Relational Shame Cycles

I talk a lot in Redefining Love about the Three Pillars of Boundaries, Accountability, and Grace. As a review, these three principals must be in balance both internally, towards self, and externally, towards others in order to maintain peace in your complex relationships. So the key is to learn to identify which of the Three Pillars you might need to work on in different situations. The result, when your Three Pillars are not in balance, is a relational shame cycle.

What is a relational shame cycle?

You may have heard about shame cycles from a psychology standpoint. This is referring to a cycle of shame within yourself – you make a mistake, you feel guilty for the mistake, you try to hide the mistake, you feel crummy about yourself and your life, you try to self-soothe with numbing behaviors such as substances, self-harm, compulsive spending, etc.,, which puts you right back into that same place of guilt. This is not the shame cycle I’m talking about in Redefining Love.

When I talk about shame cycles, I’m talking about relational shame. When we don’t have boundaries, accountability, and grace in balance, we react to external events with shame. Relational shame is contagious, meaning that unless someone intentionally shuts it down, it keeps getting passed on from one person to another.

Steps of the relational shame cycle:

  • Someone refuses accountability for a mistake.
  • They become outwardly defensive, and inwardly ashamed.
  • They work to cover up their mistakes and align others to their point of view.
  • When faced with an angry, defensive person, others become angry and defensive.
  • Others refuse accountability because they did nothing to make the other person angry.
  • They pass their shame on to others by being defensive and angry.

When we are caught up in a shame cycle, we are both the purveyor and recipient of shame. We dish it out just as fast as we are taking it in.

Abuse creates the ultimate shame cycle. But there are other, less obvious shame cycles going on all the time in everyday situations. Someone has a disagreement at the office. They stop by the grocery store after work and are snappy with the checkout clerk. The checkout clerk becomes defensive and snaps at the bagging attendant. The bagging attendant complains to the manager. The manager snaps at the deli manager.

All five people go home grouchy and snappy with their families at the end of the work day. What started at one person’s office suddenly affects not only their own family, but four other families as well. Unless somebody stops this shame cycle in its tracks, it’s going to just keep spinning.

We can’t control how the other person reacts.

When we choose to respond to other people’s shame with boundaries, accountability, and grace, we stop the shame cycle in its tracks. It is entirely possible (maybe even probable) that the other person will continue on with the shame cycle without you. And there’s the key phrase: without YOU. Just because other people are spinning in an endless cycle of shame doesn’t mean you have to be a part of it.

When we try to manage other people’s actions and feelings, we are crossing over from where we end, and they begin. We are stepping into their territory. Their feelings are not yours to manage or carry. With practice, you can come to a place where you recognize what is yours to carry, and what is not.

In past discussions we have worked on determining the space you take up in the world. Once we understand what space we take up, and give ourselves permission to reside in that space, we can easily identify what is ours to carry, and what is not.

Reacting vs Responding

There is a distinct difference between reacting and responding. When we continue with a shame cycle, we react with anger and shame, and pass the shame back to the other person.

When we make an intentional effort to end the shame cycle, we take the time to consider the situation. We respond with boundaries, accountability, and grace. Whether we react or respond to any given situation is a choice.

REACT = Anger & Shame 

RESPOND = Boundaries, Accountability, & Grace

Responding requires intention.

Without intentional reflection on your own feelings and the feelings of the other person, shame grows entirely in our subconscious without our even being aware of it. In our example above, if either the customer or the checkout clerk had reflected on their own feelings and the feelings of the other person, the entire scenario would have ended quickly and without incident.

Redefining Love breaks the relational shame cycle because it requires accountability, which requires you to look within yourself and the other person for their motivations behind their behavior. When you’ve redefined love, you’re able to set boundaries around what is and isn’t yours to carry. You’re also able to recognize that the other person is struggling. This empathy is grace.

Redefining Love eliminates guilt.

When you’ve redefined love, you don’t feel guilty about setting boundaries, because you realize that setting boundaries is an act of love. You are telling the other person where you end and they begin – you are allowing for both people to take up space. You respect yourself enough to realize that the other person’s shame does not belong to you, and you love them enough to give them grace in their own struggle.

Think of how beautiful the world would be if everyone made an intentional effort to end relational shame cycles!

Learn more...

To learn more about the Redefining Love Way, I encourage you to browse the site. Have questions? Feel free to email me at, or schedule a free discovery call. 

For more information on how to join the Redefining Love Community, please visit

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Shopping Cart
Scroll to Top