Why Do We Feel Shame?
...And What Should We Do About It?
Shame and guilt are common emotions that most of us who have empathy feel on a regular basis. Guilt arises out of feeling remorse for some action we have done to another. Shame on the other hand is a more complex and self-directed emotion. It is often layered on top of other emotions such as sadness, anger, joy or hurt as a result of evaluating those other emotions or experiences. The result is often a judgment of ourselves for not living up to the standards that we or others have placed upon us. For example, when we judge ourselves for feeling pleasure or desire in certain ways, for losing an erection, for experiencing painful sex, for having a “too” high or low libido, for telling someone that we are not attracted to them, for being sexually assaulted, then we feel shame on top of the experience. When we believe that we failed to live up to those standards on multiple occasions, we not only feel badly about what we did, but also for who we are. And because there are so many norms and “shoulds” about sex, many of us feel shame related to at least some aspects of our sexuality.
The Purpose of Shame
The emotion of shame serves an evolutionary purpose like most of the ways in which we function as humans. The theory is that shame is what historically protected humans from being kicked out of their communities. Shame is what makes someone immediately want to hide whatever it is they are doing because, they think, if someone found out about it, they would be banished. Historically, being kicked out of one's community was in essence a death sentence. Thus shame serves the function of keeping private anything that could result in being cause for us to be expelled out of our community. The problem is that the secrecy of our experience and associated emotions do not remain private to our inner world and we often feel it quite deeply.
The Habit of Shame
We are creatures of habit and the more we hear or repeat a thought to ourselves, the more we believe it. Thus the first strategy for overcoming shame is to notice it. Sometimes the feelings can be overwhelming and thus we need to slow down our experience to peel apart the entanglement of the emotions in order to simply notice and explore them. Then we need to uncover the “shoulds” and norms that are behind the thoughts. For example, underneath the shame of our experience we might realize that we expect that erections will happen at will, or that we are supposed to feel sexual desire all the time or only in certain situations, or that it is in some way our own fault that someone else violated our boundaries.
Because shame's function is to keep something private that could potentially ostracize us, one way to reduce the shame is to talk about it. Opening up about our experience and then recognizing that we are not kicked out by those we love and our community, helps to reduce the power of the shame. Sometimes journalling first for ourselves can help to organize our experiences and then we can start practicing talking about it. We don't necessarily want to broadcast everything we feel shameful about, however discussing aspects gradually with a supportive, non-judgmental partner, close friends, and/ or therapist can help us develop some self-compassion and absorb some of the acceptance that others show us towards our experience. The more we notice that we are not ostracized for who we are, such as for being a survivor of rape, not enjoying intercourse, or not feeling desired, the more the emotion of shame is reduced.
The next step is to accept our humanity and all of our flaws and mistakes. Sometimes we have to make amends to others for the harm that those flaws made. Humility and compassion are important skills in this instance. Often however we need to accept that we have made mistakes that have largely had negative consequences to ourselves. Self-acceptance and compassion are key to moving through shame. And then we can address the feelings underneath the shame: hurt at feeling rejected, embarrassment at not performing sexually in the ways that we want, fear of painful sex. Often these underlying emotions are quite hard to sit with, which is why we become so good at avoiding them. Once they are identified, applying the same compassion towards ourselves that we likely would offer to another person is a good place to start. Allowing ourselves to acknowledge and experience those hard emotions is an important step towards our healing.
Forgiveness and Compassion
Finally we need to forgive ourselves for how we have treated ourselves through the shame. Hindsight is much clearer than what we see when we are in emotional discomfort or distress. We can forgive ourselves for our actions or thoughts or emotions of the past: for the demise of a relationship due to not understanding and expressing what brought us pleasure, for being silent about our physical or emotional pain for so long, for avoiding sex because of the fear of performance, or for not accepting our sexual orientation. Compassion is the antidote to shame. Giving ourselves self-compassion as well as hearing compassion from others can be extremely healing and powerful.
Slow down and notice what shameful feelings you have that arise in the context of your relationship(s) and/ or your sexuality. These feelings can hold you back from fully embracing your sexual and relationship life. Notice also if you have judged your partner's experience. Sometimes what underlies their emotions is shame: bringing an open curiosity to understanding their experience as well as compassion for their struggle can lead to a stronger connection and better erotic life for the both of you together. You might experience freedom from shame like a weight lifting off your shoulders. This lightness can open up more space for the positive erotic desires and emotions to flow forth, which is something that many of us can use more of in life!
Carlyle Jansen is the founder of Good For Her, a sexuality shop and workshop centre in Toronto. If you have questions or comments, email firstname.lastname@example.org or go online to www.goodforher.com