“Shame corrodes the very part of us that believes we are capable of change.” – Brene Brown
Our sexuality is a natural part of our humanity. This is a sex positive article.
According to Michael Vigorito, a sex therapist and author of the book Treating Out of Control Sexual Behavior – Rethinking Sex Addiction, it’s important to understand how to uniquely define ethical sexual health in your life. He encourages his clients to answer the following questions about their sex life:
- Is it honest?
- Are your values aligned with your actions and your sexual partner(s)?
- Is it consensual?
- Is it safe? (STI, STD, unwanted pregnancies, high-risk situations, etc.)
- Is it non-exploitive?
- Is it pleasurable for you and your partner(s)?
- Is it negatively impacting your life?
- Do you ever have a sense of feeling out of control?
Exploring your sexual health with questions like these will help you identify where your sexual behaviors fall outside of your sexual ethics. And if they don’t fall outside of your ethics, do they fall outside of the law? Acting out sexually is often a coping mechanism used to mask a deeper pain.
But the result is often shame and it pervades a person’s core sense of self-worth. It sends a message that says I am wrong. I am bad. I am not a good person. I am broken.
Toxic shame is a form of chronic shame that causes intense pain and deep feelings of inadequacy. This type of shame exists in one’s unconscious and becomes a part of one’s internal identity and involves relentless negative self-messages. Often, toxic shame originated in childhood or from a prior trauma.
These feelings of shame can be so viscerally uncomfortable that one acts out again to soothe the pain, much like a drug addiction.
- Self-loathing and low self worth
- Self martyrdom and self-victimization
- Feeling of being afraid or phony
- Dysfunctional relationships with others
- Feelings of chronic unworthiness
- Frequent feelings of irrational guilt
- People Pleasing
- Addictive Tendencies
- Angry or defensive persona
Perfectionism and Secrecy
Oren Matteson, the Clinical Director at Millennium Counseling Center, is a Certified Sex Therapist (CSAT) specializing in helping individuals cope with sex addiction and sexual issues. According to Oren, “for many clients shame keeps them from joining crucial support and therapy groups. Shame can also convince a client they need to be “perfect” through their recovery process, something that is not even possible. By believing they need to be perfect and can’t make any mistakes they keep all of those struggles inside which can be a catalyst for acting out and relapse.”
“Shame needs three things to grow exponentially in our lives:
secrecy, silence, and judgment.” – Brene Brown
Shame and Your Brain
Understanding how shame works neurologically and physically helps clients visualize how it appears in one’s daily life.
Humans are a remarkable species. When our body experiences shame, it sets off signals in our brain that we are in danger. Shame is that powerful. In turn, our brain tells the sympathetic nervous system to react now – fight, flight, or freeze.
- The fight response: the person who feels shame attacks the person who made them feel that way through verbal and physical aggression.
- The flight response: shame may manifest in the desire to disappear.
- The freeze response: shame upsets one’s ability to think clearly making the person feel stuck and powerless because they believe there is something wrong with them.
Breaking the Shame Cycle
How is the cycle broken? Sharing, talking and normalizing a feeling or behavior that someone is experiencing. Empathizing and connecting also help defuse shame.
What’s the opposite of toxic shame? Messages of self-love: I am lovable. I am worthy. I am enough. I matter. I’m imperfect, like all humans.
Our brain and our body are capable of healing our shame. By showing up as your imperfect authentic self, you help others do the same.
Our brain and our body are capable of healing our shame.
Resources and More Information:
Complex PTSD Foundation: An article on how shame and toxic shame operates in the body. CPTSD-The Neuroscience of Shame.
Repairing toxic shame: Neuroplasticity: our brains are malleable and capable of learning new ways of thinking and behaving. Trauma Informed Care Neuroplasticity and Mindfulness
John Bradshaw’s: Healing the Shame that Binds You
Director Steve McQueen captured the dark side of shame buried in a compulsion to act out sexually in his movie “Shame.” It is a difficult watch, but it is a very real depiction of using sexuality to cope. Shame
If you have any questions about this topic or you would like to schedule a time to chat you can reach me at Hilary@millenniumhope.com.