This is for you if you struggle with shame. (Please note: Trigger warning, this post speaks about childhood and sexuality) Shame is the greatest shadow to love.
If you suffer from shame, then you know what it feels like to feel frozen and debilitated by that loud and mean voice in your head.
My own sexual shame became the very reason that I embarked on a career in sexology. I just knew this block I felt was limiting my life – not just sexually – in all areas.
In my 20s I was very stuck. I didn't know how to orgasm and I felt ashamed. I felt shame around needing to use a vibrator at that stage in my life, so I would use it in secret.
I remember the day I decided to share my upset and my desires with my boyfriend. I wrote them in a letter and handed it to him.
A week later, I'd had no response from him. So I awkwardly asked him what he thought about it. He told me he'd lost the letter. I knew it couldn't be true. It was too much for him to know how to handle.
So my shame escalated further. I was so ashamed that my partner of three years couldn't address my letter and made myself wrong for sharing with him.
I went to a doctor about my low libido. I was so ashamed that I had to write her anote explaining my concern. She told me she couldn't help me as there were no sex therapists working in the small city where I lived and all she could do was test my testosterone levels. I left that appointment feeling very alone. I decided a little while later that I had to deal with my shame and overcome it.
This was the beginning of the end of my relationship. I knew I had to leave if I wanted to grow as he wasn't willing to go to therapy with me.
I began my sexual awakening phase. I threw myself into situations that were uncomfortable to me. I went to a sex party, I worked in a sex shop, I watched my first porn.
I wanted to feel brave and to overcome shame, so I faked confidence until I felt it. Everytime I wanted to close down, I pretended I was courageous. I pretended to love my body. I opened my legs and CHOSE to rise above the discomfort I felt.
Well, that's one way of handling it. I didn't have the knowledge I have now so I commend that young me for doing her best to rise above it. There is a more authentic way to manage shame which I'll get to below.
What is shame?
Shame is an age-old way of policing each other. It's so deep in the nervous system. To our early ancestors living in tribes, shame was used as a control mechanism. If you were caught stealing meat for example, you might be shamed and banished from the tribe. That meant certain death. So shame causes a lot of anxiety and stops us from behaving in a way that may cause us to be rejected by 'the tribe'.
In our modern world, keeping our place within the tribe might mean we might do our best to fit in, hide parts of us that we deem unacceptable or try our best to uphold an image that we believe is love-able.
Shame-based living can't be authentic. It's like living within a secret that prevents true connection, honesty and trust.
Not all shame is inherently bad. Shame can also be a moral compass. You might feel ashamed if you speak disrespectfully to someone who didn't deserve it, for example.
Unhealthy shame is incessant judgement and criticism. It hurts and causes us to react by pulling away, blaming others, shutting down, hiding desires or limiting our expression.
Shame also prevents us from setting boundaries and making requests; a deep sense of unworthiness that undermines our needs.
Shame causes us to push away intimacy for fear of being seen. If we don't like parts of ourselves, we will do our best to hide them. True intimacy can't happen when we hide.
Shame causes us to hide parts of our bodies which don't meet the standards we've set for ourselves, or hide emotions that we've learnt are too difficult.
In other words shame exists in the secrets. The more you hide, the more you feed it.
Where did sexual shame come from?
There was once a time when women’s bodies were celebrated and sex was seen as a way to connect with the Goddess. Then along came religion and patriarchal cultures who preached a single male godhead, external to the body. Anything of the body was considered dirty and a distraction from true spiritual practice. Echos of this still exist today. I worked with many women from different religions who are trying to overcome the shame they feel about being sexual, about their vaginas.
The majority of us learnt shame in our early childhood. Children and babies enjoy innocent pleasure – it's adults that are afraid of it and make it mean more than just playful exploration. Because of this, many of us were shamed in our childhood for our curious play. I remember being caught looking at 'naughty pictures' when I was very young. My mum was clearly terrified. Instead of educating me, she shamed me and sent me to my room. I know this was just her fear and shame projected onto me. I feel so much compassion for her when I think about this and I know it's not her fault.
We also learn about what sex means by what we observe as kids. Perhaps you didn't see intimate touch between your parents. Perhaps talking about sex seemed like a taboo subject in your household. We then internalise this taboo. We know there must be a reason why it's not talked about. It must be bad or wrong. At worst, you may have been abused and feel ashamed of your body.
So a lot of our shame wounds relate back to childhood – what we learnt, what we saw, what we experiences and what we made it mean.
If you wonder why you still struggle with shame, look at the environment we're living in today. Kids are allowed to watch violent images on screens, or play games where they learn to shoot other humans BUT breasts and nipples are censored. Porn is the only place where we can go to see sex – and only a minority of it seems loving and truly intimate.
So even though it seems like sex is everywhere, the dominant message is to cover it up. Those with the power to choose what we see, prefer to show us violence over nipples! It's insane. Many of my colleagues in conscious sexuality have had their instagram accounts shutdown. So it's no wonder we internalise this sexual cover up as 'there's something wrong with sex, my body, my genitals.'
When it comes to sex and orgasm, shame causes a tension in the body. It feels like a closing down or a shutting off. You might feel it take over your body, you might go up into your head.
Shame and orgasm can't co-exist. Shame causes a fight/flight/freeze response.
So how do we heal it?
Since much of our sexual shame was formed in childhood, we can go back to that little one inside us and reassure our inner child that it's ok to feel pleasure and that it's safe to enjoy innocent touch and exploration. It's giving this little one permission to play and feel and enjoy her body as her own. It's giving her back her sovereign right to feel pleasure. Reparenting is stepping in as a loving caring parent with reassuring words. In other words you become the sex positive parent to yourself. You can also join our Self:Partnership course opening for self-study May 1 – this course is a game changer when it comes to loving yourself.
2. Exposure work
I mentioned above that my strategy to overcome shame when I was young was to fake confidence. This is one way – but there's another more authentic path. Shame exists in the dark so one way to heal is to out yourself and to share what's there for you. It might be as simple as saying 'I'm noticing some shame coming up for me about x' or 'I feel shame around this so I'd like to open up and be honest with you'. 'I notice I'm feeling a tightening in my solar plexus – it feels like shame, can we pause and breathe so I can allow it to pass?'
You'll be amazed at how people can relate and how much they want to support you.
3. Take risks
Small acts of faith build trust and confidence. When I went through my sexual awakening phase, I took many risks. I practised meeting my shame, feeling fear and doing it anyway. I kept bolstering myself up with encouragement – essentially reparenting myself in the moment so that I could push up against my edge. All transformation exists at your edge. This is the place where you grow most. So if you avoid your edge for fear of rejection (shame), then you miss the opportunity to expand in your life.
4. Don't resist it
Shame has information for you. What is this wound saying to you? Is it true? Why does shame come up in that moment? What is it protecting you from experiencing? When you inquire into your shame, you'll see it's showing you where you can heal and grow. Go towards it rather than resist.
If you're overcome by sexual shame, the next step is to use the tools above and find the courage to come out of hiding.
We're all dealing with shame. We all understand. Find the right people to share with. If you're in a relationship, sharing your shame will bring you closer, assuming your partner cares about your wellbeing. It will also help them understand you more. We're very sensitive – when we hide things, people can usually tell something's off so it's worth being as transparent as possible to ease any disconnect or confusion. If you're on your own right now, it's a great time to explore your edge and reparent yourself to freedom.
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