Dealing with Shame


From not good enough to connection: A path to intimacy in your marriage

Have you ever felt not good enough? I think all of us ladies have, and today I’m going to talk about it. And what I’m actually going to be talking about is shame.

Because most women, their experience of shame is not being good enough.

Not being good enough wives. Not being good enough mothers. Not being good enough house cleaners. Not being good enough drivers. Not being good enough at exercising. Not being good enough at their work. Not being good enough communicators. Not being good enough in their style. Their hair not being good enough. I mean, I could go on and on. Interestingly, men’s experience of shame is more of failing and not doing a good job at something.

I’m going to talk to you about my own experience of shame. What I’ve learned and how it has changed my life. And then what to do in your marriage if you experience shame, because it will definitely affect your relationships. When shame is not dealt with, it will generally lead to disconnection.

Why does shame even exist?

Now, depending on where your beliefs are at, I believe shame exists because that’s just the way our world functions. We have light and we have dark, we have hot and we have cold, we have winter and we have summer, we have night and we have daytime.

When you look at nature and you look at the human experience, that’s just what we have. We have those opposites, and those opposites help inform one another. If we don’t have dark, we don’t understand light. If we don’t have cold, we don’t understand warm. If we don’t have night, we don’t understand day. And if we don’t have shame, we don’t understand those positive feelings of joy, connection, and intimacy.

Shame can increase connection…wait, what?!?

I am going to share how you can use the experience of shame to actually increase connection in your marriage. I will talk about marriages, but this could literally be about any relationships at all. I have used this strategy to help me build better relationships with my family, my parents, my in-laws, my friends, and my community members.

The difference between guilt and shame

I think it’s important, right now, to define what guilt and shame are and the differences between them. Because one might say, “Well, Janna, shame is actually a good thing, because it sets us on the right path and it protects us from going down some really dark places that wouldn’t be very healthy or helpful for us.”

I’m going to define the word I’m using, and I’m using the definition from Brene Brown, who is a well-known shame and vulnerability researcher. She is the author of many books including “Daring Greatly”, which I highly recommend if you’re curious. That book changed my life. She’s also written “The Gifts of Imperfection”, “Rising Strong”, and “Dare to Lead.”

Guilt is actually really helpful.

Guilt is, “I have done something wrong. I have taken action that I now can do something about. I can fix the situation. I can apologize. I can ask for forgiveness. I can do better next time.” Guilt is about action.

Shame on the other hand is, “I am wrong.” It’s not about action. It’s about just me as a person. “I am just wrong.” And you see how that can be really unhelpful, because where can you go from there? Are you going to just become a different person? No, but I think it’s really important for us to understand that the experience of shame is a lie that our brain is making up.

We believe that about ourselves and then we experience the sensations of it

It’s simply a thought that we’ve thought a lot about, and it’s become a belief. And therefore we experience the physical sensations of shame. That’s typically what you’ll experience right away. A tightening in the throat, a sick feeling in your stomach. Everyone experiences it in different places, but that’s definitely two places I experience it.

It can feel very alone and isolating, and just terrifying, if I’m honest. It’s one of the worst experiences and feelings that I have come across. If you’re human, you have experienced shame. Again, going back to the light and the dark. You’ve experienced happiness and joy.

You’ve also experienced these negative emotions.

I have felt shame about many things in my life, probably like you, but the biggest ones have been around money. I got married very young and I, unfortunately, didn’t have much education when it came to finances. I was like, “Woohoo, student loans. Let’s do this. Oh, you want to give me more credit? Yeah, let’s go on a trip.” And it led us down some really challenging paths.

I’ve had to work on the shame of just being bad with money versus, I took an action. I spent over my means. And now I can do something about it. I can educate myself. I can hire people to help me and create a budget. I can teach my kids about money so the cycle doesn’t continue. Unless I’m out of shame, I literally can’t take any action. Because there’s no action to take if I am just bad with money. So it’s a process of recognition and also a process of reaching out, which I’ll get to in a minute here.

My experience of sex was very shameful.

I felt like sex was dirty. Like I am wrong to just be a sexual person. And I also felt really shameful about the fact that I didn’t know how to have an orgasm for the beginning of my relationship with my husband. I didn’t know how to make it feel good. It didn’t feel good and I didn’t know how to talk about it. I didn’t know where to go. And so I felt really shameful. Not just about sex in general, but just me as a broken, non-functioning sexual woman. I had thought that and created a belief about myself.

I’ve also experienced shame around food. I can have bouts of binge eating, which feels very shameful. It feels like there’s something wrong with me if I have disordered eating. When, in fact, it’s just something that I’m learning about. It’s something that I have been affected by from our culture. I, again, haven’t received any education about it. I haven’t gotten my brain on board with some healthy patterns of thought when it comes to food.

Here are two really great ways to get out of shame

Number one, recognize that you’re in shame. This is the most vital, beautiful, essential part of the whole process. This will help you as a first step towards not having shame be a source of disconnection, but rather a source of connection in your relationship. I mentioned some physical sensations that you can have when you experience shame. So you experience it in your body, and then bring your brain on board.

I mentioned that shame is an illusion. It’s a lie that your brain is just making up. It’s a complete story about who you are. That you’re not enough. That you’re broken or there’s something wrong with you. That you are wrong just being you and you need to get your brain on board with the fact that this is not reality.

Say it out loud

And the quickest way that I’ve found to do that is to speak it out loud as soon as I recognize that I’m in shame. Sometimes I’ll say, “I’m experiencing shame.” I’ll say it out loud or I’ll say it to somebody. “I’m experiencing shame. I’m in shame. This is shame. This is shame I’m experiencing. This is a lie. This is shame.”

Another way is to just say a word over and over again. One of those words could be Hurt. “Hurt, hurt, hurt, hurt, hurt, hurt,” or “Pain, pain, pain, pain, pain,” or, “Shame, shame, shame, shame, shame.” Just to get your mind on board with what’s really happening so it’s not going down that rabbit hole of that illusion. That mirage. That story that’s completely untrue.

Step one was to recognize. Step two is to reach out.

This is so powerful. When you reach out to somebody that you trust, and by that I mean somebody who’s going to say, “Me too.”, that’s literally all you need. You just need someone who isn’t going to try to fix you. Who isn’t going to go, “Aww,” or pity you. Somebody who is going to have enough courage and vulnerability themselves to say, “Yeah, me too.”

And even if they haven’t experienced the exact scenario that you’re going through, they can say, “Me too,” authentically. Because everyone experiences shame. So they can have that empathy with you of, “Yeah, I hit send on that email that wasn’t supposed to go out to 200 people.” Or, “I sent that text that wasn’t supposed to XYZ.” Or, “I overspent this month by $1,000 on our budget.” They don’t have to share the details of it if they don’t want to, but at least find somebody in your life who will just say, “Me too.”

And the exciting thing about this is you can just tell them what you need. You should be able to reach out to this safe person in your life and just say to them, “I’m feeling a lot of shame about something. Literally, all I need you to say is, ‘Me too. I hear you. This is tough.’ That’s it.” I am going to be encouraging you to have your husband be this safe person. We’ll work towards that if it’s not the case right now.

There is relief in sharing

This, I think, is probably one of the most powerful aspects of the Wanting it More program, the program I run for women who want to enjoy and want sex more in their marriages. Because we’re all feeling shameful. We’re feeling shameful about our bodies. We’re feeling shameful about not wanting sex very much. We’re feeling shameful about our bodies being broken.

And it is amazing when we get into our group calls every week and there’s a whole 20 women all there together, just sharing their little pieces. And you can see the recognition and the relief that people are experiencing hearing other women put a voice to things that they thought they were only experiencing. They had no clue that anybody else had those thoughts or feelings, and it is amazing to watch the shame just dissipate.

My recent shame experience

Now I want to tell you a story. I live on the west coast of Canada. It’s not snowy very often, but we had a bout of a cold snap about two weeks ago. I have a very steep driveway into my garage and we also have some groundwater issues, so the bottom half of the driveway was completely frozen. I came home from Jazzercise and it was dark out. I looked at the driveway, and I thought, “There’s no way I’m going to be able to go up that driveway. I’m going to skid out of control and it’s going to be very unsafe.”

And there were an unusual amount of people parked on the road. I think everyone was feeling the same thing. “I need to get out in the morning, so I’d better stick on the road so I’m not locked into my driveway when the snow is piling up.”

So I thought, “Okay, can’t go up to my driveway,” but I was facing the wrong way to park on my side of the street. So I said, “Okay, I’ll just do a three-point turn.” So I get into my driveway a little bit and I back up to the three-point turn- and crunch. I backed into my neighbor’s parked car.

Immediately, shame.

Restriction in the throat. Sick feeling in my stomach. Thoughts about, “You idiot. You’re an idiot. What were you thinking? What are you doing? You can’t drive. You’re terrible. You’re not competent. Shame, shame, shame.”

So I park and think, “If I don’t go talk to my neighbor right now, I’m not going to do it.”, because I’m actually pretty shy. So I went up there and my heart’s racing, “Shame, shame, shame.” I talked to the owner. They were very sweet, very kind, and I was able to have a little vulnerability in that moment and say, “I feel terrible.” I did not get defensive or angry, or say, “Well, your car is very dark, and it’s lower than my vehicle, and it shouldn’t be on the sidewalk or the road.” No, I was able to say, “Oh, I feel really, really bad about this. I feel like an idiot.”

And it was great because I, at that moment, got to actually increase my connection with my neighbor who I was meeting for the first time. So I’m really grateful for that. I walked into the house and my mom, my husband, and my two girls were there, and I thought, “Well, shame loves secrecy, so I’m going to speak it out loud.”

I walked in the door and I said, “Guess what I just did? I backed into our neighbor’s car.”

And I had just bought my car. It’s brand new to me. It’s not a brand new vehicle, but way fancier than I’ve ever had before. And ironically, it actually does have a backup sensor and a camera, but I guess in the ice, it had iced over, so it wasn’t working. I saw this look go across my husband’s face that I interpreted to say, “I can’t believe you did such an idiotic thing.”

Now, when we’re in shame, when we’re telling things to ourselves, we’re way more susceptible to interpret that from other people. So I had to do a lot of work that night. I was in the kitchen and I just said to myself, “You’re experiencing shame, Janna. This is shame. This is a lie. Don’t believe this illusion. This is a story you’re making up.”

I thought, “Who can I call?”

I’ve been developing a relationship with my sister-in-law, and she felt like a really safe person to call. So I texted her actually, and I said, “I feel so much shame. I just backed into my neighbor’s car and I feel like a complete idiot.” And she was beautiful. She wrote back and just said, “Yeah, me too. I did that too.” And the amount of relief I felt, oh. When you reach out to somebody that you trust, it’s incredible.

I hope that little story helps you see, in practical terms, how we can move out of shame and use it for connection. Now, for my marriage, that night I told my husband about the shame I was experiencing because he didn’t know. He doesn’t experience shame around driving. He has many, many dings in his car from backing his boat up, and actually, on both sides of his truck, he’s got big dents and things on his driver’s side. I mean, he doesn’t have shame about that, but I do, so he wouldn’t know.

So that night when we were in bed, I explained to him the terrible feelings of shame that I was experiencing. The physical sensations, the thoughts, all of the work I was having to do to get out of that terrible feeling. I explained that to him and we talked about the look he had. And yeah, there was a little bit of that coming from him, but only because he feels like a really good driver. And so when we feel that we’re good at something, we kind of want everyone else to be good at it. That’s another human thing that we experienced.

That shame brought my husband and me closer

So we talked about it. I was vulnerable with him and at the end of the night, I felt closer to him than anything. It’s the most beautiful thing. To be able to be vulnerable with another person. To lay out our insecurities. To take them out and show it to them, and then that gives them an opportunity to respond, especially when we tell them exactly what we need to hear. “All I need you to say is, ‘Me too. I get it. I’ve experienced shame before.'” And when I was able to do that with my husband, then he’s like, “I can offer that. I can do that.” Then it’s not a game anymore. It’s just so clear and out in the open.

Men typically experience shame differently

So sometimes I have women tell me, “Well, I know that my husband probably experiences some shame,” and actually men’s most common response to shame is rage. And that helps me be a lot more compassionate when I hear about stories of men who are really violent or really struggle to express their emotions.

And that is not to say that it excuses behavior that is demeaning or violent or degrading at all, but I think it helps me at least stay in compassion mode for the men who are experiencing a tremendous amount of shame but just aren’t given the tools or the permission in society to express themselves.

So you might think, “Well, my husband, is really angry, or ragey, or kind of seems to snap, and that’s probably related to shame.” It’s true, but unfortunately, or maybe, fortunately, I don’t know, you cannot take somebody out of their shame. It doesn’t work to say, “I think you’re experiencing shame right now, and what you really need to do is recognize it and reach out and be vulnerable with me and tell me what you need.”

The only thing you can really do is model it.

Model vulnerability. Model asking for what you need. Model recognizing shame. That’s what I’ve done in my relationship, and it’s been beautiful to see my husband have moments where he feels safe enough for him to express that to me and for me to do what he needs. Not to try to fix him or solve his issues. Not to get all wrapped up in his emotions or feel scared of them. No, just to say, “Yeah, me too. I’ve experienced that as well and it really, really sucks.”

I encourage you to do this. Practicing this in my marriage and doing this with all other relationships has been transformative for me. It has been powerful. It has been connecting. It has been intimate. It has healed many relationships in my life and I encourage you to be able to use or try to be curious about how you use shame in order to actually increase intimacy and connections with those you love, especially with your husband.

I know that vulnerability and intimacy are scary. But I really encourage you to take the risk, because that is what is going to lead you to what you desire most, which is the connection with other people. Not feeling alone anymore and knowing that you are enough just as you are. Let me know how it goes.

I’ll talk to you later.