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How Shame Affects Relationships

how shame shows up

Research indicates that shame contributes to challenges in adaptation across various age groups and it's been identified as a key predictor of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). By the end of this blog, you'll have a sense of what shame is and how it can influence relationships.

Shame is a feeling

Shame is often dubbed the "neglected emotion," frequently discussed in relation to other emotions like guilt rather than as a distinct feeling in its own right. Despite its understated status, shame remains a prevalent and pervasive emotion linked with trauma. When we feel shame there is a fear of being exposed by others as inherently flawed and facing rejection or exclusion from our community. Often, the failure stems from interpersonal conflicts.

Guilt Vs. Shame

Shame sounds like, "I messed up, so there must be something wrong with who I am." Guilt, on the other hand, is a bit different. It can sound more like, "I did something that I believe is wrong, but that doesn't define me as a person." Guilt focuses more on the specific action itself rather than condemning our entire being. When someone feels guilty, it's usually about a particular thing they did or didn't do that goes against their values. The person is able to recognize that this action doesn't make them an overall bad person.

When shame is triggered

Shame is triggered when we perceive a failure and internalize it as part of who we are. We can't detach ourselves from that failure; instead, it becomes intertwined with who we are. We start thinking, "Why couldn't I manage this? There must be something inherently wrong with me."

Shame has a close connection with fear. Fear is ingrained within us, a primal emotion that has evolved over millennia. Its purpose? Alerting us to potential threats to our very existence, nudging us toward behaviors that ensure survival.

Shame carries that same sense of threat to our survival. But here's the twist: it's about how we're seen by others, within our communities, and in social settings. It is triggered when we believe we failed and we fear the failure will be witnessed or discovered by others. We need others to survive. We draw on community and belonging for many things. With shame we fear others will learn that we are inherently bad. This threatens our survival, hitting us right in the core of our social being.

How shame affects relationships

In this section, I'll discuss four distinct shame themes and explore how they can affect an individual's behavior and relationships.

1. Self as Inferior

This theme of shame often emerges when individuals harbor the belief that they could have done better or should have been able to protect themselves, but failed to do so. Consequently, this fosters a sense of inferiority, a feeling of being "less than" others.

For someone grappling with feelings of inadequacy, establishing boundaries and asserting themselves in relationships can be daunting. There's a fear of rejection or abandonment if they express their needs or preferences, often leading to a pattern of excessive compliance and submissiveness, sometimes at the expense of their own well-being.The belief in their own inadequacy may deter them from pursuing opportunities for growth, fearing inevitable failure or exposure as inadequate, thereby missing out on personal and professional development.

Those carrying this burden of shame may limit themselves to activities they know they can excel at, avoiding the risk of judgment or criticism from others. This perpetual fear of being perceived as inferior drives them toward perfectionism, discouraging them from taking risks or exploring new avenues. They may find themselves stuck in a cycle of overthinking past events, constantly questioning their decisions and actions, which only serves to deepen their sense of inadequacy. Feeling inherently inferior, they might engage in behaviors that sabotage their own success and well-being, such as procrastination, self-isolation, or resorting to harmful coping mechanisms like substance abuse. These destructive patterns further deepen their feelings of being less than.

2. Self as Bad

This theme of shame is often found in individual's who have been abused. The believe is that the abuse is a reflection of their own intrinsic badness. One reason for this is explicit statements of inherent badness and worthlessness are frequently made by those who are inflicting the abuse.

The individual may constantly blame themselves for anything that goes wrong, regardless of whether they were actually responsible. This pervasive sense of shame and self-blame can overshadow any sense of accomplishment or pride in their achievements. Despite their accomplishments, they may struggle to recognize or acknowledge their successes. Instead, they may focus solely on their perceived shortcomings and failures, unable to see the positive aspects of themselves.

The constant self-blame and negative self-perception can contribute to feelings of depression and internalized dislike for oneself. They may struggle with low self-esteem and struggle to accept love and support from others, believing they are unworthy of kindness or affection. This can lead to a pattern of pushing people away or sabotaging relationships, as they fear they will inevitably be rejected or abandoned.

3. Self as Annihilated

Beyond the feeling of being "less than others" is that of being "non existent". These are experiences where individuals feel that their very lives are of no value or regard. A sense of self develops in the context of a caretaker who responds to a child's needs; soothes the child's distress; laughs when the child is funny; and engages in play, teaching, and learning. The caretake reflects back or mirrors the presence of the child, provides recognition of the child as a person, and acknowledges the child's agency.

If someone believed that they were "non-existent" or inherently lacking value, it would likely deeply impact how they navigate the world and interact with others. Here's how they might act and perceive themselves and the world around them:

In relationships, they might struggle with trust and intimacy, fearing rejection or abandonment. They may also have difficulty expressing their needs and emotions, fearing they won't be heard or valued. Feeling non-existent might lead them to withdraw from social interactions or avoid situations where they feel they'll be overlooked or invalidated. This could hinder their personal and professional growth as they may shy away from challenges or opportunities.

Constantly feeling like they don't matter could contribute to feelings of depression, loneliness, and isolation. They may feel disconnected from others and the world around them, leading to a sense of emptiness and despair. Feeling the need to justify their existence, they may find themselves constantly over-explaining their actions or apologizing unnecessarily. Without a strong sense of self-worth, they may struggle to set and maintain healthy boundaries in relationships and other areas of life. This could leave them vulnerable to exploitation or mistreatment by others.

4. Self as Identified with the Perpetrator

Rather than having no sense of self, abused people will sometimes actively or purposefully participate in abusive behaviors. Having any sense of self is better than having no sense of self at all. Identifying with the perpetrator provides coherence.

If someone internalizes the belief that having any sense of self, even if it means identifying with the perpetrator, is better than having no self at all, it can influence their behavior in the world and their relationships. Here's how they might act:

They may actively or passively participate in abusive behaviors, either as a way to gain a sense of power and control in their relationships or as a means of survival. This could include perpetuating cycles of abuse they experienced themselves or becoming complicit in abusive dynamics within their relationships.

They may prioritize abusive people, even if that means accepting abuse or mistreatment, over being alone or without support. This can lead to a pattern of seeking out relationships where they may be exploited or manipulated, as they believe any form of connection is preferable to isolation. Due to their identification with the perpetrator and the normalization of abusive behaviors, they may have difficulty recognizing when they are being abused or mistreated in their relationships. They may rationalize or justify the abuse, believing it is deserved or necessary for maintaining the relationship.

Their relationships may be characterized by complex power dynamics, where they oscillate between the roles of victim and perpetrator. They may struggle to assert boundaries or advocate for themselves, while also exhibiting controlling or manipulative behaviors towards others.


This exploration of shame underscores its impact on individuals across various aspects of life, particularly in relationships. As a pervasive emotion often intertwined with trauma, shame manifests in diverse forms, from feeling inherently inferior to identifying with perpetrators of abuse.


- Tangney, J. P., & Dearing, R. L. (2002). Shame and Guilt. Guilford Press.

- Andrews, B., Brewin, C. R., Rose, S., & Kirk, M. (2000). Predicting PTSD symptoms in victims of violent crime: The role of shame, anger, and childhood abuse. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 109(1), 69–73.

If you are interested in learning about therapy or would like to setup an appointment with Person to Person Psychotherapy, serving New Jersey & New York residents, call 908-224-0007.


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