame is more likely to trigger anger in men and depression in women. Hmmm.
So here’s an example of how shame causes trouble in my marriage:
We’ve been preparing the house for a kiddo to have a birthday party here this weekend. You all know I hate having people here, but I worked through my fears with many worksheets and I’m feeling okay about this party. Even though I’ve spent 10 out of the past 14 days in bed or in the hospital bed with migraines, I’ve been able to let go of SOME of the anxiety. I still don’t want the party here, but I am resolved to do it for the kiddo, he deserves to have his friends here. I can do it for him. My illness is out of my control. I didn’t get to do everything I wanted to do. I’m strangely almost peaceful about this. I’m doing what I can and it feels like enough, almost. Its not terrible anyway.
So my role is to mainly manage and delegate to kiddos what to do and keep them working. We were all busy cleaning last weekend and I was having my 7 year old do some dusting. While we were doing this, Hubby came over and said something to me about how good we were all doing, and that we were “deep cleaning” not just tidying, so it was taking longer but worth the effort and really needed done.
If you’ve ever watched a 7 year old dust, there is no “deep cleaning” happening.
So I giggled at Hubby’s comment and said something like “I don’t know about “deep cleaning” but we are making good progress here”
Hubby instantly got angry and started yelling at me about how hard he is working and I’m so mean or not fair, and he’s sick of these nasty comments, and whatever he does is never enough…on and on and on…
Woah – I had no idea what happened. But now I do. Hubby was instantly shamed. My comment wasn’t about him, but he interpreted it that way, internalized it as criticism that I don’t think he is doing good enough, and that HE is not good enough. So his automatic defense is to yell back in anger, anything to stop feeling that shame. Shame is intolerable, anger is easier to manage.
So then he yells at me, and I can’t figure out what I did wrong. Here’s the fun part. It then triggers shame in ME! But I don’t fight back and yell. I get quiet, slip out of the room, isolate myself alone in my room, feel like crying, maybe feel like dying for being such a terrible person and I don’t even know why.
Wow. OK. How many hours of my childhood did I spend in exactly that state of mind? Hiding, trying to be invisible, trying to figure out what I did wrong, how to be a better person, keep myself away from everyone to protect myself from the chaotic world. I felt safest when alone. No one attacks or shames me when I’m alone.
Here’s the crazy part. Neither of us actually ever criticize each other – intentionally. We’re not like that, we try to be kind and good, and over the top appreciative of each other. It’s why it is so surprising and confusing to have the shame gremlin show its ugly head in the middle of an otherwise pleasant conversation, and then AHH, teeth, claws, daggers, RUN.
Here’s another example of a shame gremlin the counselor wants me to shine that light on:
This one will actually be more difficult. I’m supposed to tell Hubby every time I have a flashback. Instead of trying to hide it. My method for coping with flashbacks has been to get myself grounded as quickly as possible, figure out if anyone noticed, make up some excuse for me acting weird if they did notice, pretend to be ok for as long as possible, then recover from it later when I’m alone, and maybe tell Hubby about it later, maybe not.
I’m ashamed to have flashbacks. I feel like a freak. I don’t want anyone to know or worry about me. I don’t want to talk about it, or what I just experienced. And sometimes I can’t. Sometimes there are no words to express what I re-experienced. (Why? Well let’s see, say we are going out to dinner and Hubby reaches for his coffee and I have a flashback about driving with AF, and I feel his hands on me, sliding up my thigh like he used to do while he drove and I would try to sit as far as possible by the door out of his reach but nowhere was out of his reach. So am I really supposed to share that moment, explain the memory, bring more attention to it rather than look away from it? And then Hubby and I are supposed to somehow continue into the restaurant for dinner then? Talk about spoiling the mood. Is it fair that I went through that alone? I guess not, but I don’t see how it is better for us both to feel the pain) Yeah, well, these counselors say I can’t do that any more. No more hiding. If I’m with Hubby I need to tell him about it, and if I’m alone I need to write it in my flashback log and share with Hubby later. Eeek.
Just writing it now brings up HUGE amounts of fear. I’m supposed to hide. I’m not ready. I’m comfortable in the dark with the gremlins. I’m afraid to shine the light. This fear is terror, throat choking terror. I have a few stuck points to work through about this and I’m still working on the phrasing. Here’s what I have so far.
- If anyone knows there is something wrong with me I will have failed
- I am worthless if I have any flaws
- No one will love me if they know the real me
- My secrets are too horrific to share
- Accepting help is a sign of failure, worthlessness
- It is pointless to try to explain myself because no one ever understands
- If people know about my problems…(I don’t know how to finish this one, it’s so strong, I’d rather die protecting my secrets than be exposed, but I can’t think of an ending that makes sense. I’m just “not allowed” to tell people about my problems and this core belief is hard wired)