Shame is one of those issues that’s often discussed without ever really operationalizing what it is. So, what is shame? Shame, boiled down to its root, is the feeling you have that something about you is wrong or bad. Where do we get our shame from? You guessed it: other people! It’s typically parents, other family members, or kids at school who say or do things that criticize a particular part of a person (weight, race, etc.), causing the feeling that you are wrong as you are. Many adults carry some degree of shame, and people can be ashamed of all sorts of things. The shame that adults carry almost always stems from the shaming behavior they received in childhood. Sadly, a child’s identity gets formed very young, and changing this years later can be extremely difficult.
Below I outline three types of shame that are common in the dating world. I offer hope with each one in terms of how you can get unstuck from the shame spiral, and start living more confidently.
Body shame is the most common type among adults, and it can prevent men and women from getting into relationships or can wreck relationships that have already begun. Because relationships typically involve a sexual or physical component eventually, being comfortable with your body is important. As a psychologist, you wouldn’t believe the stories I’ve heard about the lengths some people go to hide their bodies. Many men and women have shame about their entire bodies (“I’m too fat,” “I’m gross”), while some men and women have shame about specific parts of their body (“I like my legs, I just hate my stomach,” “My arms jiggle and look disgusting”). How can you get over this shame? The way to approach your body is to tell yourself – over and over, and in front of the mirror if it helps – that your body is okay as long as you are relatively healthy, and that your ideal or “dream” body is not something that would magically make you happy if you had that, anyway. The goal is to like your body enough, but not to put pressure on yourself to love it!
When you think about ways that shame can hurt your dating life, you probably don’t think about money. However, having a negative financial situation can seriously harm your dating life. Any of the following factors can cause financial shame: filing bankruptcy; navigating a home foreclosure; being fired or laid off from a job; or managing extensive debt. If you have had any of these experiences, you may have felt uncomfortable disclosing the truth to people – especially dates. People can be extremely judgmental at times, so it’s understandable if you’ve felt afraid that someone would negatively judge your financial circumstances. The key to remember is that these circumstances are temporary and within your control to change. Work as much as you can at one job or additional jobs to dig yourself out of your rut, and telling people – dates included – will make you feel proud and will show them how committed you are to making your life better.
Shame over past relationships
More men and women than you know carry feelings of shame from their past relationships. If you were mistreated or cheated on, or you were ignored or manipulated, you may have picked up a sense of shame. After a bad relationship ends, it’s normal to look back and ask yourself, Who was I in that relationship? Why would I go along with all those things I never thought I would go along with before? I’ve worked with many men and women who feel ashamed of how they lost themselves in their last relationship. The feeling of shame is extremely powerful and difficult to change. You can’t take shameful feelings and work them out in a day or a week; it takes a long time to become aware of your shame and to start engaging in behaviors that raise your self-esteem. If you feel ashamed of who you were in your past relationship or relationships, tack positive notes, art or posters on your walls at home or work that remind you that change is possible and that you have control over your own circumstances. Remember to learn from the past but don’t let the past define you. Simply put, every minute that has yet to tick by is a minute you can make a decision to be different in your next relationship.
A few final words
If you deal with shame that intrudes in your romantic life, you can move past it as long as you are willing to do the work: talk about the issue with a therapist or nonjudgmental friend; write in a journal; exercise out your sadness or anger; and read articles and self-help books to educate yourself about the problem. If you do the work, it will get better.
About the Author:
Dr. Seth is a licensed clinical psychologist, author, Psychology Today blogger, and TV guest expert. He practices in Los Angeles and treats a wide range of issues and disorders and specializes in relationships, parenting, and addiction. He has had extensive training in conducting couples therapy and is the author of Dr. Seth’s Love Prescription: Overcome Relationship Repetition Syndrome and Find the Love You Deserve