Sanctuary and Serenity

Shame and Intimacy

Posted on: March 26, 2010

Shame and Intimacy

Shame takes its toll on intimacy.  Abuse survivors feel an inner sense of shame, no matter what they say or do.  Not the shame when we do something wrong ….that’s having a conscience.  It is the deep-rooted shame about feeling unworthy, inadequate, unlovable or not good enough – even when we have done nothing wrong.  This shame interferes with having good intimate relationships with others.

The core of feeling ashamed as a human being comes down to a sense of inadequacy.  Feeling inadequate, in turn, makes us afraid nobody will want us and we will be rejected, abandoned or found to be not good enough.  We see ourselves as mistakes, flawed and defective and there’s nothing we can do about it.

These feelings of inadequacy or unlovableness begin when we’re growing up.  Our families – especially our parents – gave us messages that we didn’t measure up and that we weren’t likeable, lovable, desirable or good enough as persons.

These rules are the operative principles that govern shame-based families:


One must be in control of all interactions, feelings and personal behaviours at all times.  Control is the major defense against shame-based feelings.


Always be right in everything you do.  Avoidance of negative judgment or criticism – or any suggestion that you’re less than perfect – is the organizing principle of life.


Whenever things don’t turn out as planned, blame others and self-righteously defend yourself at all costs, although occasionally you can blame and denigrate yourself as well.

Denial of the five freedoms

The five freedoms, first enunciated by Virginia Satir, describe a fully functional person:  the power to perceive, to think and interpret;  to feel; to want and chose; and to imagine.  In shame-based families, the rule says you shouldn’t perceive, think, feel, desire or imagine the way you do.  You should do these the way the perfectionist ideal demands.

The no-talk rule

This rule prohibits the full expression of any feeling, need or want.  So no one speaks of his/her loneliness, sense of self-rupture or feelings of not measuring up.

Don’t make mistakes

Errors reveal the flawed, vulnerable self.  To acknowledge a mistake is to open one’s self up to judgment, criticism and the implication that you’re not good enough.  So cover up your own mistakes and if someone else makes a mistake, shame him.

Low trust

Don’t trust anyone.  That way, you’ll never be disappointed.  If I can’t trust my parents to show me how valued I am, I cannot trust anyone.

So how are we going to trust others – or let others get really close to us?  I fear if I let you get close, you will find out I am not good enough and reject me.

Perhaps the greatest wound a shame-based person carries is the inability to be intimate in a relationship.  People who grow up in shame-based families are very sensitive to criticism.  The slightest criticism sets off feelings of inner shame.  They feel worthless, not good enough, broken, unlovable.  The shame is then covered up by blaming, criticizing, getting angry, being defensive or keeping themselves emotionally removed from their lovers or spouses.  They end up attacking the very people they love and care about.

The Shame – Rage Connection

The core feeling of having been mentally, physically, emotionally and spiritual abused is shame. Our shame is deeply rooted because it stems from the core beliefs that we are not worthy, that there is something that is flawed in us and that we are just not good enough and don’t deserve good coming our way. This deep rooted shame affects our every day living which is especially evident in our relationships with others.

The rejection of self is central to feeling toxic shame.  A shame – based person tries desperately to present a mask to the world that says “I’m more than human” or “I’m less than human”.  To be more than human is to never make a mistake.  To be less than human is to believe that you are a mistake, says John Bradshaw in ‘Healing the Shame that Binds You. (Health communications, Inc.) (highly recommended as an excellent book for inner child work)

Steps to take to heal inner shame:

* Keep a journal or diary of your defensive over-reactions.  Each evening before retiring, think back over the events of the day.  When were you upset?  Where did you over-react?  What was the context?  Who was there?  What was said to you?  What made you feel inadequate or rejected?  How does what was said to you compare to what you say to yourself?  What does it say to you about your adequacy and lovableness?

*  Other than anger, what emotions are you feeling?

*  What do people say or do to you that triggers your shame?  With whom does this happen and in which circumstances?  How often?

*  Ask yourself “What am I ashamed about right now?” every time you get angry. It’s the best way to break the shame-rage link.

*  Treat others with respect – particularly those you love and care about.  Consistently tell them they are good, good enough and lovable – that you value them and find them worthwhile and important.  Then pass up chances to insult, attack, criticize or shame them.  Give praise out loud for the good you see in others.  This is the opposite of shaming behaviour.

*  Become a student of self-love and self-acceptance.  What is it that triggers your feelings of unworthiness or inadequacy?  What makes you feel better about yourself that isn’t hurtful or disrespectful toward you or others?  How can you accept your imperfections or mistakes or requests from others about what they would like you to do differently – without taking such feedback as an indictment of your character, value or worth?  How can you better value, love, appreciate and approve of yourself as a human being?

If you work on these ideas and find yourself feeling overwhelmed, stop immediately.  This means you need to do them with someone who is trained to assist you.

The good news is that you can achieve greater calmness, peace of mind, happiness, self-acceptance – and healthier, more intimate relationships with others.  All you need to do is face your feelings of inadequacy, undesirability, unlovableness and inner shame.


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