Let’s talk about shame. 

These phrases come up a lot when I’m talking to people about past relationships that have hurt them…

“I should have known…” 

“I saw red flags but I ignored them…”

“I was too embarrassed to talk about what was happening with family or friends…”

“Why did I let them treat me that way?”

Any of these sound familiar? 

I’ve said all of these myself, and I recognise the pain of them. Shame is what they all have in common, and it’s critical to understand what this shame is about. 

Shame tells us WE are wrong.

One of the most painful elements of moving away from a narcissistic relationship is that necessary first step – admitting to ourselves that our loved one is not who we thought they were; we got it wrong. 

And in a world where we feel allowed to misunderstand, make errors and learn from them, this would be fine. We’d take a collective breath, and breathe, “Oooooh, okay, I have completely misunderstood who this person is – I didn’t sign up for this, I’m out.” 

But many of us did not grow up in this world. We absorbed the proverb: You make your bed and you lie in it. And we took that literally. Admitting to ourselves that we made an error of judgement is then not a passport to freedom, but to shame. Shame that now we feel stuck, that we deserve the pain that is coming to us, that we mustn’t cut loose from the person we’ve attached to. Somehow we have moved from noticing we’ve made a mistake (aided and abetted by clever acting and deception from our partner, by the way) to the idea that WE are the mistake. 

Shame tells us we have to be perfect

If we aren’t perfect, we aren’t loveable.  We strive to be the perfect cook, the perfect wife, the perfect lover, the perfect emotional punchbag.  But we simply aren’t ever good enough.  So we learn that we need to be better.  And until we are we “deserve” the criticism, the infidelity, the isolation.  

Shame tells us not to tell

Even as we are living our bizarre, painful and exhausting life with our loved one, we find ourselves protecting their reputation from others. We defend them and their choices in front of friends and family, or we carefully filter our news so as not to let on how we are really doing at their hands. Shame tells us not to tell, sometimes because we feel it would be disloyal, and sometimes because we don’t know how to explain the strange pain of our experience. Often, we don’t tell because our story would highlight the error of our choice to stay, and to love, this person. We don’t want to hear that we are wrong – again. We get enough of this at home. Shame tells us no one would understand. 

Shame tells us we let ourselves down

Perhaps we had ambition once, ideas for the future that were exciting and cosy and peaceful. We had an idea of who we would be ‘when we grow up’ and this picture doesn’t even slightly resemble the life we are living now. We feel we have let ourselves down and we feel shame. Shame tells us that this life now is our failure, our pain, our responsibility. And because we chose the person (or stay connected to the family) who have sapped our energies, we feel we have chosen all that came with them too. And abandoned ourselves along the way. 

And here is the thing – Shame lies. 

You are not a mistake because you made one. And you made one because you received false information about a person. You made a mistake because your mind had never encountered inconsistencies before like the one you met in your partner – or because you grew up never knowing anything else! You didn’t know these signs were signs to get out, get safe, and heal. 

And knowing now isn’t easy. Knowing now involves talking, sharing, hoping that others will understand, help and support. Shame tries to block us from all of this, telling us to lie in the bed we made and do our best to make the most of it. 

Shame is lying to you – telling you that you aren’t worth the freedom, the healing, the opportunities that could be found on the other side of this relationship. 

You are. 


If shame is crippling you and stopping you from embracing life, therapy can help.  Get in touch to find out how