A few nights ago when I got undressed I discovered that I had a price tag hanging off the back of my shirt. It was clearly visible all day long to 10 different clients as they walked behind me to my office, yet not one person said anything.
I was first mildly embarrassed for a minute — although I would have been mortified for days before I became self-accepting!
Yet my next thought was of those people who saw the tag and said nothing. I learned a lot about how they handle shame. Yes, shame again shows up as driving so much of human behavior.
Certainly, it can be difficult to point out something embarrassing about another person. People have difficulty criticizing others because they do not want to make others feel uncomfortable. Not speaking up seems polite.
My clients wanted to protect me from a shaming experience by not pointing out my flaw — the forgotten price tag. They did not know that to me it would not have been shaming, but rather helpful. I would have appreciated being told about the price tag sooner, rather than not at all.
By their (lack of) behavior my clients also showed me about their difficulty tolerating shame.
They know all too well the pain of this emotion and experience. So when they see someone else doing something embarrassing they have difficulty saying anything largely because they themselves don’t like the feeling of shame.
Conflict avoidance can often be about protecting someone from shame due to your own fear of being shamed.
A common scenario I hear in therapy is clients who have difficulty breaking up with someone they’ve been dating who is clearly not right for them. They don’t enjoy the shame of being rejected and they imagine that the other person does not like this either. So they avoid the conflict of rejecting this person, and continue to date far longer than they should. Of course, now they have a very big job. Wouldn’t it have been easier to reject this person after the first or 10th date, rather than after 6 months?
How would you handle conflict differently if you could tolerate shame with equanimity? What would you do if you could be certain the other person could also tolerate shame well?