THE BLOG

How Shame Affects Our Dating Relationships in Middle Age

04/02/2015 02:23 pm ET | Updated Jun 02, 2015

One of the most painful and life-impacting human emotions is shame.

Shame is a powerful universal emotion that often emerges when we feel deeply vulnerable about something and believe that others have the power to judge us, and ultimately reject us.

Shame tells us that we're not good enough, that we're unworthy, that we're damaged goods.

Shame elicits feelings of embarrassment, and often, a profound sense of humiliation that makes us want to either fight, flee or freeze.

The fact that we most often experience shame in response to feeling vulnerable is one reason why shame is such a powerful emotion. Another reason is that shame usually emerges at the very moment we need unconditional love and acceptance the most.

Envision what you feel most vulnerable about -- anything that fills you with a sense of fear that those who you love and care about the most will abandon you if they found out. But before they abandon you, they will laugh at you, gossip about you, hurl insults at you, and then abandon you. The feeling you're experiencing in response to this scenario is most likely shame.

According to vulnerability researcher, Dr. Brené Brown, shame is not the same as guilt. Productive guilt (not the perfectionistic kind) is adaptive - something we experience when we've made a mistake and we need to fix it. Once we take responsibility for our behavior, and do what we can to remedy our mistake, the feelings of guilt should eventually subside. Unlike productive guilt, shame doesn't subside after we've taken responsibility for our mistakes, and in fact, regardless of what we do, shame often gets worse in time, hitting us in triggered waves, sometimes for years, sometimes for our entire lives.

Productive guilt tells us our behavior is bad; shame tell us that we are bad.

Another thing about shaming experiences is that they are deeply personal in the sense that what shames me, might not shame others (and visa versa). I find certain things shameful because of the lenses I use in life to create meaning, and those lenses were created over a lifetime of meaning-making experiences, rooted in childhood and reinforced throughout my life.

Shame often drives the "shoulds" in our life -- those things we have internalized through the years that tell us whether we are good or bad, on track or off, worthy or unworthy. We all have some should-driven notions of our ideal selves - our narratives of who we believe we are (or should be), and if we veer too far off of our should-driven course, we often feel shame.

I am a strong, independent, self-sufficient woman who doesn't take crap from anyone, but at the same time I am compassionate and very giving. I am competent and make wise and measured decisions. I am organized and very even-tempered. I have been reinforced my entire life for these traits, and they have historically served as the bedrock of my self-confidence. But if my narrative isn't based on who I really am, or at the very least, who I am all the time, and my mask is uncovered, then I risk feeling shamed, particularly if I am exposed in an emotionally unsafe context, such as a new romantic relationship.

So here is the truth about me:

  • I'm not always independent. For instance, I know that many independent souls love eating dinner alone at a restaurant, but the truth is, I hate it. I'm not fond of traveling alone either. I get lonely, and find myself consistently saying "Oh hey, look at that!" to nobody in particular.
  • I'm also not always so self-sufficient. I get overwhelmed with life from time to time, and sometimes it would be really great to come home and collapse into a partner's arms while he whispers in my ear that everything will be okay (and that he's cooked dinner, finished my laundry, and taken the trash to the curb).
  • I sometimes take crap from people, because every now and then I confuse "taking crap" with being caring, and it's an hour or so later (or a month, or a year) when I realize that someone has taken advantage of me or said something really mean to me, and I find myself responding with a really strong and sassy retort hours (or months, or years) later with only myself as a witness.
  • I'm not always a good and caring person -- sometimes I'm selfish. And in the past I've made some major mistakes, some real whoppers in fact, and people got hurt as a result.
  • I'm terrible at math, just awful, which I believe is the reason why I haven't always been the best at managing my finances, and although I'm getting better, life would be far easier for me if bartering was the primary mode of commerce in this country.
  • While I can be a perfectionist in my work, I can be a bit disorganized in my personal life. I lose my car within three minutes of having parked it, and my username for many things is whereismyphone, because I say that about 100 times a day.

When I catapulted into the dating world again as a middle-aged, empty-nested, single woman, I put my best foot forward and without even realizing it, often pretended to be something I wasn't (my old narrative), so that I didn't have to feel embarrassed or ashamed. If asked about my more vulnerable areas, including some of my whopping mistakes, I would shave off a few details here and add a few denials there, and before I knew it, I had a perfectly presentable story that showed me in a pretty decent, if not downright admirable light.

But this type of reaction has a relatively short shelf life because eventually, we must either deal with those past experiences that make us feel shame, or we risk having the targets of our shame serve as portals through which we view ourselves, how we believe others view us, and if we're not careful, how we view the world, coloring our perceptions and isolating us from others as the shame we feel whispers lies in our ears, telling us that we are unworthy of love and belonging, that we don't deserve success, and that true joy will forever be at bay.

Shame is bound to impact our middle-aged dating relationships because most of us on the other side of 50 have had plenty of shame-inducing experiences. So what are we mid-lifers to do? I believe that the following four steps can go a long way in helping us shame-proof our middle-aged relationships:

  1. Create an environment of transparency, patience and forgiveness.
  2. Lose the standard "relationship formula" approach to dating, and instead, rip off the Band-Aid and risk being ourselves -- our true, sometimes messy, sometimes very imperfect selves.
  3. Don't explain, defend, or deny -- just speak the truth -- about who we are, where we've been, what we've learned, how we feel, and what we want.
  4. Extend the same level of acceptance to our partners as we want to receive ourselves.

That's it -- it's really quite simple. I'm convinced that in the process of shining a light on our vulnerabilities, we won't feel powerless or shameful, but rather we will feel empowered and liberated, which is a wonderful foundation on which authentic love can blossom.

Originally posted on Ambiance Matchmaking website.

Learn more about Dr. Michelle Martin by visiting her website: www.michelleemartin.org