Aimed for Shame: When Fighting Doesn't Feel Fair

Have you ever been called a “dirty fighter” or told that “you don’t fight fair?” Ever been on the receiving end of someone’s anger and left feeling confused and awful, hurt to the core not because of actions but because of words? Chances are you were part of a fight aimed at shame.

Shame is a primary human emotion, something all of us feel and one that, at its root of roots can stand alone without any other emotion. Think of it like the primary colors on a color wheel. There are just some colors you can’t have without red, yellow or blue but they're also strong on their own.

Anger, sadness, hurt and betrayal, embarrassment, humiliation, insecurity and rage are some of the emotional colors that are associated with shame and are often the ones that get triggered easily and quickly in a heated conversation or argument. Since these are more common emotions that people are more generally familiar with, they can very easily disguise shame. If you’re not aware or don't know, you can get caught up in an unfair fight without realizing what emotion you're really working with. 

Shame is mean. It’s vengeful. It does not aim to understand or empathize. Forget compassion or consideration. Shame won’t hand you a tissue if you’re crying in fact it’s not phased at all. It stares cold, icy and hits you at the core. It feels like rage, it’s loud, and it’s so incredibly pained that it will do anything to get out and onto someone else. And its often successful because its sneaky. Before you know it you’ve either launched shame or you’ve been verbally pummeled. 

If you’re on the receiving end a couple of tell-tale sings can include feeling stunned, deeply hurt, and sometimes, often times, speechless. Your thought process often sounds like, “I can’t believe she/he just said that,” “how could he/she say such a thing,” “he/she’s not making any sense.” Your emotions are hurt, pain and confusion, which can of course flow right into anger. But before you launch a counter shame attack, stop and try a few things first.

One, consider yourself an innocent bystander in this person’s shame storm. You’re the debris, not the tornado. Don’t become the tornado. Two, acknowledge internally to yourself that the person you’re in conflict with is in their own shame storm. What most of us know is how to fight shame with shame, which breeds shame. What most of us don’t know is how to fight shame with the anti-body; acknowledgement, attention and empathy. Third, if you deem it appropriate and and can keep your cool, call it like you see it. “I see that you’re really really angry with me right now. You’re saying some incredibly hurtful things that make me think this might not be a good time to talk about this. I know you want to hurt me because you feel hurt. I don’t want to do that with you.”

Signs that you could be throwing some shame around; emotional flooding, seeing red, immense physiological response(s) like head-to-toe tingling, body heat rising, verbal vomiting, confusion, rapid-fire thoughts and overwhelming urges of anger, rage, even disbelief. On the contrary, you may feel nothing at all, like an untouchable numbing.

If you’re the shame-thrower, stop. Recognize that shame is running your show, you’re not in control emotionally. Take back control by recognizing that there are a number of players in your shame game here. You can be hurt, angry, afraid, disappointed, embarrassed. You probably are at least one of those if not more. You might even feel shame in and of itself. But unless you call it what it is, you remain out of control. Own what you feel, not revenge of what you feel.

It can be helpful to keep in mind that the goal of an argument isn't to make someone feel the pain you feel. It’s to try and describe how you feel to the other person so they can have an opportunity to support you and show empathy. When you’re using shame to argue, the only thing you are making someone understand is that you are capable of immense amounts of hurt, the absolute opposite way to get someone to give you what you need. Used over time, this style of fighting can deeply damage trust and can create emotional trauma in your relationship, drifting both you and your partner further away from the emotional intimacy and trust we all need.