Shame and Vulnerability

Shame is an elusive and difficult to define emotion. According to lead researcher Brene Brown, shame can be defined as the ‘need to connect’ to others or conversely, ‘the fear of being disconnected’. However, in order to connect, a person needs to open oneself to being vulnerable and to truly being ‘seen’. This entails a process in which one must expose all areas of his/herself—even areas that one considers to be bad and keep hidden from others and oneself.

Shame and vulnerability can critically impact relationships: Attempts to hide vulnerability limits emotional closeness and it can result in conflict, as shame may prevent us from acknowledging mistakes or result in us denying aspects of ourselves of which we are self- conscious. Shaming our partner, whether it be through critical remarks or non-verbal behaviors, can create an atmosphere of defensiveness, blame, and negativity. It breeds hostility and resentment and can destroy a relationship.

Shame is a common emotion but is rarely discussed. It is associated with higher rates of depression, poor self-image, low self-confidence, and intimacy struggles. Shame can be used to intimidate and pressure others to change their behavior. However, its practice is never associated with long lasting, positive results. More frequently, shame leads to self- loathing and self-sabotaging behaviors that can be devastating to the individual and the couple.

It is possible for individuals to replace self-condemning feelings and attitudes with more balanced, loving self-talk. Couples can learn to communicate in a direct, but less critical, manner and achieve the desired change for which they have been striving. Below are suggested readings on the topic of shame and strategies to overcome its limiting effects.