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  • Suzanne Milligan

Why Shame doesn't work: shame and shaming in relationship

couples sitting together

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When couples get into trouble, a lot of the messiness comes from an underlying tendency to shame and blame each other. Each is believing in their own version of the truth. But where does this truth come from? What is it based on? This is when the Internal Family Systems (IFS) therapist guides each individual into a U-turn to find out what stories are inside. This in turn often leads to well-hidden patterns based on shame and shaming.

What is shame?

Shame is an emotion that acts as a verb in our system. It can go like this: "I did wrong, therefore I am bad. Because I am bad, I am alone, worthless, unlovable . I don't deserve, I'm not good enough." How do we know this? We were told by someone else, usually when young and impressionable. We--our parts, in IFS language-- believe this story, and fiction becomes a reality. From here our parts develop strategies to try to regulate the shame and to deal with its pain. Yet these strategies just produce more shame! Sadly, these protector parts get exactly what they are hoping to avoid.

Shame in relationships

The urge to avoid the pain of shame often means we put it onto another in an attempt to push it away, to avoid it at all costs. Of course this doesn't feel good for the other person, and the trouble starts. Here is a look at what shaming and protective parts get up to in their attempts to deal with the pain:

Shaming parts tend to follow these patterns:

A. I do to myself what was done to me.

I do to others what I do to myself.

This is not something to be proud of! So shame protectors do their best to make you think you don't act this way. It can all happen as fast as a lightning strike, so fast you may not even notice. Like this:

Shaming strikes out at partner. Sends the message they are WRONG

When partner says "That hurt!" the shame of resorting to shaming takes over.

You respond--"That wasn't so bad! Don't be so sensitive!"

So you shame them some more and never look at your own behaviour.

Sound familiar? Meanwhile they step up with their own shaming strategies and on it goes.

B. Blame. When we feel shame we want to get away from that terrible feeling as soon as we can. So we use blame as a way out. "Who can I find to make responsible for my bad feeling?" Usually the one we live with is an easy target for blame as they are seen as the cause of these deeper feelings.

Common shame protectors parts:

anger, blame

withdrawal, avoidance


chronic criticism


over-doing (food, work, drink, etc)


underlying belief that shame only leads to more shame (it will never change)

Healing shame and shaming through Internal Family Systems therapy

All shame strategies drive us to disconnect. We become relationally dangerous, unconscious about how we hurt the other person. Yet the good news is that shame can be healed!! Intimacy From the Inside Out (IFIO), which is based on IFS, has two aspects of healing from shame:

  1. Self-Compassion. Having Self-compassion makes deep healing possible.

We can un-blend from these parts and hear their stories, understand them, and learn to love them.

This compassion is inherently shame-regulating and powerful.

2. Co-regulation. We become able to be in relationship with our vulnerability. We share the inner places hidden because of shame, bringing all of who we are to our partner. With courage we come to our partner with our deeper story. They in turn understand us on a new level and we come to a place of feeling loved, accepted and known. For many, this may be the first time they are truly seen and accepted--by another and by themselves.

The hope is that eventually the couple will see that what they are doing to each other is usually what their parts are doing to themselves inside. Otherwise shame sits there unresolved in our systems, becoming toxic for the individual and for the relationship. The key is moving from "I am bad" to "something bad happened to me." In IFIO couples therapy we develop trust and safety to bring this into conscious awareness and work with it in the present moment.

To book a call to find out more, feel free to follow this link:

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