Shame Series III: Empathic Connection

Building off of the last blog on the different types of shame shields, I want to share a bit about why these shields don’t serve us in the long run. Shame is painful; it is isolating; and it is universal. Shame is not something that is often talked about in even the closest of relationships; when I work with my clients on shame, it is after we have established a solid rapport and it is rarely brought to the table by clients- “Hey, I have an idea- let’s talk about my deep, dark shame!”. Yeah, that’s typically not happening. Because shame is rooted in this core experience that “I am flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging”, we are often driven to avoid connection in response to shame.

“I am bad” → “I do not want others to find out that I am bad” or “I will be rejected if I show that I am bad” → shields. Unfortunately, this cycle builds on itself. This cycle assumes that the experience of “I am bad and unworthy” is true! Shame begets shame. So what reduces shame? Empathic connection.

Unlike the shame shields, empathic connection goes head to head with shame and serves as an antidote. When you share your experience of shame with a trusted person (very, very important- not everyone is a safe person with whom you can share) and are met with empathy, that deep down belief that you are not lovable or worthy because of your flaws is shattered. The belief that you are unlovable and unworthy cannot persist in that moment when you, flaws and all, are being met with love and belonging from another person. Empathic connection teaches us that we are lovable, we are worthy, and we do belong.

Now, one instance of empathic connection does not forever drive the experience of shame from your life. But, the more you reach for empathic connections over shame shields, the more that experience of shame is eroded. You may begin to recognize the earliest signs of shame, and begin to reach for connection before those trusty shields. Those experiences of being unworthy of love and belonging will very likely show up again, but you have had practice in turning to another in these painful moments and being embraced, literally or figuratively; and that embrace reminds you that your flaws mean you are flawed, but do not mean you are unworthy.

Perhaps you have had this experience before; sharing your shame with a trusted confidant and feeling that person’s love and acceptance envelope you in a way that shouts “You belong! You are not perfect, and you belong and are loved just as you are!”. Perhaps you have not had this experience- maybe you have never been able to let down your shield; maybe your attempts at letting down your shield were met only by others putting up their own. But can you imagine? Can you imagine this felt experience of belonging and being loved when your shame is telling you that those very experiences are unattainable for you?

This. This is how we combat shame. The shields protect us from the sting of the shame in the moment, but ultimately reinforce the voice of shame. Empathic connection turns the voice of shame on its head, and declares “I am worthy. I am lovable, and I do belong.”