Shame Jackals Keep You Stuck
When you've tried everything and are still stuck around an issue with your partner there is a good chance a shame jackal is lurking about.
In my experience, shame jackals can derail a connection more than any other jackal. This is not only because it is an energy depleting jackal, but also because it's often guarded by layers of anger and defensiveness. When your partner reacts in anger or defensiveness you can get distracted from more vulnerable feelings and needs. You forget these are always underneath. Let's look at examples from two couples with whom I have worked. They are dealing with two common shame jackals. (I have summarized the dialogues for teaching purposes).
Andreas is unemployed and looking for work. He and his partner Lily have two kids and are worried about stability. They have agreed to limit spending. When Lily sees Andreas return home with a mocha grande from Starbucks she says, "I am wanting to be careful about spending." Andreas responds in a raised voice, "It's just a coffee!"
Lily and Andreas decide to try to use the NVC skills they have learned to connect around this. Lily says she feels frustrated because she wants to express her concern and be heard and also wants collaboration around finances. Andreas reflects this back accurately after a couple of attempts. Lily complains that even though he says it back she doesn't feel he is really connecting with her.
This is an important decision point. Instead of pressing Andreas to connect with her feelings and needs, it will be helpful to ask what was happening for him when she made the comment about spending. Andreas expresses that when she makes comments about not spending money he has thoughts that he's failing his family (shame jackal) and that even though he is working hard to contribute it doesn't matter to her. Thinking this he feels despair and needs support and reassurance. Understanding that talking about money can stimulate shame and despair for him, Andreas asks Lily if she could come close to him and create a connection by touching him when she wants to express a money concern. Creating connection before entering a touchy issue can keep shame jackals at bay and allow you to enter a heart-centered dialogue.
A second common shame jackal comes up around intimacy. Will dearly loves his wife Aletha of 17 years and longs for more closeness in their relationship. He recently asked if she would consider retiring early so they could have more time together. A lot of different feelings and needs come up for Aletha when she hears this request. She expresses a feeling of terror needing security, independence, autonomy, and community.
Will reflects this back accurately and still there is anger and a hard wall over Aletha's heart. In exasperation and anger she says, "You smother me." Hearing this Will asks for a few minutes of quiet as he watches his reactive thoughts come up and then internally names his feelings of hurt and disappointment and longing for connection. Still feeling some reactivity, but wanting to try to connect, Will asks Aletha if she could share what feelings and needs are up for her when she uses the word smother.
Aletha begins to cry saying she feels shame. She thinks she is different from everyone else. She says she doesn't need as much closeness as other people seem to need in relationship. She hears his need for closeness as a demand that she be someone she's not.
This is a painful and common misunderstanding in intimate relationships. It's important to understand that one is not born with more or less of a particular need than others. However one's relationship to a particular need can vary greatly. This is especially true for intimacy/closeness.
I suggested to Will and Aletha that they take some time to get really clear about how this need is met for each of them. I asked them each to pick three peak experiences in which the need for intimacy/closeness was met and exactly what contributed to that closeness for each of them. In this way they get clear about how to create closeness in a way that works for both of them.
If you suspect a shame jackal is up for you or your partner, the first thing to remember is to keep your dialogue slow. You do this by reflecting back the observation, feelings, and needs you hear expressed. This means that you say only a few sentences before your partner says back what he or she is hearing.
The second thing is to remember that there are vulnerable feelings and needs underneath angry and defensive jackals. Instead of responding directly to jackal expressions ask to hear what's underneath.
Take a moment now to reflect on anywhere in your life you feel stuck. Write down all the beliefs and thoughts you have had about this. Connect with the feelings and needs underneath any disconnecting thoughts or beliefs.