What is shame?
Shame is a near-universal human experience and it is very painful. Even the word ‘shame’ can stimulate discomfort in us, bringing up feelings that we desperately want to get away from. Most of us are very familiar with that excruciating feeling of exposure, of being found deficient in the face of others. Many of us, too, have internalised shame so that we come to generate it ourselves just by imagining what others think of us.
Researcher and author, Dr Brené Brown defines shame as “the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging – something we've experienced, done, or failed to do makes us unworthy of connection.” Another helpful description of shame is in comparison with guilt: In a nutshell, guilt is “I did something bad.” Shame is “I am bad. There’s something fundamentally wrong with me.”
What we do when we experience shame
The psychological experience of shame, and its sensations in the body, can be so unpleasant that we withdraw. Or we may blame others, seeking to angrily offload to get free of that crushing feeling of fault or flaw. This 'transfer' of shame takes us out of connection and can be damaging to our relationships.
Another strategy we may use, not always consciously, is one of 'defense'. This strategy aims to protect the self from future exposure by avoiding the behaviours or circumstances that stimulate shame. An example that is common is the avoidance of public speaking. A person may be dismissive, saying they aren’t interested or just don’t like public speaking - but later admit that what really stops them is the fear of appearing foolish or unskilled in front of an audience.
The strategy of defense may be less toxic to our relationships than the strategy of transfer but it can be utterly self-limiting, thereby reducing quality of life. I see a link between shame avoidance and the common regrets of people at the end of their lives, such as: “I wish I hadn’t cared so much about what others think”, and “I wish I'd had the courage to be myself.”
Cultural scripts that generate shame
Our shame patterns develop in our early years, generally within family and school environments. However, wider culture also communicates powerful expectations that we may not live up to, and this can contribute to our sense of shame. Clinical psychologist and author Gershen Kaufman and English professor and author Lev Raphael describe three cultural scripts that can generate shame. Though they write about the United States, these scripts are in many cultures and certainly most Western contexts:
We learn that we must succeed. This requires competition and is demonstrated through external standards of performance. We are taught to measure our self-worth by our accomplishments relative to others. Failure, which we all experience at some time in our lives, results in a sense of inadequacy and exposure. In other words, shame.
The second expectation demanded is independence and self-sufficiency, despite the fact that we're a social species and wired for connection. We learn we must be capable of standing alone, needing no one. This is particularly reflective of masculine socialisation. Need is associated with inadequacy, and can feel humiliating. Most of us are familiar with the term ‘needy’ to describe a person, and would certainly not want to be described that way ourselves.
3. Popularity and conformity
The third script is that we must be popular and we must conform. Popularity and conformity do not fit well with an individual truly being themselves and reaching their potential on their own terms. Being different may be mildly tolerated as ‘quirky’, but there really is little scope for well-supported individual authenticity. We know that in order to steer clear of shame, we must avoid being different or perceived as different.
I see the effects of these cultural scripts in all aspects of life, but I particularly notice how they seem to map on to sex and sexual difficulties. ‘Performance’ issues, uncommunicated relationship needs, and shame about perceived sexual non-conformity show up often in my session room.
Sex and shame
Sexuality and sexual expression can be a potent source of shame. For a majority of people, there were overtly negative or conflicted messages about sex growing up, or the awkward avoidance of conversations about sex – a tacit understanding that sex was somehow bad or shameful.
Plenty of people are also directly shamed by others for their sexuality or sexual expression, despite it causing no harm to others nor contravening consent. Many ways of living are shamed. Whether directly or indirectly, the messages conveyed are: “If you don’t like X, you’re not normal” and “If you do Y, there’s something wrong with you.”
In addition to the general shame-inducing cultural scripts described by Kaufman and Raphael, culture also aims its darts at sex directly. While many Western cultures are frankly sex-obsessed, they can also be intensely sex-negative, with jokes and judgements, belittling and disgust common in relation to sex. The impact of culture befalls all of us to a degree, even those who grew up in families that provided positive and appropriate messages about sex and sexuality. People raised in a sex-negative culture may well carry sexual shame, long before they become sexually active themselves.
Many of us are familiar with anxious inner questioning such as “Am I normal?”, “Is there something wrong with my desires?”, or “Are my genitals acceptable?” In my experience, all of these questions are underpinned by the vulnerable heart’s cry: “Will I be received?”
Working through sexual shame
I have worked with many people whose capacity for sexual joy has been significantly stifled or totally disrupted by a belief that their sexual selves were somehow unacceptable. Sexual shame manifests in myriad ways including:
- problems with arousal (e.g. unreliable, absent, or overwhelming)
- feelings of unworthiness about receiving pleasure (which can manifest as e.g. chronic over-giving or avoidance of intimacy)
- lack of awareness about boundaries (or difficulty asserting their own or respecting others’)
- an inability to communicate wants and make requests
- body image issues
- the belief that self-pleasure is somehow wrong or deficient
There are so many ways that my clients and I work together on their sexual shame, whether stated at the outset as an issue, or because it flares up unexpectedly in a session. Once recognised, I invite the person to describe their experience and what it brings up for them. I support them to stay with those feelings and to track them in the body. I challenge the beliefs that relate to their shame. I will be with them in their anger or sadness at what they have lost. I celebrate with them their successes, whether a small step forward or a breakthrough. Underpinning it all is unconditional positive regard.
Being witnessed in our shame and finding acceptance, respect and care in return can be powerful indeed. As shame begins interpersonally, addressing it interpersonally with a compassionate practitioner can help to transform the excruciating feeling of exposure and self-condemnation, offering the opportunity to develop a different view of the self.
The experience of shame can feel unbearable and most of us go to considerable lengths to avoid it, hide it or displace it on to others. Sexual shame is a specific kind of suffering, which diminishes a person’s comfort with themselves, damages their ability to connect with others, and restricts their experience of sensual and sexual joy. Some of my most rewarding work has involved supporting people to make peace with their sexual selves and find their pleasure, and in doing so, re-connect with themselves and others. Time and again I am humbled by the courage of people who choose to be vulnerable in their quest to be free.
For support with shame issues, or to find out more about somatic sex education, check out the rest of my website, and do get in touch if you would like to discuss sessions.
Bradshaw, J. (1988) Healing the Shame that Binds You.
Brown, B. (2017) Braving the Wilderness: The Quest for True Belonging and the Courage to Stand Alone.
Brown, B. (2012) Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead.
Kaufman, G. (1980) Shame: The Power of Caring.
Nathanson, D.L. (1992) Shame and Pride: Affect, Sex and the Birth of the Self.