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Human Intimacy: A Counter-Intuitive Answer to Shame

I know about toxic shame and the pain that it causes because I’ve been on a life long journey to eliminate it from my life. Having been raised in a dysfunctional family that was focused on the do’s and don’t’s of religion, and a message that real men don’t talk about their feelings, I was a first class candidate for shame. Combine that with an alcoholic WWII veteran father with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, and a mother who was emotionally incapable of providing comfort and support, I pretty much started life believing that something had to be seriously wrong with me to deserve this fate.

I have found that healing shame is crucial to finding joy, peace and happiness in life. Of course, healthy shame is a natural reaction to “being exposed” or, in other words, embarrassed. For example, when we say or do something that exposes to others that we have made a mistake, we often feel ashamed or embarrassed. Toxic shame, on the other hand, often comes out of trauma that we have experienced. It is a feeling and subsequent belief that we do not MAKE mistakes, but that we ARE a mistake. This type of shame leads to all forms of unhealthy behaviors and can be the root of many addictions. Toxic shame is often the catalyst for perfectionism, isolation, and hopelessness. It can lead to every form of addiction ranging from alcohol and drugs, co-dependency (addiction to other people), sexual addiction, addiction to religion (not spirituality) and even addiction to shame itself. For me, it manifested most in my relationships and in areas such as perfectionism and work.

Toxic shame causes us to put on a “mask” for others. In other words, we present ourselves to people in the manner in which we think that they want to see us. They never get to know our “real selves” because we believe that if they did, we would be rejected. So, we always present ourselves in the best way possible, and do our best to make sure we look our best in front of others. This, of course, leads to isolation, not only from others, but even from ourselves. We feel alone because no one really knows us. I know this feeling of isolation and aloneness. This isolation leads us to feel even more shame and puts a vicious cycle is in place from which the only escape is to try to get rid of the shame. However, when we use unhealthy ways in the form of addictive behavior to rid ourselves of it, more shame follows. The cycle will continue until we heal the root of the behavior, which is the shame.

In my experience as a therapist and coach, as well as in my own life, I’ve found that intimacy is a key factor in the healing of shame. In this case, I am not necessarily talking about physical intimacy. I define intimacy as relationships in which you and the other person or people in your life are able to talk about any topic or concern in a non-judgmental way. There’s an acceptance that we are all people who make mistakes. The world is flawed and we are also flawed. Intimacy allows others to see into you and really know who you are and it feels good. There is no need to hide from yourself or others anymore. There is no need to engage in shame-based behavior because the shame dissipates and you feel a sense of freedom to be yourself.

A good friend once told me that I might as well accept that we are all screwed up people living in a screwed up world. It’s alright to make mistakes. It’s part of being human. When I began to believe these statements, I began to feel the shame lift. I felt no need to hide my mistakes once I internalized a belief that no one can legitimately judge me for them. I have learned that making mistakes is part of life and you no longer have to live under the burden of them. You are free to be and become the unique individual that you were meant to be.

Of course, the challenge is to find those people who will love you unconditionally and are healthy enough to have genuine intimacy with you. This is a challenge because it means breaking free from the cycle I’ve mentioned and going against the natural drive to hide oneself. But kind and accepting people are out there, and you must make a decision that you’re going to find them. I’ve had to do this and can testify to the fact that it’s not always easy. I’ve had to say “goodbye” to friends and even family members who trigger shame – also not easy. When I find myself feeling that toxic shame again, I know that there is a deficit in intimacy. I need to talk to someone who understands. It might be my spouse or a close friend. It might be a life coach or counselor. There are times when we need to talk to someone who really knows and understands us, and someone who will accept us for just for who we are, warts and all. Shame is part of our journey. I have never known anyone who has been completely free from it. Yet, there is hope that with the right people in our lives who we can share genuine intimacy with us, we can overcome shame and be free from the painful behaviors that accompany it.

Rick Bowman

Rick Bowman

Rick holds a M.A. in Clinical Psychology and has held leadership positions in the U.S. military, business, mental health and education. His consultation has included mental health and human service agencies, non-profits, and companies such as the National Corporation for Public Broadcasting and Alyeska Pipeline Corporation, as well as speaking/consultation internationally in Russia, Cuba, and Jamaica. Rick has been employed as a Clinical Psychologist, Community College Professor, Assistant Principal, Alternative School Director, Student Services Director, and non-profit Assistant Executive Director.
Rick Bowman

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