The Oxford Dictionary describes shame as a “painful feeling that’s a mix of regret, self-hate, and dishonor.”
Unlike guilt, which leaves us feeling regret for an action taken (or not taken), shame runs much deeper than guilt.
Shame’s inner dialogue tells us that we’re a bad person.
Guilt gives us the room to make use of the feeling of regret in order to potentially change our future behavior, but being a ‘bad person’ is a label that sticks like super- glue.
We all grew up with parents who wanted to keep us safe, teach us right vs wrong, and do what we’re told. I would suspect that even with the best of intentions, our parent’s messages were often in a form of scolding that was laced with some shaming.
“What’s the matter with you! Don’t be so selfish. Don’t you have any sense?”
Using shame to control someone whether it’s an adult or a child is pretty common in the human world.
Shame is ubiquitous in our culture. We grow up having shame inflicted on us as children (even in the healthiest of environments) and, we get good at inflicting it on others as we mature.
As we grow into adulthood, shame becomes a powerful weapon of control in our relationships. Ironically, the person who has the most power to shame us happens to be the person we hold closest to our hearts, our intimate partner.
One of the more common and painful expressions of shame in an intimate relationship is sexual shame.
If we’re blaming our partner for our unsatisfying sex life, we’ll inject shame to express our frustration or disappointment. We’ll say or hear things like, “why are you always wanting sex? You’re a sex addict.” or it’s flip side, “Why don’t you ever want to have sex anymore? You’re frigid.” We shame each other’s desires like watching porn, masturbating, wanting to explore new activities, or wanting to just talk about any of these things. We’re hoping that by using shame, we can control our partner’s behavior, but here’s the thing…
Shame doesn’t change behavior or eliminate the desire that is motivating our actions. It drives our desires into secrecy, and secrecy coupled with shame undermines the trust and intimacy of a relationship.
Words aren’t the only way we inflict sexual shame on each other. Couples can become hypersensitive to body language that communicates judgment.
A look, an eye-roll, an impatient sigh, a head-shake, or silence in a vulnerable moment, can all cut deep and shut us down, and once shame has been inflicted, its not an easy wound to heal from.
If our partner is resistant to talk about sex, if they have a hard time being able to ask for what they want in the bedroom, it’s likely there is some sexual shame at play.
We aren’t necessarily aware of our partner’s sexual shame stories. What might seem to us like a common childhood incident of embarrassment may have been a pivotal moment in our partner’s sexual development that continues to undermine their confidence.
These painful memories and experiences become imprinted in our subconscious mind. Once firmly planted in the shadows of our psyche, shame runs the show from the unconscious sidelines, dictating our sexual behavior and limiting our sexual expression.
Sexual shame holds us back from asking for what we want. It undermines our confidence to explore new activities that interest us, and it holds us at a distance from our own ability to feel pleasure.
We all have sexual shame at some point in our lives. It shows up in many ways as self-consciousness or embarrassment, shyness, resistance, judging our physical appearance, our sexual identity, or our sexual preferences. It also plays a part in our ability to talk about sex in an open and honest way with our partners.
The clients I’ve worked with who resolved their sexual shame, found the fortitude to look at their shame directly and objectively. They talked about its history and identified key moments in their lives when shame took hold of them.
Some of them inherited shame from parents or family members, some were indoctrinated into sexual shame from their religious or spiritual communities.
Abstinence programs taught in school use shame to control young minds, with complete ignorance as to how these sex-negative messages set them up for a life of sexual dysfunction of one kind or another.
Sexual issues like orgasm control, erection issues, painful intercourse, excessive porn use, inhibitions, loss of desire, reluctance to be sexual, all can stem from harmful sex education that uses shame to manipulate behavior.
When a client comes to see me, shame is often at play to one degree or another. But when we shine some light on the nature of their shame, it’s history and development, they begin to see their shame as just one small part of who they are.
Under the light of self-compassion and acceptance, shame isn’t quite as scary or ugly as we may suspect.
At some point, we accepted shame into our lives and gave it power by believing its message. We now have the power to change those messages into empowering statements that build us up rather than hold us back.
Consider how sexual shame has played into your life and relationship and inquire into its origins.
What is the inner dialogue that arises at times when your shame is triggered?
What are the messages you’re getting from that inner dialogue? Write them all down. “I’m not a good lover, I’ll never have the kind of sexual connection I’m wanting, I can’t look like I enjoy sex too much, I’ll never orgasm, my genitals are ugly, I’m a prude.”
Find compassion for the part of you that believes those negative messages, and now choose to update those negative messages into positive ones.
Once you’ve written down all those familiar, negative statements that are born out of shame, rewrite them as positive statements. “I’m a good lover, I will have the kind of sex life I want, I enjoy sex and I’m proud of that, my body is perfect just as it is, my genitals are beautiful…” The next time your shame whispers in your ear, repeat back the opposite, and replace your old shameful story with a new shame-free story.
We all carry our old wounds around with us like luggage, and we wheel our bags of wounds into every new relationship, like an emotional dowry.
One of the beautiful benefits of being in a relationship is that a couple can help each other recognize old shame and, with tender loving care, heal from it.
The next time you suspect shame is running the show, invite it out from the shadows and acknowledge its presence. “I feel really nervous being exposed like this. I need a minute to feel what this is about.” Consider its source origin, and have compassion for the part of you that accepted its messages.
Ask yourself (or your partner), what is shame holding me back from? What is shame preventing me from feeling, exploring, expressing, enjoying?
How would I be living if I didn’t have this shame? Who would I be? What kind of lover would I be? Write down your answers. Sometimes we need to see them on paper to really understand what we want, and how our inner voices sabotage getting what we want.
How can you support yourself (or your partner) in standing face to face with shame in the moment it arises, and choose an action that is counter to shame’s message.
Perhaps you’re shy about your body. Your shame is telling you to turn the lights off so you won’t be seen. Instead of turning the lights out, ask your partner to tell you how beautiful you are to them, and what parts of your body they adore. What is the healing message you now need to hear and believe in order to undermine shame’s inner dialogue?
Work as a team to empower those new messages for each other.
The next time you feel shame dictating what you can and can’t do in the bedroom, ask your partner to help you, by telling you exactly what you need to hear in that moment. “I feel shame when I lose my erection in the middle of intercourse. Can you say some reassuring words to me when that happens so I don’t have to wonder if you’re judging me or feeling resentful.”
When your partner asks you to talk about sex, and you feel shame shutting you down with embarrassment, irritation or shyness, share with your partner that shame is present, then use your voice to speak directly and openly about sex, and feel what that’s like to step into the part of you that is shame-free and confident.
As long as we keep our sexual shame in the shadow, it holds the power. When we usher it into the light of awareness, we hold the power.
We can choose to rewrite our inner dialogue and take action that reflects a new, sex positive and empowered life going forward. Take your power back and show shame that you’re moving on without it.
If you need some guidance in how to take your life back from sexual shame, I’m happy to speak to you and answer your questions about sexual empowerment and relationship coaching.
You may not identify with having sexual shame. You may be quite liberal when it comes to the sex you see on screen and in advertising. You may support honest and truthful sex education, and have a tolerant, accepting attitude toward less conventional sexual expressions. The shame I’m talking about is found less in spoken opinions and more in unspoken feelings and beliefs. Not wanting to talk about sex in our relationships is how we carry forth our ancestor’s sexual doctrine, and I see it in many of my clients.
Teri and John (we’ll call them) came to see me a few months ago. They described their 15 year relationship as compatible and loving, except when it came to sex and intimacy, neither of which they were able to figure out how to change for the better. They reached a point where they could see three roads ahead of them...
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