Dear Therapist: I need relief from divorce shame

Danielle B. Grossman / Columnist

Dear Therapist: I am going through a divorce. I am embarrassed my marriage failed and feel horrible about myself. I can’t seem to shake the feelings of shame even though I tell myself that lots of people get divorced and it’s nothing to be ashamed about. The shame is making me drink too much which is making me feel even worse.  

Dear Seeking Shame Relief: I’m not surprised your shame is so sticky. Shame generally doesn’t respond to affirmations or reason because it is hard wired. It is a survival response that was deeply embedded long ago when we regularly faced death from non-compliance with social norms or from loss of ranking within social hierarchies.  

When we are talking about the threat of death, reason and affirmations don’t do much. That makes things difficult because shame triggers are everywhere. We can get triggered by a social error, even a minuscule one, a mistake, a loss, a real or perceived rejection, a physical, mental or emotional difference from socially prescribed ideals, a lack of financial resources, an experience of being treated disrespectfully or any type of abuse.  

Even though shame is a shared human experience, it feels alienating, isolating and disconnecting. It can cause distressing physical responses like nausea and flushing, collapse our energy and make us want to crawl in a hole or erase our existence. It is, truly, the worst.  

So what to do? Although it may be a bitter pill, we start with acceptance. I am human, I will feel shame. This allows us to face the shame head on for what it is – a normal human hard wired response – instead of spinning into shame avoidance strategies that exhaust us and keep us unskilled at dealing with shame when it pounces.  

These avoidance strategies can be numbing ourselves with whatever works, trying to be so good or so successful that we are shielded from shame, internally harassing ourselves with cruel judgements like ‘you’re a worthless piece of’ in attempts to motivate us to either drastically change or to give up on life so we never have to feel shame, or projecting our shame onto others so that we can be safe from from feeling it ourselves.  

Depending on how ingrained these avoidance strategies are for you, you might need support to disentangle from them. But until you become more confident about dealing directly with feelings of shame, the avoidance won’t go away, it will just morph into different forms.  

I’m not sure how you, Seeking Shame Relief, will learn to face shame and not be taken down by it.  Everyone is unique in how they successfully deal directly with shame. Some need to talk about it, some need to be alone and write about it, some need a hug, some need to cry. Most need regular reminders that shame is just shame, a body and mind experience that affects us all and means nothing about who we are. 

All of this is a long and individual path. I don’t know what twists and turns your process may take. Going through a divorce can be shattering and tear you down to your barest parts. The good news is that your ability to name the shame, your awareness of using alcohol to avoid it and your desire to feel better all bode extremely well for your rebuilding process.  

Danielle B. Grossman, Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, has worked with clients in the Truckee/Tahoe community for 20 years. She helps individuals and couples with their relationships, anxiety, grief, struggles with food and addiction. Reach out at or learn more at 

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