In my over 30 years working with people as a therapist and a coach, shame, and particularly, toxic shame, is at the root of more issues than any other emotion. It is also the thorniest emotion for many people as they have no idea how to rid themselves of shame. Many cultures imbue sexual activity and sexual relationships with layers and layers of shame. Unpicking cultural and familial patterns of shame often takes patience, courage and tenacity.
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’.
Sadly, our culture encourages shame around sex and sexuality. Many of us grow up ashamed of our bodies, ashamed of any pleasure we can 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.
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.
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.
Are you struggling with shame? For a free 45 minute session with me to examine how I might help, book here.
Dr Lori Beth Bisbey is a registered psychologist, sex & intimacy coach, professional speaker and published author. She has been working with individuals, couples and polyamorous groups for over 30 years to help them create and maintain their ideal intimate relationships. She writes non-fiction about sex, sexuality, gender, relationships of all kinds, kink, non-monogamy, BDSM and authority transfer based relationships and sexual trauma in her own blog, for a variety of relationship websites, and for a number of print publications. She also writes erotic short stories.