‘Loving ourselves through the process of owning our story is the bravest thing we’ll ever do’ Brené Brown, PhD, LMSW
We experience shame when we cannot own something we have thought, felt, or done or some part of ourselves. Guilt can be appropriate when we have done something we know is wrong and harmed ourselves and/or others. It serves the purpose of getting us to look at the wrong and highlighting the wrong so that we can make amends, change our behaviour. Shame is toxic. It comes from conditioning via our upbringing, via our cultural group, via the overarching society. This shame doesn’t serve a purpose. It keeps us trapped and makes it impossible for us to live in fullness and authenticity. The difference between shame and guilt: Shame is ‘I am bad/wrong’ and guilt is ‘My behaviour is bad/wrong’.
‘Shame is the intensely painful feeling that we are unworthy of love and belonging’ Brené Brown, PhD, LMSW
Dr Brown goes on to say that shame needs ‘three things to grow exponentially in our lives: secrecy, silence, and judgement. Shame cannot survive being spoken. It cannot survive empathy.’
Sadly, our culture encourages shame around sex and sexuality. Many of us grow up ashamed of our bodies, ashamed of any pleasure we experience from our bodies, ashamed of our desires and ashamed of our attractions. It starts when we first discover our bodies can bring us pleasure and our caregivers find us enjoying our bodies. All too often, caregivers shame children for touching themselves. Instead of telling a child that it is wonderful he is enjoying his body but it would be better to do so in private, parents often become flustered and angry and ashamed and then shame the child. We learn quickly what our parents, family members, and other trusted adults feel is ‘shameful’ and we internalise that shame. We feel shame when no matter what we do to modify our desires or attractions, we still experience them. Many religions instil lots of shame around sexual behaviour, desire and attraction. They hand down strict rules about when sex is appropriate, what type of sex is appropriate and even when and if pleasure is permitted.
Some people never get past this shame and sex becomes an emotional mine field.
They find it impossible to relax and fully enjoy sex. When they do enjoy sex, they feel ashamed afterwards as well. Some people find it hard to maintain intimate relationships because of their shame. They find it hard to be vulnerable with their partners. Other people finds ways to decrease their shame or only experience shame when they engage in some activities. They make compromises with themselves. They ask for forgiveness from whatever higher power or God they pray to.
I was raised with lots of shame around sex, sexuality and desire. As a result, most of my early sexual experiences caused a backlash of shame. It took me a lot of personal work over many years before I could experience my desires and any sexual activity I engaged in fully, authentically and without shame. My current spiritual beliefs see sex as a sacred act and as an act of worship. Sexual energy is the life energy. Integrating this energy into self, relationships and daily life is a goal that leads to further spiritual development and enlightenment.
How do you overcome shame?
To do so, you must be willing to be vulnerable, to feel your emotions in full and to walk through them. Start by grabbing a pen and notebook or iPad or your phone or laptop. Where ever you can take notes, and dedicate a section to this practice.
You must be willing to change the way you are thinking. When shame is triggered, you can replace these thoughts with accepting thoughts. To do this, you must pay attention to your triggers, your thoughts and your feelings.
This is a practice and it takes time. The more you do it, the better you will become at it until it positive and accepting thoughts will be second nature rather than the negative shaming ones.
Once you have achieved some success at recognising your triggers, move on to identifying the source of the shame. Is it a thought that is triggering feelings of being unworthy and bad? Is it an action? Something someone else has said or done?
Is the thought or desire or action against your own principles? If it is, think about whether the shame is really guilt and whether you should be modifying your behaviour. If not, recognise that this shame is not based in reality.
The next step is to clearly express the shame and all the secrets, unexpressed and hidden thoughts and feelings that the shame covers up. Shame thrives in the dark so if you shine the light of your sustained non-judgemental attention on the shame it will dissipate.
If you have a safe person to talk to, the next step is to express these things to someone who will listen without judgement and acknowledge you and all that you are saying. A safe person is someone who won’t judge you, won’t interpret what you are saying, will prioritise the time and the space to listen to you and will hold this space for you for as long as you need it. They will listen with empathy and their goal in doing so is to support you. If you don’t have someone in your life who is safe to work on these things with, you might consider a therapist, counsellor, or coach as it is difficult to fully explore shame and get rid of it on your own.
Once you have exposed these secrets and hidden thoughts and desires to the light of day, notice how you are feeling. If you are feeling lighter and more positive then you know you have just overcome an area of shame. If you remain uncertain or upset it is likely that some part remains unexplored and/or that there are other connected feelings, thoughts or events that have been triggered by exploring the current material and not yet explored. If you can identify one of these incidents, thoughts or feelings, you can give voice to it just at you did with the last secret you brought from the shadow to the light. When you are feeling lighter or better in some way, it is usually a good place to stop.
When you have examined and expressed these desires and gotten rid of the shame connected to them, the next step is to decide if you wish to experience them.
Livvy had a fantasy about having sex with two men at the same time. She had this fantasy for as long as she could remember but she had never told anyone about it because it caused her intense shame. She could hear her mother saying that girls who enjoy sex are sluts and that sex was only for reproduction and pleasing your husband. Livvy started seeing a sex coach to help her to move past her shame about her sexual desires. After working directly on her shame, she was finally able to talk about this fantasy with her sex coach. Talking about the fantasy no longer made Livvy feel ashamed and in fact she felt excited when talking about the desire. Livvy now had the courage to talk with her husband about this fantasy. She was initially worried about how he would react but she felt reassured when she saw his response to some erotica that contained stories about group sex and specifically two men sharing a woman. One night Livvy sat her husband down and told him all about her fantasy of having sex with two men at once. George listened and as Livvy talked he became more and more excited. He found the idea so exciting that he grabbed her and silenced her by kissing her intensely. They continued kissing and progressed to having passionate sex on the living room floor.
Livvy and George talked more later that night and George suggested they start to look for a man to join them and fulfil Livvy’s fantasy. Excitement had now completely replaced shame.
Being bold, being honest, being authentic are skills. The more that you practice the more likely they will become strong skills and develop into positive habits. If you are not able to get rid of the shame by working on your own or if the shame keeps returning, you are likely to experience better results if you work with a sex therapist or a sex coach. Choose a therapist if you have a lot of issues in your past and know that you will need to examine these in depth. Choose a coach if your focus is primarily on clearing up feelings and thoughts, learning new skills, becoming comfortable in the present and planning for the future.