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Shame on You!

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This is the second in a series of blogs on the hot skills needed to create emotional intimacy -- the way to make relationships more secure.

Sad woman sitting on the couch

Dr. Wendy Walsh: Shame. It's got to be one of the most unpleasant feelings in the human psyche. We do everything to avoid it. Most of our cherished psychological defenses -- repression, denial, rationalization, and even humor -- are designed to defend ourselves from feelings of shame. Simply put, shame is that uncomfortable mixture of guilt and embarrassment, basted with a little self-loathing. It can make even the most omnipotent of us squeamish. But learning to be tolerant of your own shame is crucial to building emotional intimacy with another person.

Here's why: We are not truly lovable unless we are real. Authentic people are attractive because, believe it or not, only the most healthy, the most confident, can express shame, and still love themselves. And that's hot. My favorite definition of emotional intimacy is being able to tolerate seeing the flaws in your loved ones, and just as importantly, still loving yourself knowing that your intimates can see your flaws.

Emotional intimacy is the way that couples build trust and loyalty. It's the "I'll have your back if you have mine" philosophy. But it doesn't happen spontaneously. It happens over time with small personal disclosures and toe-dips into the sea of authentic soul-baring. On the road to making all your relationships more secure, here are a few tips for learning to tolerate shame:

1. Remember that some of the things you feel shame about are not real. Talking about them can help you relieve yourself of guilt. Everyone has a few beliefs that are distortions based on early life experiences. For example, here's one of my secret pieces of shame: I think I am selfish. Despite the fact that I am single-handedly devoting my life to raising two other humans, have done a lifetime of charity work, and shove bills into the hands of most homeless people I see, I can't shake it completely. This belief was created in a crazy way. When I was a small child and exhibited "primary narcissism," a survival strategy inherited by all children that manifests itself in words like, "Me first!" "Hey, where's mine?" and "Hers is bigger, no fair!," my mother would parent with the angry admonishment of "Stop being a selfish little girl." How could I grow up with any other belief? But my point is, now that I have talked this out with lovers, close friends, and even my kids, I am somewhat released from my distortions.

2. Being shame tolerant is different from being "shameless."
The key to disclosing personal information is choosing the right target. Test people with small disclosures about vulnerabilities and then see how they protect you. Learning to tolerate shame is different from not having personal boundaries. Not every relationship you have in the world will be an intimate one filled with trust. Choose your targets carefully.

3. Sometimes you have to model healthy shame in order for your partner (or children) to feel safe doing it themselves. If you've done something wrong or hurt someone, talk about it. Let others who are close to you see your mental process. Let them see how you make restitution to the wronged person, and let them see how you eventually forgive yourself. This is one of the best lessons kids can learn.

4. Finally, if another person practices authenticity with you, never shame them! So, if a child says, "Mommy, I feel bad because I cheated on a test," don't respond with "You should feel bad! That was wrong." I guarantee that a parent who responds to a shameful child with an added layer of shame will get the door on emotional communication slammed shut. Instead, you might say something like, "That's a hard feeling to have. I'm glad you shared it with me. Let's find a way to fix this problem. I think we should go meet your teacher together."

Shame tolerance is one of the most crucial skills needed to create true emotional intimacy and long-lasting love. Try it in small doses. Model it for your kids. And know that feeling some shame is a sign of a healthy psyche. Tomorrow: Learning to accept your partner's flaws.

next: Is Tiger Woods a Sex Addict?
3 comments so far | Post a comment now
rugbymom December 16, 2009, 11:15 AM

Great article. I am impressed!Where have you been?!

Ten Tees January 8, 2011, 5:02 PM

Great information! Nice and fun reading. I have a small thing to submit about funny t-shirts.

Immobilier Bretagne March 7, 2011, 11:37 AM

Your place is valueble for me. Thanks!…

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