Shame Reactivity versus Taking Responsibility

Shame and taking responsibility are not opposites. Whenever we have to take responsibility, we are going to be living with some element of shame. In fact, shame is in the underbelly of most aspects of our lives. It reflects our human need to connect, and our fear of disconnection.

One of the most important things to any relationship, is the ability to take responsibility. John and Julie Gottman identify it as an antidote to one of their Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse in relationships–defensiveness. When we get defense, we jump to trying to explain, avoid, and deflect. We don’t want to have to feel the discomfort of having something exposed.

Jumping into defensiveness can do a number on our relationships. Our partners need validation in how they feel. When we deflect in such a way, we take that validation away from them.

In situations where you have been caught or discovered for having lied, cheated, or betrayed, partners need understanding even more. It’s one of the foundations of healing the relationship. On the other hand, it’s easy to fall into patterns of defensiveness. It’s easy to want to justify and explain. And it can be confusing when you get an angry response back from this type of interaction.

We all have a natural response to shame to deflect and defend. It is extremely vulnerable to let someone we care about express their hurt. Especially when it’s about you! The urge will be to naturally get out of that discomfort as soon as possible. However, this is an enormous mistake. When we do this, we cut down the reality of the other person.

Instead, you have to practice letting your partner have their own reality. To successfully do this, I recommend two strategies.

1. Go to the emotion. Instead of focusing on the words alone, focus on what your partner is trying to say to you. What emotions are they conveying? This can help to give you a little space to realize that it’s not usually about just putting you down. It’s more about sharing their emotional experience.

2. Understand the bigger story. Learn more about why this matters. You’ll often find that there is a bigger story that is larger than you. In this, you’ll likely uncover dreams that have been punctured because of what happened.

Taking Responsibility Means Owning Your Part

If nothing else, identify what part of the situation you are able to own at this time. You don’t have to take responsibility for the whole situation. Overcompensating is actually just another shame reaction. Many people are extremely frustrated when they overcompensate to get forgiveness, only to have a partner who continues to get more angry. Sucking up and people pleasing doesn’t lead to your partner feeling heard. Again, it just says you want to get out of the discomfort.

If you focus on the part that you can take responsibility for, you’re being authentic. This can open up a doorway of understanding. It might not open a complete pathway, but it is a start. Rather than reacting to getting out of shame, you’re showing that connection is a goal. You’re also being understanding that things don’t heal overnight. They take time.


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