Updated: Jul 9, 2022
BY JEN MAKIN, CMHC
Shame is a word that is overused and often misunderstood.
Shame is oftentimes a language in a home and used in place of love. Brene Brown is one of the pioneers in researching shame.
She describes the difference between guilt and shame as:
“Guilt is I DID a bad thing.
Shame is I AM bad.”
Shame is erosive to a relationship that can decay quietly right before your eyes.
Some people mistake boundaries or expecting accountability as inflicting shame. If used as a form of manipulation, it can turn a relationship on its head.
If someone identifies a boundary and attempts to set it within a relationship, the person receiving the boundary may say, “You’re shaming me!” This puts you on the defensive and you spend your energy on explanation and seeking understanding instead of holding your boundary.
This can be especially tricky in an adult to adult relationship. Let’s say an adult son was living in your home and part his payment for rent was in the form of a chore.
Manipulation would be:
Mother: Son, please take out the garbage. That is part of your rent payment.
Son: Stop shaming me.
Mother: Son, I don’t mean to shame you.
Son: Your tone bugs me. You always talk down to me.
Mother: I don’t mean to son, I’m sorry.
Son: Whatever mom.
Mother: Please don’t get like that. Can you please just take out the garbage?
Son: You care more about the stupid garbage than you do me.
Boundary setting without manipulation would be:
Mother: Son, please take out the garbage. That is your chore.
Son: Stop shaming me.
Mother: No son, I am not shaming you. I am holding you accountable for your chore which you agreed to do in exchange for living here. You are 20 and we are happy to have you, but there are expectations.
Son: Fine. (Takes out the garbage)
THE LANGUAGE OF SHAME:
The Language of Shame is a term I use in my practice to describe how someone may attempt to be “loving” to someone, but actually be using a shame based approach.
Love means having boundaries without using shame. And boundaries say I Love You. There cannot be any form of safety in a relationship without boundaries.
Communicating clearly regarding expectations and needs helps the relationship feel safe. Many people value being kind. For me, I value if a relationship is safe or unsafe.
Shame comes into play when we try to break down the other person in an attempt to be heard, get our way or attempt to make someone think the same as us. Instead of saying, “When you leave your towel on the ground, I feel frustrated. Next time can you please pick it up?” We say, “You are a slob! You never pick up after yourself. You suck at adulting.” This is abuse and puts people on the defensive.
One skill that I teach is to keep away from shamed based You Statements.
Never take out the trash
Always work late
Put your mom above me
Never get your work done
Are an idiot / moron / horrible wife
SHAME FREE COMMUNICATION SKILL
This skill is called WIN
W: WHEN you … facts only
I: I feel … state a feeling
N: NEXT time can you … identify expectation
An example of this would be:
Boyfriend: When you spend every Friday with your friends, I feel hurt. Can you please do better about balancing time with your friends and our relationship?
The key is for the other person to take accountability and set a plan
This skill is called TRIPLE A’s
A: ACKNOWLEDGEMENT … I acknowledge that I (facts only)
A: ACCOUNTABILITY … I am sorry
A: ACTION PLAN … make a plan for the future
In between Accountability and Action Plan you may seek clarity or clarify things with the intention of holding onto accountability but seeking clarity.
Girlfriend: I can see that. I am sorry I haven’t had a better balance. Please forgive me. Are you saying you don’t want me to spend time with friends?
Boyfriend: Absolutely not. I’m saying it feels a bit out of balance.
Girlfriend: OK, I will do better in the future to communicate and check.
Boyfriend: Thanks love. I’ll do better about speaking up too. I can do my part.
Another example of this would be in a non-intimate relationship:
Roommate A: Hey Sam, when you don’t clean up after yourself when you cook, I feel frustrated. Next time can you please tidy up when you’re done?
Roommate B: You’re right, I did leave a mess. I apologize. I’ll be better about cleaning my dishes in the future. Thanks for your patience with me!
Roommate A: I appreciate it Sam.
FOOD FOR THOUGHT:
All in all, communicating without shame takes time. Holding someone accountable is important, but that doesn’t give us permission to lose control of our words or emotions. Having skills help us know what to do.
It may be a red flag if the person you are trying out these skills on mocks you or struggles to take accountability. Continue to use your skills and circle back to the issue at hand. At times, the receiver may try to distract you with other details that are not pertinent. We can take accountability for the tone of our voice or the manner in which we speak, but it cannot detract from accountability. The conversation cannot completely shift where you end up taking all the accountability and they shirk responsibility.