Toxic Shame

Healthy Shame vs. Toxic Shame

Are you carrying the burden of shame that doesn’t belong to you?

Were you Sexually abused as a child? Were those who were suppose to protect you choose to turn a blind eye, choosing to not see what they see or know what they know– we take on their shame.

As they grow up, children who are abused, who have alcoholic parents or parents with a substance abuse, an eating disorder, a mental disorder a history of infidelity— anything than engenders shame and secrecy—learn to abide by the spoken or unspoken family rules about keeping the family’s secret.

Were you afraid to bring your friends home, afraid you were going to be found out, that the family secret will be found out, did you take on a shame that rightfully belongs to the other person?

Children learn to pretend that things are “normal” and to cover for others’ behaviors. They are often afraid to bring their friends home, lest their friends discover the family’s secrets. This secrecy, this strict adherence to “Don’t ask, don’t tell,” creates a sense of shame in children, and that shame, once internalized, travels with the children into adulthood. The fact that the children did nothing wrong in no way diminishes these feelings of shame, and this shame erodes their sense of self. The shame they bear is really toxic shame.

Healthy shame, that is, the feeling that arises when we acknowledge having wronged someone or having done wrong, is both normal and essential. It comes with having a conscience.

Toxic shame, however, is the pervasive feeling that who we are, rather than what we have done, is condemnable, and therefore we are unworthy, unlovable, and defective. Toxic shame sufferers have taken on the shame that rightfully belongs to another. People who suffer from toxic shame experience some degree of self-loathing, which in turn makes it difficult for them to reveal, even to their partner, their authentic self. Thus having and sustaining intimate relationships can be really challenging for them.

Toxic shame needn’t come from something as clear-cut as having an alcoholic parent or being sexually abused.There are many other family secrets, such as those related to poverty, depression, a particular religious affiliation, or even a particular ethnicity— anything that would make you feel like you had to hide this aspect of yourself from the world, lest you be judged or rejected. And what’s so important is being able to see that you aren’t responsible for these things. This toxic shame doesn’t rightfully belong to you. This shame belongs to the abusive parent or to the kids at school who bullied you for not being dressed the right way.

If you identify with being shame based and have had difficulty creating and maintaining an intimate and loving relationship the first step, is to get in touch with those times when you felt toxic shame—when you didn’t want to be “found out,” as if there was an unspoken rule to keep a secret—then you can work to let go of this shame, which doesn’t belong to you.


When Then Game, Tara Fields, Ph.D., LMFT

How to Stop Playing the “WHEN, THEN” Game

Embrace the Present and Enjoy (the) “Now”

Feeling anxious and powerless about the future since the November 8 election? Join the club.

There has never been a better time to role up our sleeves and empower ourselves by working on what we do have control of and what is truly important…our relationships.

Working on a relationship is . . . Well, it’s work. It’s much easier to postpone working on our relationship until the “right” time, or until we think that we’re “ready.” The problem is, by the time we’re ready or willing to change, it may already be too late, or, at the very least, some water might have accumulated under the bridge, making it much harder to go back and fix what’s been wrong for so long.

It’s not just the psychological difficulty of it all that can make you put off “fixing” your relationship. For example, have you and your partner ever agreed that when you have more money, you’ll go on vacation or travel the world or go on a date night? Have you reassured each other that once the kids go off to college or you get through the Holidays, you’ll have more room in your lives for quality time? Have you ever promised yourself that when you lose weight, you will feel sexy again or be happy? I call this the “When, Then” game—when X happens, then you will put the effort into your relationship. It’s a dangerous game, one made more dangerous by the fact that we often don’t realize we’re playing it.

Sometimes, postponing something pleasurable may seem like the responsible, obvious choice (you’re probably not going to plan a second honeymoon, for example, if your spouse or partner has just lost his or her job). Too often, however, we become so focused on putting things off until tomorrow that we postpone our happiness and miss out on opportunities to experience what’s right in front of us, to celebrate our love and our commitment to each other today. Play the “When, Then” game long enough, and you may find yourself looking around and wondering, What happened? Why have we been so unhappy for so long, and where did our happy life go?

Change comes with awareness. By bringing yourself back to the “now”, the present moment, and by asking those vital questions you have taken the first step to rediscovering and re-igniting the love and passion you once shared.

For further reading: 

How a Health Crisis Can Affect a Relationship, for Better or Worse,  by Jessica Migala with Dr. Tara Fields

Helpful Links:
Feeling Frayed From a Tug-of-War With Your Partner? End it Today!
On Infedility with video: How Can a Couple Cope with Infidelity? via
Dr. Oz Show with guest Dr. Tara Fields – The Science of Infidelity, The Dr. Oz Show 
Dr. Tara Fields – About Her Private Practice
Dr. Tara Fields – Media and Television/Radio Content & Appearances

relationship tug of war, Tara Fields, Ph.D., LMFT

Feeling Frayed from a Tug Of War with your Partner? End it today!

November 8, 2016

Feeling anxious and powerless? You are not alone. Anxiety and feelings of powerlessness are at an all time high. To assuage those feelings it helps to take charge of the things you can control. If you are in a power struggle with your partner you have the power to end it today.

Here’s how….

   Imagine a tug of war. You’re gripping one side of the rope and your partner is gripping the other. Between you is a pit of mud. And you’re both pulling as hard as you can, straining your muscles and your mind and your emotions to haul your partner through the mud to your side.

   Winning means pulling until the other person falls down. Losing means letting go and getting dragged. Win or lose, in both cases, the war is over. Unfortunately, in this tug of war, when one person wins or loses, the relationship is over as well. You can’t exist as a slave to your partner’s needs and as much as you keep fighting to haul your partner into your understanding, that’s no way for your partner to live, either. No matter if you or your partner ends up in the mud, when either of you falls down you both lose.

    Maybe you know why you and your partner are pulling or maybe you started gradually and now it’s been so long you can’t even remember what started the war. But now it feels like you can’t stop – at least that keeps the flag centered between you, right? Wrong. There’s another answer. The answer is to both stop pulling at the same time.

    If you are like most people you are probably thinking  what if my partner doesn’t want to drop the rope? As always, you have a choice as to how to react, no matter what your partner decides. Either pack your bags and move out or take a one-way ticket out of ego land and ask yourself, what is the most loving thing you can do in the situation? If you let go of the rope, your partner will fall on his or her tush! Is that really what you want? Remember, your intention is to be loving! No more tug of war.(remember your intention is to be loving … no more tug of war!  If you ease up on the rope equally, the flag will stay centered. Eventually when neither you nor your partner is pulling the rope, you can lay it down. Eventually, you can walk away from the rope completely.

   Now comes the fun part where we get to explore, identify, and figure out just what kind of Come Close, Go Away tug of war you are in. There are four scenarios:

  1. You are both afraid. One of you fears abandonment while the other fears being consumed.
  2. Both of you are afraid of being vulnerable, exposed—warts and all—which you to push and pull.
  3. You and your partner have not defined your roles as a family man or woman! What are your rituals? Celebrations? Do you want kids? These things must be identified separately from your upbringings. Family means the two of you, not how you were raised.
  4. You and your partner see sex in different ways. One of you hopes for an emotional connection to the other just as they do to themselves—usually the man, while the other hopes to connect from the heart and to feel open and available sexually—usually the woman.

   In what I call the  Come Close, Go Away partners pull against a weight that is set in the opposite direction.  The partner who needs reassurance is matched with a partner who needs space; the partner who uses sex to feel close is matched with a partner who has to feel close in order to have sex; the partner who pursues a string of un-winnable trophy dates is matched with a person who thinks that beneath her trophy exterior she is unlovable. In all these cases, it’s more than a one-person problem.   In these loops, it takes two to sides to make a tug of war and you can’t ask your partner to stop pulling unless you’re willing to do the same. Most importantly regardless of your partners choice to explore and take ownership for his or her part the choice and power to dissolve your tug of war is always in your hands.

There has never been a better time to choose Love not War.


Resolving conflict in relationships by Dr. Tara Fields, LMFT, Ph.D.

Tangled Up and Blue?

How To Ease A Conflict Loop In Your Relationship

Conflict and Protections in Childhood

One thing we learn in childhood is how to create ways to feel safe and protect ourselves. As children, we are living in the land of giants and even if we have loving parents, there is still the occasion where a parent is towering over us with a red face. Sheepishly running away, cowering in a bedroom closet with a economy-size bag of chips, waiting for the storm to subside are behaviors that may be the ideal strategy for the situation. It keeps you safe long enough for the parent to realize they were out of control.

As an adult, protections may take another form. Reactionary behaviors—nasty, hurtful remarks or zingers that go straight to the heart, or withdrawing and retreating, are not protections. They assist in creating the very thing you think you are protecting yourself against: heartache, loneliness, rejection, conflict. In an adult relationship, you may not feel strong enough to endure one more tedious argument and consciously or unconsciously find a way to retreat. If it’s an out-of- control argument, that may still be a wise choice. However, if it’s a conflict loop that keeps recurring and your partner is not out of control, but is merely frustrated, withdrawing may reinforce the loop.


“…Both Partners Have a Part in Every Conflict Loop”

What habitual behaviors do you use to avoid pain or escape anger? What are you asking for that your partner is unwilling to give? And what is on the other side of this argument – what is your partner not getting that they need to feel heard, understood, respected, loved, safe enough to open up? Understand that both partners have a part in every conflict loop. Think about it: you can’t sustain a Come Close, Go Away loop unless one partner pushes and the other pulls. But at the core of every destructive behavioral pattern is a deep desire to be loved, appreciated, heard, and understood. 

In the heat of the moment, however, the last thing people want to do is take responsibility for their role. No one wants to stop and say, “Gee, let me step back and take ownership for my part.” It’s difficult to accept responsibility, and normal to avoid it. But it can become a major problem when couples become like dogs with a bone, rabidly insisting that their problems are—solely and completely—the other person’s fault. He doesn’t listen. She’s clingy and needy. It’s all her fault. It’s all his problem. Looking at your part in the matter is a crucial part of the process. Muster up the courage to understand your role and your partner’s in order for the two of you to make the necessary changes that will breathe new life into your relationship. For more advice and the steps, Heartwork, and 3-Minute Fixes to transform your conflict loop into a Circle of Love, check out my book The Love Fix: Repair and Restore Your Relationship Now.
Rebuilding Trust Tara Fields, Ph.D., LMFT Marin County, California

Affair of the Heart vs. Sexual Affair: Part 2 Rebuilding the Trust

No Trust – No Relationship.

Ripping down trust may take only a few minutes, but it takes a long time to rebuild it. We talked about transparency in Part 1 of this two part series, but let’s go a bit deeper into what it really means. Exhibiting total transparency in an effort to rebuild trust in a relationship means that if you say you’ll be home at 7:30 P.M., you’re home at 7:30 P.M. “What if there’s a traffic jam?” you ask? It used to be no big deal if you came home late because of traffic. Those days are over, my friend. If there’s a traffic jam, you call your partner and you stay on the phone as you drive home. If you don’t, you open a Pandora’s box of other possibilities. Are you lying? Are you not lying? Your partner can’t be sure.

But here’s the thing, even if you act in a trustworthy way, your partner is still going to have a hard time trusting you because of the time(s) you betrayed that trust. Which means now is the time for going overboard, for being 100 percent committed to trust building. Not one step out of line, for it could truly mean the end of the relationship this time.

You may even consider making little agreements with your partner just so that you can keep them and show that you’re trustworthy. For example, agree that you will be home by a set time (on the dot), and if something happens to hold you up, like a downed tree on the state highway, make a phone call and tell your partner to turn on the news to verify that a tree, indeed, is blocking traffic on the highway. Or if you’re going out to lunch or to a business dinner, you might agree to let your partner know in advance where you’re going and who you will be with. If you go to the corner store, tell your partner when you’ll be back, and then stick to the schedule. You’re past the point of being able to talk with your partner about your trustworthiness—it’s going to take total transparency and follow-through, honoring these agreements over and over and over again, in order to rebuild trust.

Be willing to forgive.

Whether trust was broken through an affair or through lying about gambling or alcohol addictions, the steps may be very similar for the couple in rebuilding trust. Once both partners have met the nonnegotiable conditions, the wayward partner has done the work, and enough time has passed to rebuild trust, the partner who was cheated on or lied to, has to take a leap of faith and offer forgiveness. Without it, the cheater may begin to feel there is no hope for rebuilding the relationship and may simply give up.

True, this step involves being vulnerable and being willing to take a risk. Be kind to yourself. Offering forgiveness is difficult. It may be one of the toughest things you ever do. It is a complex and challenging step, but it’s also necessary. Let go of the false assumption that by forgiving, you’re dismissing the pain you felt. Let go of the belief that if you forgive your partner, you’re condoning the behavior. I know it is tough, and it is very normal and human to feel that way. You may never forget. The memories may never fade entirely. But at some point the partner who was cheated on will have to say, “Enough,” and will have to return to the relationship with an open heart.

Honestly and truly, it is possible to survive the crushing heartache and the struggle, and make it to the other side of an affair with a strengthened bond and a newfound loving partnership. Both my own heart and my experience of working with many couples have shown me this, and working with a professional can help bridge the gaps between attempting to rebuild and truly seeing both sides of the coin in working together.

Helpful Links:
Part 1: Affair of the Heart vs. Sexual Affair: Which Is More Devastating?
On Infedility with video: How Can a Couple Cope with Infidelity? via
Dr. Oz Show with guest Dr. Tara Fields – The Science of Infidelity 
Dr. Tara Fields – About Her Private Practice
Dr. Tara Fields – Media and Television/Radio Content & Appearances


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