In my relationships, I strive for honesty and openness. I want friends and loved ones to call me out if I do or say something that is hurtful, unfair, selfish, or inconsiderate. For a healthy, adult relationship, moving towards growth, there has to be room for us to tell one another how we feel and make a request for acknowledgement, apology, and change. What there is no room for, though, is SHAME.
A lot of communication in our culture is oriented around judgment and blame, rather than connection and compassion. When we get on our high horse and give someone a piece of our mind, we may get a temporary ego boost and adrenaline rush of righteousness. However, when we do this, our relationships suffer, chipping away at trust and emotional safety. And, really, are we in integrity and practicing self-respect when we express ourselves in this way? Check it out for yourself–only you can know if this behavior is in step with who you want to be.
Honest sharing with an open heart deepens intimacy and friendship. If, on the other hand, we make ourselves feel better by proving a point and haranguing someone, then we may jeopardize the relationship and push people who care about us away.
When people lash out, the anger is often covering up some fear or anxiety–of being alone, abandoned, smothered, maybe, even, of their own mortality. But instead of getting in touch with that feeling of fear and tapping into a deeper need, many blame the uncomfortable emotions on someone else. They miss out on an opportunity to be vulnerable, where someone can meet them in their tenderness with love and compassion. We can still feel compassion for that person who is feeling those difficult and scary emotions, but we need not condone or tolerate inappropriate shame and rage attacks.
Ways people use shame to stay in control and avoid vulnerability:
- They make you responsible for their feelings –You cannot make someone feel an emotion. While someone may feel hurt because of something we do, what they feel is their reaction and belongs to them. It is 100% valid for them to feel what they are feeling, but that doesn’t make it your fault. There is a difference between fault and responsibility–you can take responsibility for your actions and regret how they impacted someone, without being to blame for how they feel.
- They make it about you being wrong instead of focusing on how they feel. Rumi offered: “Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, there is a field.” This field is where healthy communication happens. Even something that seems “wrong” is motivated by sincere human needs–when we work to understand what needs drove someone to make certain choices, we can feel closer to each other. When we understand what feelings, desires, hopes, anxieties, fears were behind the action and reaction, this makes for authentic connection. This changes the conversation from “You shouldn’t have done that,” to “Tell me, why did you do that?”
- They do not accept your heartfelt apology –Say you own up to what you did and accept responsibility. You might say, “I can see how that hurt you and I really wish I had not said/done that.” If the person moves right past your apology and continues on the offensive, they are not sincere in wanting to heal the relationship. When we refuse to drop into the vulnerable place where we must meet to reach an understanding, we are less interested in building intimacy, and more interested in bolstering ourselves and asserting control.
- They call into question your character and worth –Again, rather than focusing on how they are feeling and what needs want to be met, they suggest that what you said or did “means something” about who you are, as a person. They hint that your actions show that you have a fundamental flaw. You are not flawed. At one time or another, we all say and do things–intentionally or not–that elicit difficult emotions in others. This does not make you bad, a failure, worthless, a fuck-up, stupid, or call into doubt your kindness, overall.
- They make personal attacks, roll their eyes, call you names, use sarcasm, express disgust or contempt –Who wants to spend time with someone who goes here? Beyond high school, we should be grown up enough to communicate without resorting to tactics to exert control or get our way.
If someone shames you, have compassion for what they are feeling under their criticism and anger, but first have compassion for yourself. Set boundaries! Lovingly disengage and remove yourself from the situation until the person is willing to communicate with openness and respect.
And anytime you want to communicate a grievance to someone, remember to approach with more curiosity and less judgment.