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The Impact of Shame and Validation in Relationships: Recognizing the Give and Take of Being Vulnerable
Posted 2014-09-13 by Francine Baffa in Couples Therapy

I recently finished reading Brene Brown's book, I Thought It Was Just Me (but it isn't): Making the Journey from "What Will People Think?" to "I Am Enough".  Reading this book not only gave me insight for how I deal with shame in my own life, but it got me thinking about how shame impacts relationships with others, specifically, how shame relates to the struggles of my clients and their partners.

How often do we hide our true selves from our partners because of shame, and what effect does this have on our relationship?  Our emotions, our thoughts, our imperfections, and sometimes even our dreams and desires can be kept silent for fear of ridicule or being shamed by others.  We hide these aspects of ourselves in an effort to protect others from what we find repulsive about our own personalities and in doing so prevents us from having to feel the hurt and shame that comes from being so raw and real with another person.  We believe that the end result will be better for our relationships.  We think to ourselves, "He's better off not knowing this about me" and "If I ever told her how I really feel…" when in actuality, not sharing can be more damaging in the long run.

Here are some of the ways that I see shame interfering in my clients' relationships:

Not sharing an emotion (fear, anger, hurt, sadness) because we believe that we SHOULDN'T feel this way. This is damaging not only to ourselves because we are discounting our mind's ability to interpret events, but it assumes that our partner should just KNOW what we are feeling even if we haven't told them outright. Brown talks about how often she sees this in men.  Men get the message that being anything but tough is shameful, and as a result don't share their true feelings about being hurt, sad, overwhelmed, or fearful.

Not sharing our assumptions about our partner's intentions.  We believe we understand their purpose, but sometimes are ashamed (or afraid) to find out if this is really what they mean by what they have said or done.  Doing this can create resentment towards your partner and is a completely unfair, since you cannot read their mind!

Not sharing about our past.  We all have skeletons in the closet, and we may think that by leaving them there we are guaranteeing a happy future.  This can be damaging to a relationship because knowing your background is important for your partner to understand you.  Important life events struggles and such as traumas, mental illness, family history and previous marriages/relationships may be kept under wraps due to shame, but not only can confiding in your partner about these events be helpful, but it can feel extremely liberating as well.

We have to be willing to trust that our partner loves us and is invested in us as a person, but shame often keeps us from doing this.  It can be hard to breach certain subjects when we believe that our honesty will be met with scorn or ridicule, or that it may just not be taken seriously, sometimes because it is simply so painful to hear about someone else's shaming experience. Therefore, in addition to being willing to break past our own walls of shame and find the courage to talk about it, our honesty needs to be met with a healthy dose of validation from our partner.

Validation is a strong form of solidarity, of helping another person to feel as though their experiences are normal, that it is ok for them to experience certain emotions.  Validation does not mean that you have to agree with someone's perception of an event, only that you hear them, and are willing to acknowledge that they, as a human, have had an experience that generated strong emotions.

Marsha Linehan, the creator of Dialectical Behavior Therapy, has outlined 6 different levels of validation. While you can find plenty of articles outlining these different levels and how to use them, the combination of Linehan and Brown's research lends itself to 3 core skills that I believe can be most helpful to partners looking to validate feelings of shame.

Be present.  Think about how many times you have asked someone, "Are you even listening to me?"  This is a skill that so many of us have a difficult time with in the age of smartphones. Turn your phone off if you have to, and give your partner your full attention.  Position your body so that it displays interest, face your partner, and make eye contact.  Nod your head and use small words or phrases such as "ok" and "I see" to show that you're listening.  Simply just being willing to hear someone out can go a long way towards helping them overcome shame.

Normalize.  Recognize that it is perfectly normal for a person to have a range of reactions to any given situation, and that your partner just happened to experience this particular situation as shameful.  Show them this by telling them, "I can see how you may have felt that way".  Sometimes sharing a similar story about your own shameful experience here can be helpful, use your discretion and don't allow yourself to take the spotlight away from your partner. Acknowledge that your partner's emotions are just as real as anyone else's!

Display empathy.  Both Linehan and Brown talk about the importance of empathy in interactions with others.  Empathy means being able to understand the feelings of another person.  While you cannot completely understand how another person feels,  you can try your best to put yourself in that person's shoes, bringing in your knowledge of their personality, their fears, and their life experiences, and have compassion for them.  Be willing to comfort them, and offer your sincere, non-judgmental assistance in helping them overcome their shame, hurt, fear, and anger.  Recognize how difficult it can be to be this vulnerable, and if anything, empathize with how difficult it may have been for them to share with you in the first place.

A couple who is willing to acknowledge the existence of shame and how it plays a part in their relationship problems is going to be better at facing it head on.  Validating your partner's shameful experiences will create a safe place for them to share anything with you.  Doing this will not only bring you closer together, but can help open new channels of communication and allow you to better navigate through the hard times when they arise. Recognize that shame and validation go hand in hand in that one person has to be brave enough to tell their story, and the other has to be brave enough to listen.