Category Archives: intimate relationships

The Invisible Shackles of Shame

As infants and through our formative years, we are attached to our primary caregivers. Our primary caregiver is like the sun to us as we orbit them and live our lives by their will. From our wake and sleep times to our diet and emotions, our caregivers play a crucial role in the development of our sense of self.

While secure and healthy attachment with our caregiversfoster a positive sense of Self, unhealthy attachments may promote a disowning of the same. Because we are born with virtually no understanding of our world and our place within it, our sense of self develops as a response to the presence or absence of a secure attachment with our primary caregivers as we learn how to relate to our environment. ‘Primary caregivers’ may be our biological or adoptive parents, older siblings charged with caring for us, members of the extended family or even role models in institutions such as church leaders. We become attached to those with whom we are highly involved in our childhood and we seek to gain their approval.

When we live our lives in the light or shadow of our caregiver, it is natural for a child to conclude that their mother and their father are omnipotent. This perception motivates children to willingly direct their behaviours to evoke praise or approval from their parents. So, what happens when our caregivers respond to our behaviour with disinterest, anger or beratement?

When our actions and behaviours are met with ambivalence, resentment or contempt, we have limited resources to manage our sense of rejection and shame. Considering that a parent is fallible is too painful to bear, so children do the only other thing they can do – internalize the belief that if their parents are not meeting their needs, it must be because they are unlovable, unworthy and unwanted.

As we age, shame demonstrates itself in our life as its effects cause us to withdraw or to engage in coping mechanisms such as addictions in order to mask the true impact of the shame that we harbour in our brains and nervous systems.

Shame in Relationships

Later in life, we may feel that we are beyond these misleading or flawed perceptions of ourselves… that is, until a circumstance takes us back to unresolved feelings of shame and self-loathing and we find ourselves emotionally triggered and willing to shift blame onto others to hide from emotional pain.

When we are emotionally triggered, our maladaptive behaviours – the mechanisms that allowed us protection from feelings of shame while we were growing up – come out from beneath the surface of a false self (the one that, on its surface, appears to be confident and whole). By way of example, we may save face by responding to our partner’s assertion that our behaviour has hurt them with explosive, belittling remarks such as:

• You’re too sensitive
• I didn’t say that!
• Haven’t you ever made a mistake?

These face-saving tactics may have gotten us through our family dynamics as children, but they are unhelpful enemies of intimacy in our adult relationships. In relationships, the need to hide from feelings of worthlessness or of not being good enough means that vulnerability, the glue that binds couples in true intimacy, is inaccessible. The result is often two partners who use the masks of their respective personas to keep one another from the pain of vulnerability – of truly being seen.

Toxic Shame and Narcissism

In extreme cases of abuse or neglect, shame becomes so pervasive in the child that they dissociate from grounded reality and begin to interact with the world from a state of constant denial. In order to contend with these profound feelings of self-loathing, narcissists develop manipulative behaviour such as gaslighting, withdrawing through silence, or blame to disown personal feelings of shame. They may perceive judgment from a partner and respond by denigrating their partner to the point of vulnerability, weakness and compliance before experiencing a resurgence of confidence. From that place of false confidence, they then continue to assert blame on the other while aggrandizing the self. It can be difficult to see the insidiousness of narcissism at first, until the emotional abuse and unhealthy dynamics within the relationship are firmly established and bonded in trauma.

Toxic Shame and Codependency

Narcissism is not the only potential outcome of long-term childhood abuse and neglect. Environments in which children are made to feel unsafe, unheard and unacknowledged often results in codependency – the fear of being alone disguised as love. While narcissists protect themselves from shame by disowning their true self in lieu of a contrived God-like sense of self, codependents forego their needs in service of meeting the needs of others in relationship with them.

Codependents often become the emotional caregivers of their family in order to keep the peace and earn the validation of others. The codependent is reliant upon gaining the approval of others to confirm their worth and mask their self-love deficit. In this way, a relationship between a narcissist and a codependent is a perfect match as the narcissist continuously takes, and codependents compulsively give.

Forfeiture of personal, physical and emotional boundaries and needs to validate ourselves creates an unhealthy identification with the ‘helper’ role, and relationships are unbalanced as a result. Anxiety, depression and repressed resentment frequently accompanies those in codependent relationships.

Compounded Shame

Although feelings of shame typically originate in our childhood, shame emotions compound over time. The result is an accumulation of shame-inducing thoughts and feelings that inform how we interpret and perceive our reality and how we interact and relate with others. Rather than interact with our environment from a place of security and self-acceptance in order to grow and learn, we are less able to be in the present moment during our interactions because our energy and attention is being quietly diverted to protecting ourselves from shame and vulnerability. We begin to assign meaning and motivation to the actions and words of others, whether accurate or not, to keep from being hurt. The more we attempt to mitigate, eradicate or hide feelings of shame, the more likely we are to engage in behaviours that induce further shame. This is often seen in an inability to control compulsions such as overeating, substance abuse or harsh and frequent self-judgment and criticism.

The Way Out

The suggestion that our inner shame is informing our actions, decisions and behaviours can be difficult to accept for many of us. The term can seem vague and be difficult to identify in our own lives at first. Where it comes to overcoming shame, a curiosity about ourselves and our world is a necessary place to start. Although often our instinct is to blame our environment and the people in it for the way we experience life, turning our inquiries inward is where the magic happens.

It takes time to quell feelings of shame through emotional literacy and awareness as well as awareness of our inner dialogue. This can only be effective when we approach ourselves with the understanding that we are worthy, lovable and enough – we have to feel that it is safe to treat ourselves with love and care. From here, we become more able to identify thoughts and inner dialogue that is degrading, unlovable and filled with contempt. Loving ourselves authentically gives us the space we need to be curious about ourselves and to develop new neurocircuitry that supports our personal development, learning, healthy establishment of boundaries and ability to offer others the same through non-judgment.

It is often helpful to work with a trained therapist as we undertake our journey through shame and into selflove. A skilled therapist assists us in seeing the good in ourselves and offers safe space to explore ourselves deeply, and to mine the insight and inner wisdom required to begina course of personal development through unwavering self-love.

Therapy’s Role in Addiction Recovery

When we talk about addiction, many of us immediately assume that we are referring to an alcohol or drug- related compulsion. The reality is that addiction involves so much more than the substance, or behaviour, of choice. It might surprise you, however, that although the resulting behavioral, physical and social implications of addiction differ, the mechanism of the addiction itself is the same.

How is Addiction Defined?

An addiction is a repeated pattern of substance use or behaviour that we continue to engage in despite its negative impact on our lives. While the destructive physical and mental fallout of some addictions are easy to identify, addictions can take many forms and the impact of some are much more nuanced – hidden to the untrained eye. For some, consequences of the addiction are not outwardly expressed, but inwardly (physically) experienced as health concerns. Consider, for example, the implications associated with a food addiction. While it may seem innocuous in the short-term, the reality is that food addiction can have drastic implications on physical and psychological wellbeing in the long-term.

Addiction and the Brain

Whether it’s drugs, food, shopping, gambling or sex, addictions are an indication of underlying distress. Overuse of substances or displays of compulsive behaviour  are coping mechanisms to move us away from pain and discomfort in the moment, without regard for the enduring consequences on our health and relationships.

While genetics may play a role in addiction, some experts postulate that genetic factors may have less to do with addiction than do the brain pathways and behaviours that arise out of a need to cope with dysfunctional environments in our early years. This is supported by the fact that when we are in a chronic state of distress, our brain begins to sensitize the neural pathways that reflect an elevated state of arousal.

Your brain ‘sees’ physical pain and emotional pain as being one and the same. That means that the same part of the brain lights up when you are injured while playing sports as when your heart aches with the pain of a loss or breakup. Whether a threat is real or imagined, imminent or historical, the brain sends the same signal.

To make matters worse, the brain frequently stores information about traumatic events in a disorganized manner. While some images are seemingly burned into memory, other memories are compartmentalized and stored in the survival portions of the brain where they cannot easily be accessed. Without our ability to bring these memories into the prefrontal cortex (the logical and planning portions of our brain), we may be left to suffer the emotional effects of the trauma without having a memory to connect to it. Feelings without facts are known as emotional flashbacks and are most often associated with events that occurred before the age of 5. Trauma that occurs later in life is more likely to produce vivid memories along with emotional flashbacks, as seen in PTSD. The distress caused by emotional flashbacks, with or without memory of the event, can give rise to the destructive coping mechanisms seen in addiction.

“…trauma isn’t what happens to you, it’s what happens inside of you.” – Gabor Maté

Therapy and Recovery

In the absence of memory, emotional flashbacks are often attributed to what’s going on in the present moment while overlooking the original source of the distress. For this reason, many clients arrive at their first therapy session with complaints of chronic depression and anxiety without knowing why.

Dr. Gabor Maté, one of Canada’s leading addiction and trauma specialists, brings powerful awareness to the discussion about trauma and addiction when he remarks “…trauma isn’t what happens to you, it’s what happens inside of you.”

Addiction is a vast and complex subject that stems from our desire to solve from the outside what is wrong on the inside. As a therapist, I offer my clients a witness to their story free from guilt, shame and judgment. As we work together to explore and process the emotions associated with our symptoms, we begin to bring self-compassion into the dialogue, and subsequently find relief from chronic shame. I urge my clients to approach therapy with an open mind and a willingness to really get to know themselves. This is no small task, and requires emotional literacy, vulnerability and a skilled therapist who can partner with you through this difficult process one step at a time. A new life awaits you as you step into recovery.


Is it really a problem or just a challenge?

Is it really a problem or just a challenge?Henry Ford once said: “Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t, you’re right!”.

The way we choose to think about the problem and the way we choose to adopt the problem determines the outcome of the problem. As we do that, we are becoming aware of choices. Changing how we think about things, changes how we feel about things. For it is our own mind that directs our thoughts.

Allowing “it is what it is” and surrendering will help us seeing new solutions to the “challenge” which will then create space for growth.

The emotional side of our brain

The emotional side of our brainHave you ever felt something tickling the back of your neck and right away panicked at the thought of a spider or a giant scary bug having landed on you? To then realize that it was just a fly or someone teasing you with a feather or a simple stick. The instant reaction is because our instant response to a danger is insanely fast with minimum thought. We often react, then think and analyze.

It is important to understand that the mind is divided into parts that will sometimes conflict with each other. The deliberative part of the brain will react, calculate and consider evidence. The emotional part of the brain is fast, quickly acting on intuition and mostly automatic, and most of all, not very accessible to conscious awareness.
Joseph LeDoux, a neuroscientist at NYU, framed this dual process as the low and high road. Threat is processed through two pathways. Our initial fear response is often not something that we deliberate. We feel it before we are fully aware of what that danger is or even whether there is a danger there. However, conscious control over emotions is weaker and emotions can flood consciousness. This explains why it is easier for emotional information to overwhelm our conscious thought than for us to gain conscious control over our emotions.

Evidence shows that individuals with relatively strong emotional system and weak inhibitory control are vulnerable for the development and maintenance of excessive worries especially around big decisions, life changes, new challenges, etc. Thus, sufficient levels of inhibitory control might have a protective function in reducing the risk for developing anxiety and fears. New studies have also shown that training attention away from threats, take the time to analyze the fear for what it really is to then often realize that, it is either a fake threat or a fake perception of fear from an old trigger. Training our mind to do so, can actually reduce symptoms and general anxiety disorder and the anxiety around the fear we are facing. People with better attentional control can disengage attention from threatening stimuli, and channel their thoughts in the direction they want and not dwell on threatening thoughts or experiences.


What is a negative attitude?

A negative attitude is something that happens when we feel out of control and see the situation in the worst possible way. It is when our mind gets in a manner that is not very constructive, cooperative, or optimistic.It can easily take control over our life and big decisions or choices such as; a new career, divorce, getting out of an abusive relationship, standing up for ourselves, and more. It can show up when we don’t expect it or when we feel challenged and, 99% of the time will be charged with a lot of anxiety.

From a physical and mental standpoint, when it happens for too long, we can easily become subject to depression, fatigue, ulcers and heart disease, only to name a few.

There are many action steps that can be taken to change and recharge our attitude into an effective and positive attitude. The minute this happens, our mind goes into “constructive mode” where it is way easier for us to see ways and opportunities in how to solve or overcome the situation instead of focusing on the obstacles and therefore feeling stuck.

When adopting a positive attitude, we will instantly notice more ease in handling problems, stress and anxiety. It helps in feeling self-assured and confident. As our attitude changes from negative to positive, you may even notice that people respond to you in a different way.


The Couple Brain Trap

The human mind is an incredible and complex machine It absorbs and processes an enormous amount of material every second and can recall and use that information with often little effort. One of the primary ways our brain is successful in doing this is by automating familiar information. Think of learning to drive. As a new driver we spend so much time and energy focusing on all the new information barreling at us…its exhausting. In the beginning stages we are consciously seeing and reacting to the environment and learning habitual manoeuvres. Over time, and more importantly through repetition, these complicated processes become automated and before we know it we are driving and focused on other things.Committed relationships can be similar in the learning and automatizing aspect. At the beginning of courtship our partner is new and exciting and our brain is consciously focused. It’s as if we are studying and downloading all the ins and outs of our partner and the uniqueness of them. As like driving, our brain is working hard to automate all this new and exciting information, as if to be able to predict their thoughts, feelings and behaviours so we can focus on others things. Sounds great, and from the perspective of energy and concentration efficiency it is. There, however, lives the couple brain trap. The misperception that we “know” who our partner is. Through familiarity and experience we feel we can almost predict how they think and feel. Worse yet the assumptions we then begin to make on their behalf. Not only do we make assumptions, which in of itself is never a good idea, but we additionally begin to place expectations on each other. This communication breakdown is a breeding ground for the conflict and hurt feelings in the relationship.

So if this process is natural and automatic, and really an important aspect of how we function, how do we not let it compromise the quality of our relationships? A starting point is simply slowing down and being mindful that although you likely know a great deal about your partner, especially after many years together, they are a separate person and ever evolving. Stay curious and wanting to know what they think and feel rather than assuming when possible.

If you are finding yourself disappointed or frustrated with your partner perhaps check in with yourself and your expectations of them. Did you actually discuss what you need and want from them or is it expected they should just know? It can feel validating when our partner knows what we need or want and that sense of knowing can create a feeling of love and closeness. Just use caution to ensure you communicate and advocate for your needs.

Our lives and responsibilities can have us running full speed in our life, increasing the risk for communication breakdown, unfair assumptions or unspoken expectations. Open, loving, and honest communication is the cornerstone to a successful relationship.


Vulnerability – the glue of intimate relationships

So here I go! I suppose that’s an odd intro to an article on relationship vulnerability, however to those familiar with my resistance to starting this journey it’s a great breakthrough. I choose to go forth and challenge my comfort, publicly sharing my thoughts with all of you.

couples intimate relationships

While counselling many couples and families in my practice I have observed again and again that vulnerability is the glue to intimate relationships. Through risking vulnerability there is a closeness and unity, and through fearing and avoiding it we create distance.

Ah emotional vulnerability…that scary fear of exposure, potential failure and the possibility of rejection or pain. I have struggled most of my life with vulnerability due to my core fear of rejection and potential failure.

But why is being vulnerable such an essential component of relationships? And not just sexually and emotionally intimate relationships between couples, but also intimate relationships between family and friends? Our closest relationships are, just that, close. Created due to our willingness to allow the people we care about to really see and know us.

Here lies the beginning of the end for many of the couples and families that I am grateful to be trusted to work with. As we slowly expose ourself to the important people in our life, and begin to reveal the dark corners and blemishes of who we think we are, we become vulnerable. As we share and express our inner thoughts and feelings we develop a closeness, and intimacy that feels so loving and powerful…yet terrifying.

Our mind races! “What if they learn too much about me and don’t love me anymore?” “What if I make a mistake?” “Maybe I shouldn’t have shared all that?” Or worse, that ugly little voice that whispers “what if I’m not good enough?” Sharing and exposing who we are can leave us feeling naked and afraid. Perhaps we self impose the idea that we have to be perfect. Have it all together and avoid mistakes and failures.

But what about actual hurt because of vulnerability? Many of us have in fact been hurt in those very intimate moments and learned to protect and avoid emotional injury from happening again. Over time we can become less willing to share and risk in the very relationships that require it for intimacy, Eventually we find ourself in this state of conflicting emotions. Loving and wanting to regain that closeness with the one’s we love but afraid and unwilling to go there again. Often this is the place that I find many clients fighting to make their way through. Lost in the years of risk and hurt and unsure how to get back.

So how do we turn it around? I believe that it begins with ourself. Our personal willingness to be honest with ourselves about how we feel, what we fear, what we need, and risking asking for what we need. Vulnerability with ourself spreads into our relationships with others. Brené Brown has spent the last 12 years deep in the study or vulnerability and shame. Her research and books share her discovery and insights and have become an important part of my own journey towards choosing to be vulnerable with both myself and the world.

So I will share what I practice as I continue on my journey towards increasing vulnerability and overriding my instincts to retreat and protect myself. First, I have committed to consciously checking in with how I feel, without judgement and minimizing. This has been surprisingly difficult as I have spent so much of my life downplaying my feelings to minimize creating waves or being considered irrational. Feelings are irrational.

Next is the uncomfortable conversation with my fears. What are they? What purpose do they serve? Often fear is a subconscious caution sign to warn us of dangers ahead. I am constantly working to honour my subconscious warnings, yielding in my life, and working to challenge them when they are no longer are needed or impeding my growth.

Lastly, questioning “what do I need?”. If I don’t know and advocate for what I need, how can I expect the world to respond and support me effectively. The “what do I need?” question has often landed me in my most vulnerable of needs which is boundaries. Boundaries are often overlooked as vulnerability, but sometimes they are the most vulnerable of all. Setting boundaries or saying “no” to protect what’s important to me like my family and downtime, in a world of productivity can be risky. It can also disappoint or upset others, which for me, as I said has been very difficult to do.

The journey towards vulnerability can be bumpy and is almost always uncomfortable. Be kind with yourself, forgive your imperfections, and remember you’re worth it!

To be vulnerable is to be brave…

Stay tuned for my next article on empathy and its power in the relationships which we value the most!

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