Breaking the Cycle of Shame in Relationships
Feeling shame in one relationship can begin a cycle of shame that’s debilitating to mental health. An ex-boyfriend once told me I was a liability. My mental health was a risk against his future, and he didn’t want his professional friends to know that he dated me. He made it clear that he was ashamed of me.
I know I am not the only one here with an experience like this, and I’m sure that you, like me, have plenty of similar stories to tell. In my fragile early twenties, I shamed myself like it was my job. I tried to hide my anxiety, my panic attacks, and my depressive episodes, but in a college dorm setting, privacy was scarce. People who barely knew me called me attention-seeking and manipulative. A neighbor once overheard me and a friend celebrating a small success over my anxiety and said, « Do you think you’re special for doing something other people can do normally? » That one stuck with me for years.
Sharp words can cut deeply if they hit you where you’re most vulnerable. These words only fed my shame and negative self-talk. Of course, healthy relationship patterns are not born out of shame and low self-esteem.
Cycle of Shame Harms Relationships
I always attempted to be as agreeable and non-confrontational as possible. I believed that keeping people happy with me would somehow hide my problems, compensate for the cost of putting up with my mental illness, and avoid any more anxiety-producing conflict. When the strategy inevitably failed, the only solution in my mind was to become even more agreeable at any cost to myself. I ignored my own needs and shamed myself further for my declining mental health and toxic relationships. I became stuck in a cycle of shame, people-pleasing, and self-neglect that poisoned me slowly, taking me in the opposite direction of mental wellness and the healthy relationships I sought.
When I was unable to hide my anxiety, I was so ashamed for inconveniencing others with my problems that setting boundaries felt like another inconvenience I was imposing on them. I didn’t realize that denying my own needs caused more problems in my relationships. I thought I could repress my emotions and pretend to be fine, but I wasn’t as skilled at hiding my anxiety as I thought. The people close to me could see that I was not well, but because I would not take care of myself and communicate my needs, the tension hung awkwardly over us. I was effectively doing the exact thing I was attempting to avoid — I was putting the weight of my anxiety onto others by refusing to address the problem myself.
Opposite Action: Self-Compassion, Boundaries, and Self-Care to Stop the Cycle of Shame in Relationships
The shame, people-pleasing, and self-neglect cycle is an infinite downward spiral that is all too easy to enter as a person with mental illness. Unraveling the spiral requires opposite action: Self-compassion, boundaries, and self-care. Opposite action is an emotional regulation skill part of dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT) that consists of doing the opposite of your typical action.
Talk to yourself as you would talk to a friend. Would you shame your best friend the way you shame yourself? Remind yourself that you can be imperfect and still deserve happiness. Decide on your boundaries and communicate them to others, even if it feels hard. Remind yourself that boundaries benefit everyone, and each boundary you set is a step closer to a healthy relationship. I am still working on breaking the cycle myself.
Do you find yourself in this shame cycle in relationships? What helps you?