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Learning to detect a shame attack diminishes its power instantly

Aaron Cooper, Ph.D.
• April 06, 2022

What has the power to knock any relationship off its rails?  Shame. When shame stirs within a partner, conversations that were going along nicely can go haywire. Partners turn angry, even rageful, or withdraw into silence, even leave the room.  

Can you detect when your partner sinks into shame? When she (or he) is feeling unworthy, flawed, not good enough? Relationships profit when partners learn to spot each other’s shame attacks and gently inquire about it: I sense you’re feeling inadequate and unworthy right now, could that be? This is the first step in disarming the toxicity of a shame attack. 

Let’s contrast shame with guilt. Guilt — I did wrong — can be helpful, can keep us on track when we’ve violated our deepest values or standards. It can trigger a course correction or a relationship-healing apology. By contrast, shame — I am wrong/inadequate/unworthy — tears us down and steals our confidence. In other words, when the mind condemns our behavior, we feel guilt; when it condemns the person we are, we feel shame. 

Shame upends our relationships by triggering two common responses: withdrawing — to conceal the inadequate person we think we are — or erupting in anger — to aim our pain outward and away from ourselves. Neither response — withdrawing or erupting — improve a difficult situation or promote positive connection; they usually make matters worse. 

Like the fictional vampire, shame thrives only in darkness, in invisibility. As soon as we’re able to notice that we’re experiencing a shame attack, its power diminishes instantly. That’s why learning to shine a light on shame is the first step in combating it, and that’s why a partner familiar with shame can be enormously helpful: I sense you may be having a shame attack right now.i  

How do we learn to spot shame attacks? Words like these are reliable signals:  

“How could I be so stupid?” 
“You make me feel worthless.” 
“I just want to disappear.” 
“Nobody would like me if they knew …” 
“I feel like you’re judging me.” 
“I’m such a loser.” 
"I’m not good enough…smart enough…X or Y or Z enough.” 

At other times, it’s the oversized anger or the need to withdraw (which can include becoming quiet) that tip us off. 

By shining a light on a partner’s shame, we’re poised to deliver the antidote to shame’s poison: empathy + compassion: “I know what that’s like…it’s a horrible feeling…can I remind you of how much I value you?”  

Eleanor Roosevelt’s oft-quoted words — “Nobody can make you feel inferior without your cooperation” — remind us that the shame attack is something our own judging mind does to ourselves, often transforming a partner’s complaint into our own self-condemnation. But a loving partner who spots and calls out a shame attack and delivers empathy + compassion can salvage the moment and help the relationship get back on track.  

Aaron Cooper, Ph.D.

During Dr. Cooper’s forty plus years as a psychotherapist, he has been exposed to a great many therapeutic approaches and schools of thought and has assembled his own eclectic framework. How he approaches couples counseling differs in some ways from how he approaches family and individual therapy, but all his work is informed by the belief that our emotions tell us a lot about ourselves and our relationships — and so are critically important to understand.