She looked away as I asked her to tell me more. Her arms clutched the pillow, and I waited. But she was silent, isolating herself in her shame and refusing to let anyone reach her. Maybe you have been there, wanting so badly for someone to recognize the shame that you carry and for them to reach out with tenderness and acceptance. But you find yourself shutting down or lashing out as soon as someone gets too close to that part of you, because shame is insisting that your only safety lies in your ability to isolate.
Shame’s Agenda: Isolation
Likewise, the antidote to shame that entangles us is secure attachment, but the attachment and community that we long for becomes our greatest fear (Townsend, 1991). Shame works to cut people off from any source of healing, like a sentry guard that “cannot distinguish the enemy troops from the Red Cross” (Townsend, 1991, p. 168). As a result, relationships suffer; walls are built, and the bigger the shame grows. Thompson (2015) puts it this way, “’Shamed people shame people’” (p. 121, ebook version). Like a virus, shame rapidly reproduces and infects entire communities.
Hiding in Plain Sight
Some people are not even aware that they are hiding from connection. They love to be the life of the party and would much rather be in a large group of people than alone at home. But they have never experienced the emotional closeness with someone that requires them to be vulnerable about their fears and insecurities. One of the best places to hide is in a leadership position. Leaders can hide behind the cloak of expertise, power, and prestige. And unless, leaders seek out individuals with whom to be vulnerable, they can go through life very alone and cut off from healthy emotional connection.
Three key components of any attachment are that the attachment figure must be accessible, responsive, and engaged with the person’s emotional needs (Johnson & Sanderfer, 2016). In other words, in the case of a parent and child, the parent must be attentive to notice the physical and emotional needs of the child. But not just notice. The parent must consistently be timely in his or her response to the child’s needs and show in their response that they love and value the child unconditionally. If one of these components is missing in the relationship, the relationship begins to suffer.
In my previous blog post on anxiety (see blog “But What if?“), I noted that we never outgrow our need for attachment. If this need is not met through secure relationships, it will demand being met elsewhere. Townsend (1991) argues that bonding to nothing is not an option. People bond to work, substances, caretaking, technology, adventure, and so much more. The longer this need is not properly met, the more likely it is that the person will first condemn his or her need for attachment and then deny it. Thompson (2015) calls this shame’s narrative. It begins subtly enough by celebrating self-sufficiency, and it is reinforced then by others who are also carrying shame and admire your ability to be independent.
But if you are to begin experiencing freedom from shame’s grip, you will have to let other trustworthy individuals enter into your story. To sit with you in your weakest moments. To cry with you in your pain. And to not let you push them away. Maybe, just maybe, one of the most precious gifts you could give to those who love you is not your talents, or whatever else you take pride in, but your willingness to let them see you in your weakness and not run from it.
Johnson, S. & Sanderfer, K. (2016). Created for Connection: The Hold Me Tight Guide for Christian Couples. New York, NY: Little, Brown Spark.
Thompson, C. (2015). The Soul of Shame: Retelling the Stories We Believe About Ourselves. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
Townsend, J. (1991). Hiding from Love: How to Change the Withdrawal Patterns that Isolate and Imprison You. Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress.