I’m fascinated by the ways in which guilt and shame play out in our lives, especially our sexual lives. I don’t think there’s a sex educator out there who hasn’t had someone come to them with these feelings and, unfortunately, most of us don’t have much of an understanding of how these emotions work. It’s pretty common for people to say that they want to get rid of shame, or that they want to feel no shame. And I think that’s just as problematic as feeling too much shame.
I should clarify what I mean. Shame exists at one end of a continuum of emotions that also contains guilt, remorse and other less intense feelings. It’s comparable to how rage exists at one end of a continuum that also includes anger, irritation, and annoyance. What differs is the scope and scale of the emotion, but the basic foundation is the same. While the differences between guilt and shame are as important as the differences between rage and annoyance, I think it’s also valuable to recognize the commonalities. I tend to use “shame” and the umbrella term for all of these emotions, just as I tend to use “anger” as an umbrella term.
According to neuropsychologist Allan Schore, the emotion of shame serves the purpose of helping us learn social and cultural rules, as well as important safety rules. If you’ve ever yelled at a child who was in danger (for example, running towards a busy street), you’ve probably seen them freeze and hunker down. That’s a shame response and it serves the child’s well-being by stopping whatever dangerous behavior was going on. Similarly, when we break social rules, shame is one way that we learn where the boundaries are. As we grow and develop, it becomes more subtle and complex, but that’s the basic foundation. There’s a great article in the New York Times today about some research on this.
In order to be effective, shame requires that there is a positive and healthy relationship between the caregiver and the child. That’s because shame triggers a disconnection or what Gershon Kaufman calls a “rupture in the interpersonal bridge.” The discomfort of that disconnection motivates us to change our behavior in order to reconnect with someone who’s important to us. But if the relationship isn’t positive to begin with, there’s no reason to reconnect and shame becomes an ineffective tool.
Where this comes back to well-being is that when the rules are reasonable and when the response from those around us is proportional to the situation, we can learn how to move through the world in more positive ways. Unfortunately, caregivers who have unresolved shame have a tendency to apply unreasonable rules, have reactions that are out of proportion to the situation, or are unable to foster reconciliation. Any or all of these tend to create more undigested shame and the cycle repeats. As layers of undigested shame are lain down over the years, it can become toxic and we become highly reactive to anything that triggers it.
So of course, many sex educators, therapists and other folks with good intentions see the toxic version of shame and start assuming that that’s all there is to the experience of the emotion. And when that happens, they start talking about shame as if it’s always bad but that’s not the case. If we hurt someone by, for example, breaking a relationship agreement, I think that’s a perfectly fine reason to feel shame. Our emotions motivate us- that’s why they have the same root word. The discomfort of that experience of shame is part of what keeps us from hurting other people over and over. Shame isn’t supposed to be comfortable- that’s the point. But that doesn’t make it bad. In fact, Schore points out that people who truly feel no shame are sociopaths because they have no motivation to take other people’s experiences of their actions into account.
Developing a more positive relationship with our shames requires a few different pieces. One of them is learning to discern between the rules that make sense and those that don’t. “Don’t masturbate in public” makes sense. “Don’t masturbate” simply doesn’t. Another step is learning how to move through the discomfort of shame and listen to what it says so that we can grow from the experience. If we’re so uncomfortable with the emotion, we tend to dissociate or get stuck in it, neither of which helps us digest it. Another piece of the puzzle is learning to create true atonement and reconciliation. That often includes learning to hold space for the injuries we cause other people, to not flinch from them, to do whatever we can to heal them, and to take steps to not do it again.
One of the biggest ways in which I see shame connect to sex is through the word “should.” For example:
I should want sex as often as my partner.
You should not be gay.
We should like this type of sex.
Sometimes the “shoulds” are as explicit as these examples and more often, they’re implicit in the language we use and attitudes we have. And anytime we obey a “should” instead of listening to our authentic selves, it’s probably worth looking for the shame that’s underneath it. The shame might be external to ourselves or we might have internalized it so deeply that we can hear the voices in our imaginations.
And yes, I think that there are some “shoulds” that are worth keeping. We should care for the pleasure, health and well-being of ourselves and our partners. We should actively seek the informed consent of anyone included in or affected by a sexual interaction. But beyond that, the “shoulds” just get in the way. And those are the shames that we can learn to let go of.
Of course, it’s not an easy task and it can take a lifetime. There are quite a few resources and this isn’t meant to be an extensive list.
I’m a big fan of Pema Chödrön. She’s a Buddhist nun and her teachings are accessible to anyone of any religious affiliation, including folks with none at all. Her lecture Getting Unstuck has lots of wisdom that applies to letting go of the “shoulds” although that’s not the main focus.
If you’re dealing the the dynamics of shame in group settings, Karen McClintock’s Sexual Shame: An Urgent Call to Healing is a great resource. Her focus is on Christian religious congregations, although at least 90% of the book applies to most groups.
For folks who want to geek out on this stuff and like a somewhat denser read, Allan Schore’s books are really thought-provoking. One thing- he’s writing for a more scientific audience and his books are super dense. Affect Regulation and the Repair of the Self is probably the most relevant, although it’s the third book in the series and the first two lay a good foundation. There’s also Shame and Pride: Affect, Sex, and the Birth of the Self by Donald Nathanson if you want a less dense but still amazing read.
There are quite a few self-help books out there. I’ve read quite a few, although none are really as sex-positive as I’d like to see. And of course, lots of people get a lot of help from therapy of whatever flavor works for them.
Ultimately, learning to let go of the toxic shames and developing a positive relationship with shame is an ongoing process. It’s not something that will happen overnight, although I often wish it could be. Wherever we each are in that journey, I hope that we can find whatever ease and comfort that we can.