Relationship Problems? Shame Is To Blame

I was conducting a therapy session for relationship problems with a married couple, their second, and the wife continually escalated to anger when any topic came up. Even when the husband kindly suggested they put their toddlers to bed before 10 pm so the couple could have some time together, the wife felt criticized and “attacked.” She failed to recognize his suggestion was an attempt to connect with her and was not solely a criticism. The root of their relationship problems was that her discomfort with feelings of shame led her to attack with anger.

In discussing this topic I’ll use the terms “Dominator” and “Submissive” that I describe in my book “Pack Leader Psychology.”

Dominators react to feelings of shame or low self-worth by attempting to control or dominate others so that they can manage, redirect or prevent shame-laden messages from affecting them. They have great difficulty admitting fault, apologizing, or being wrong. Dominators attack others with anger when they feel shame.

Submissives handle shame by attacking themselves with internal messages of shame: “See, you really are a loser. You need to change.”

Here is another example of how the feeling of shame plays out in relationships.

Janae, the Dominator wife, forgot to pick up the dry cleaning on the way home. David, the Submissive husband, asked if she picked up the dry cleaning. Rather than feeling the shame of her mistake and admitting her fault, she goes to great lengths to manage her pain. She makes excuses: “I had to work late” or “I didn’t think they weren’t going to be ready today.” Or she blames him: “You were supposed to text me to remind me.” Or she lashes out at him for an unrelated past mistake: “Well, you forgot to pick up the milk yesterday.” or “You should have taken them in last week.” These angry responses are “reactive emotions,” with shame as the “core emotion.”

To Janae, the feeling of shame is so intolerable that she must defend herself from experiencing it at all costs, even if it means damaging her relationship with her husband.

Shame plays out in minor ways like this or in major relationship problems, such as domestic violence. Dominators who go to the extreme of physical or emotional abuse cannot tolerate any sense of being criticized or rejected. The perception that their partner is withdrawing love in any way, no matter how minuscule, triggers their fearful reaction. So they become aggressively confrontational, to the point that they are then legitimately criticized and their partner does withdraw her love.

Sadly, Dominators then get exactly what they are working to avoid: The feelings of shame they dislike are now piled on even more deeply and intensely.

In my session with the couple, the wife eventually began crying, was resentful and stopped engaging in session. I could see she knew she had over-reacted, but she could not admit that. Even though I recognize the roots of shame underlying her behavior, it is difficult not to dislike a Dominator when she behaves in this way. I have to remind myself that those who need the most love often behave in ways that often drive love away. Finding compassion for these hurt people is essential, but can be a challenge for those in relationship with them who often trigger to anger themselves in response.

The other side of this relationship equation is the Submissive partner, who also is mishandling feelings of shame. He may take on more than his fair share of blame for the argument. He may learn to avoid directing shaming messages at his spouse because he fears her aggressive reaction. He wants to keep peace and will do anything to avoid causing a fight.

I also believe that because Submissives dislike the feeling of shame themselves, they avoid placing blame or shame on their partner. It’s as if Submissives know the pain of shame and want to protect their partners from it. This well-intentioned behavior, however, leads to a lack of assertiveness that enables the Dominator to continue to act out and avoid feelings of shame.

An attack-and-withdraw pattern then ensues in the relationship, leading to a painful and disabling feeling of disconnection.

If both partners could learn to manage feelings of shame in a healthy, self-compassionate and self-accepting manner, they would experience much less turmoil in the relationship. The Dominator would feel less urge to lash out at the Submissive. The Submissive would feel able to fairly criticize the Dominator and would not submit unthinkingly to the Dominator’s wrath. Both could be open and vulnerable about their feelings of shame with each other, which would lead to emotional intimacy, a closer bond and a deeper connection.

Shame is the root cause of most relationship problems and many other behavioral problems. It is sad that today so many people seem to have great difficulty handling this feeling in an emotionally healthy manner.

Childhood Stress is Linked to Accelerated Aging

It has long been known that childhood trauma, such as abuse or death of a parent, can lead to psychological and behavioral problems. But this new study also shows that childhood trauma is linked to accelerated aging.

As reported in PsyBlog: “The results showed that both mental health problems and childhood adversity were associated with shortening of telomeres — caps on each strand of DNA which affect how the cells age.”

While I have not read the entire study, previous studies have shown that trauma does not have to be significant for it to affect a child. Trauma does not have to mean sexual abuse or being beaten. To a child, merely the lack of warmth of an accepting, loving parent is enough to be considered traumatic.

This makes complete sense is we understand attachment theory and look at the effect of chronic stress on the body and mind. Children have a biological need for safety and warmth. A child exposed to frightening situations early in life, such as domestic violence, crime or abuse,  becomes primed to remain chronically in “fight-or-flight” mode. The body’s arousal system is then perpetually “on guard,” which is exhausting mentally and physically.

Many people with “mental disorders” have problems with both fatigue and hyper-arousal. The body is not designed to remain in alert mode; it is designed to flee or fight, then immediately relax in the safety of our tribe.

Children with early trauma often have rarely experienced the safe haven of caring, nurturing parents or environments. If their trust has been betrayed through emotional or physical neglect or abuse, they may lack secure attachment to caregivers, which means they may also never know how to relax into the comfort of a caring relationship.

Studies like this confirm what makes common sense: The lack of a feeling of safety in childhood is linked to poor outcomes in both mental and physical health. Quite simply, feeling accepted, protected and loved are key components of childrearing. The rise in mental illness and now of accelerated aging and physical illness can be directly traced to a lack of warmth in parents and caregivers or a disruption in their care.

This makes it all the more clear that parenting education and early childhood interventions can have tremendous impacts on the mental and physical health of millions of people.


Are Gadgets Killing Self-Awareness?


I heard a snippet of an interview on NPR tonight with a man who believes that the extensive use of gadgets is leading to a lack of creativity. He thinks that creativity requires quiet time to think and that the constant distraction by electronic media may lead to fewer moments of inspiration.

Of course, many commentators have noted that kids growing up today, with their faces interacting with screens and not with other people, will likely lack interpersonal skills and fail to develop essential emotional connections with others. It is shocking to me to watch a line full of people at a coffee shop who cannot spend 60 seconds waiting for their latte without letting go of their phone. God forbid they actually make small talk with the person in front of them.

image0093968Studies have shown that just having a short conversation with others can help a person feel connected and can improve mood. Even prosaic comments about the weather or the long line can make us feel we are part of a shared experience, and can affirm our sense of belonging, even if it is just to the tribe that waits in long lines at coffee shops on snowy days. We are not so different, you and me.

But if we never share vents about the snow storm or pleasantries about the excellent espresso, how do we remind ourselves that we are similar? How do we feel attached and experience the universality of experience that is human existence? Without reminders of our human alikeness, we may start to believe we are different. And different equals alone. And alone can equal depressed or anxious or insecure based on thoughts of self-judgment and shame.

But the big problem that I would like to address with this over-focus on cell phones is that it may lead to a lack of self-awareness or mindfulness.

Being able to observe and gain control over thoughts and feelings is mindfulness. In mindfulness, we learn that just because we feel an emotion or have a thought does not mean we have to react to it or believe it.

However, it seems that repeatedly and automatically reaching for a gadget in response to a ping will teach us the opposite: I am a automaton to this device and to my emotionally needy search for social affirmation through it.

As with creativity, self-awareness needs stillness. To be mindful, we cannot have a mind full of distraction. Inner peace is not learned by being constantly distracted and pulled out of our centeredness and into our gadgets, especially if those gadgets bring messages of social drama, social rejection, and social shaming. If every 30 seconds an email pings up or a social media “like” pops up with its red number, when are we going to have time to just “be?” To merely be quiet in mind, perhaps also in body. To allow our thoughts to settle, our fears to recede, and our inherent peaceful calm to surface.

Seated, silent meditation can be a wonderful tool to gain mindfulness and stillness. But I am a big fan of integrating mindfulness and self-awareness into micro-moments during one’s day.

If after you meditate the remaining 23 hours plus of your day is spent in impulsive, thought-less reactivity to a machine, that seems as if it may undo what value the seated meditation brought to you. Contemplatives know that ideally we bring self-awareness and calm to our entire lives.

One of the tests of emotional maturity and emotional intelligence is the ability to be alone. Alone with our selves and our thoughts. That means alone without the interference of a gadget to distract us from that aloneness.

Put down the device. Connect with others, connect with your creativity, connect with yourself, connect with your self.

A Final Lesson from Reilly


As she has done throughout her life, today Reilly taught me a lesson —  one final lesson on bravery in the face of loss. I am sad to report that at the age of ten and a half, Reilly died today of pancreatic cancer and her soul passed from her earthly body.

To those who have read my book, “Pack Leader Psychology,” you know that this German Shorthair Pointer with the improbable Irish name has been my muse and teacher. The working title for the book was “Lessons from Reilly,” showing just how important Reilly has been in my personal growth and my journey toward becoming a human pack leader. It is no overstatement to say that Reilly’s lessons have guided me in completely transforming my emotional, personal and professional life. Her lessons even gave me a framework for explaining and understanding human psychology and behavior that I use every day as a psychotherapist.

IMG_0487Her attributes are difficult to describe and might sound like the over-the-top ravings of a distraught owner, but everyone who met her was instantly awed by her old soul, her regal character and her steadfastness. Many people instantly referred to Reilly as “The Queen.”  Not because she was a haughty, high-maintenance show dog, but because she had an implacable, fearless, matter-of-fact quality.

Reilly exemplified that essential pack leader quality that I write about in my book:  She did not need the approval of others. She loved and was loved, she obeyed and was obeyed, she respected and was respected, but she never did so to earn acceptance. That is because she knew and loved and accepted and respected herself, which is the most essential personality trait of a pack leader.

IMG_0550As I write in my book, “If you don’t love yourself, you will try to manage others as a way to get them to like you,” “When you have nothing left to prove, your fear of disapproval goes away,” and “The journey to fearlessness starts with self-acceptance.”

Only when you know and honestly accept yourself can you be accountable for your behaviors. This in turn allows you to grow and progress emotionally and personally. Without acceptance and accountability people are not able to learn from their mistakes and this leads to many personality problems and relationship difficulties that we often label as “mental disorders.”

IMG_0581Reilly’s traits were always pure pack leader.

She was authentic: Reilly generally was on her own mission in life and did not manipulate with tail wagging or licking to earn approval.

She was strong and vulnerable:  She could ask for help and would routinely stop while hunting, lift a paw, and look directly at me, signaling a need for a thorn to be removed.

She was stoic and dependable: Throughout many months of cancer, she never complained or showed pain. Several years ago a deer kicked her and cut open the flesh on her jaw, which required emergency stitches. It wasn’t until months later that I realized that kick had also broken a rib, because Reilly had never winced or slowed down during her recovery.

IMG_1234She was full of joy and lived in the moment: Fetching or going for a walk were all the reason she needed to become energized and playful.

She was a supreme athlete: She gave 100% on every walk, run, hunt or frisbee catch.  She could jump 6 feet into the air from a standing start and once did a 15-foot broad jump in a foot of snow. She ran and walked thousands of miles with me and would have run all day every day if I could have joined her.

IMG_0180She was smart and intuitive: I never had to verbalize lessons such as staying in the yard, she just seemed to automatically know and obey my wishes.

She was an excellent teacher of my new dog, Hope, patiently allowing this over-eager dog to follow, idolize and learn by example.

She was calm, confident, trustworthy and unflappable, traits that she showed me were essential for pack leaders.

This eulogy could continue for many more paragraphs, as Reilly was an amazing and awe-inspiring dog to me. Reilly was a great leader who taught me to be a leader, but whose humility allowed her to also be a follower.

But now I must move forward with learning my final lesson from Reilly on how to manage grief and the loss of this tremendous friend, muse, and teacher. I am sad at losing Reilly, but I also know that her lessons will continue to be taught as I live my life as an example of a pack leader and as I teach her lessons to my patients to help them live more authentic, self-compassionate, self-accepting lives.

Thank you for being part of my life, Reilly, and I send your soul on to its next journey.

Reilly West

July 24, 2004 – December 27, 2014

Reilly laying portrait


The Best Gift Parents Can Give Their Children

giftOn this Christmas Day, I believe the best gift parents can give their children is the ability to manage shame. Teaching a child to experience and respond well to the feeling of shame is a life lesson that will affect every relationship and social involvement for your child — a major predictor of and driver of emotional health.

How your child responds to shame will affect the quality of her friendships, the success of her marriages, her career and academic success. And this, in turn, affects her mental health for two reasons, both as cause and effect.

First, we know that close, emotionally connected relationships provide a sense of security and belonging that is essential for emotional health. Bonded relationships are so important, research has found that the physical health of married people is better than that of singles.

Second, an inability to properly manage shame is at the core of nearly all behavioral issues that we now label as “mental disorders.” Anxiety, depression, and personality disorders are all caused by overwhelming, unmanageable feelings of shame. The person does not know how to respond appropriately to feelings of shame and acts them out in two main ways: as anger and blaming/shaming others or as self-shaming. These dysfunctional responses often cause rifts in relationships and even destroy relationships, which affects emotional health.

shame artWe can see shame’s effect on couple relationships quite clearly. Conflicts in couples when one or both members have difficulty managing shame either quickly escalate or the couple mutually and unwittingly decides to avoid conflict.

In the escalation scenario, fights often begin when one partner accuses the other of some fault. (“You forgot to pick up the milk.”) An emotionally secure person can recognize the truth in this statement, calmly accept her forgetfulness and promptly and graciously apologize to repair the problem. A shame-avoidant person is so afraid of being criticized, she will quickly and unthinkingly lash out at her accuser, usually with a return volley of unrelated, often irrational, accusations. (“Yeah, but you didn’t text me until 3 pm and I left work at 5 pm so I didn’t have time to really think about it…”) I call this “zig-zag” arguing. When a person can’t accept blame, she often shifts the topic or blames the partner rather than admit fault.

The partner may then react emotionally to the irrational accusation (which is hard not to do when it is so irrational), and a fight has begun. The accuser then responds with more accusations (“You are so irrational! That makes no sense! You just forgot the milk. Admit it! And you always forget when I tell you things to do. You always ignore me.”) and the shame-filled person again feels she must respond with lashing out because she is afraid of admitting to those feelings of shame. In these type of scenarios, it is easy to see why shame is considered a primary emotion, because it is very often acted out as fear, or a secondary emotion.

Many times in therapy when I try to explore the emotions of couples in this type of fight, they are unable to recognize or admit to the primary emotion of shame. They have never learned to feel or have learned to ignore shame, so they bypass that feeling and go automatically and unthinkingly to responding with fear. This type of emotionally driven response is very unhealthy for relationships. Emotions are wonderful signals, but we should use our cognitive brain to control our responses to them.

Managing feelings of shame takes emotional strength and strength of character. A person must have a strong sense of self-worth and self-acceptance, which speaks of emotional awareness and resilience. She also must have learned how to make good choices and exercise cognitive control; rather than lashing out in anger when shamed, she must understand that she should be accountable for her own behaviors and respond in a pro-social way by apologizing or accepting fault.

So how do parents give the gift of emotional health to their children? By modeling their own ability to gracefully be wrong. Kids watch parents and absorb what they see, especially when learning social skills. Parents must consistently behave in ways that show they can handle shame. They must apologize and accept responsibility when wrong. They must not automatically lash out in anger when confronted. They must show remorse and attempt to mend relationships rather than insist on always being right or having the last word. They must also not avoid conflict as a way to manage uncomfortable feelings.

Shame is a pro-social emotion, as are empathy, compassion, love and kindness. Shame signals us to correct our behaviors so that we can continue to be accepted by others and fit into society. If we are unable to recognize or accept feelings of shame, how can we learn from our mistakes and misbehaviors and adjust so that others find us personally likable? We can’t. The inability to be wrong signals others that we are not good relationship material. Who wants to be in a relationship with someone who is never wrong? That means I am the one who is always wrong, even if the facts don’t support it. Without an ability to feel shame and admit to our own personal faults, we lack the fundamental and essential pro-social skill of personal accountability.

The ability to admit fault, apologize, accept blame and learn from our mistakes is how we repair relationships. Without the ability to do this, relationships will constantly be filled with drama and turmoil, rather than closeness and connection that is essential for our emotional health.

What better gift could a Pack Leader Parent give than the gift of emotional health?