There have been a lot of changes in my life lately. Ever since I left Good Vibrations, I’ve been leaning into some pretty intense edges and figuring out how to make some things happen that I’ve wanted to be able to do for a while. It’s been fascinating and fun, and just scary enough to let me know that this is the place I need to be. After all, if it’s comfortable, I’m still in my comfort zone and that’s not where I need to be right now.
While all of this has been going on, my partner’s been really stressed out because of her job. The department she oversees is short staffed and has been for a few months. The hiring process is slow, but it’s rolling along, and it’s beginning to look like things will ease up a bit. In the meantime, Molly’s been working really long and busy hours, and she hasn’t had as much bandwidth as usual.
The other night, I was in the mood to have sex, so I asked Molly if she was interested. When she told me she wasn’t feeling up for it physically, due to her stress level and how her body was feeling, her doing so with grace didn’t keep it from feeling like a rejection. The fact that I know that unavailability isn’t the same as rejection doesn’t change the fact that it can still feel like it. That’s because rejection is one of the shame emotions, one of the many different feelings that can arise when there’s a “rupture in the interpersonal bridge.” Shame causes, and is caused by, disconnection or the perception of disconnection. So when Molly told me that she wasn’t in the mood for sex, the fact that I knew that it didn’t have anything to do with me (and, in fact, was just as frustrating for her as it was for me) didn’t affect how it felt. My face and head flushed, my sense of time got distorted, my energy collapsed, and I checked out of my body. I know what shame feels like to me and that was it.
I’ve been looking at and exploring shame for over a decade, and even so, it’s still not an easy emotion for me to experience. I shut down and although I was saying all of the “right things” (I understand, I know that this doesn’t mean anything other than you’re not in the mood for sex, etc.), I still felt myself starting to slide down the shame spiral. It can be a steep, slippery ride and it’s sometimes hard to pull myself out of it. So I did the thing that I didn’t want to do. I said, “I’m having a shame reaction.”
Since Molly’s been talking with me about shame for just as long as I’ve been exploring it, she wasn’t surprised. In fact, she told me that she could see it happening and I’m grateful that she could give me the space to work through it until I could talk about it. This time, it took about 10 minutes, but that’s after a lot of practice. There was a time when I’d have needed to take a couple of days to sit with it before I could put it into words. And having the room to move into my rejection and identify it as a shame reaction let me start to pull myself out of the shame spiral.
We talked with about how we were both feeling disconnected from each other because of how busy we’ve been. We also talked about how it’s both easier and harder as a result of having been on this ride before. In the time we’ve been together, we’ve had many periods when we were really busy with school, or work, or health issues, and hadn’t had enough time together. So I knew from experience that we knew what to do, which made it easier, and it was reminiscent of the times when we struggled with it, which was triggering and made it harder. And we talked about the challenges we were each facing, and what we wanted to do about them. We each offered empathy, sympathy, and suggestions to the other. We came out of the conversation feeling more connected than we had in a while and it felt very sweet, cozy, and intimate.
What made all of this possible, instead of getting angry and fighting, was that I was able to recognize what was going on for me and to say that I was having a shame reaction. We know that the part of dealing with shame is to find a way to connect. And since physical touch wasn’t the best option, we went with quality time. In his book The Five Love Languages, Gary Chapman offers these different modes of doing that: Words of Affirmation, Quality Time, Physical Touch, Acts of Service, and Gifts. While I find his insistence on heterosexual, monogamous marriage in a Christian context rather limited and limiting, the idea that there are some basic ways to build connection in a relationship is surprisingly powerful. Chapman primarily focuses on the idea that learning to speak your partner’s preferred language can help make it easier to give and express love. I’d add to that that being able to use multiple languages makes it easier to connect and build love when one or another language isn’t the best tool in a given moment.
All of that was made much easier by my being able to recognize that I was feeling shame (through the emotion of rejection) and by my being able to name it without blaming Molly. It wasn’t “you rejected me” or “you’re making me feel shame.” It was “I’m having a shame reaction,” and that gave us the room to build connection instead of fighting or disconnecting even more. This is why I’ve always said that if you want to understand relationships, you need to understand shame. All relationships have the potential for disconnection, for many different reasons. Cultivating shame resilience is how we learn to move through the feelings and reconnect. And the simple act of naming the emotion can make it easier to build those skills.
So here’s a suggestion for you. Think about what shame feels like for you. Where do you feel it in your body? How does it affect how you feel? How you think? How you respond and what you say? And the next time something happens that triggers that set of sensations, name it. Say, “I’m having a shame reaction.” Don’t worry about exactly which one it is. It could be rejection, regret, embarrassment, guilt, shame, humiliation, chagrin, or any other shame emotion. Don’t worry about it. Once you’ve given it voice, it might be more specific about which feeling it is, and what triggered it. That’s useful information when you’re ready to reconnect. It also gives you room to consider which of Chapman’s love languages is most likely to be useful in the current circumstances. But it all starts with being able to recognize it and put it into words, so start there and see where it takes you.
Moving through shame into reconnection is the Hero’s Journey written on the pages of the heart. It can be scary at times, and it doesn’t always take you where you think you want to go. I’ve found that as hard as it can be, it usually leads to something much better. At the very least, it lets me manage the shame instead of being ridden by it, and at most, it leads to creating new possibilities that exceed my imagination. And that is well worth the work it takes to do it.