Shame: the Big Secret Behind Our Sexuality
By Dr. Jenn Noble
You probably know what shame is, but do you always recognize it within yourself? More importantly, have you ever thought about how shame impacts your sex life? Turns out it may be one of the biggest secrets behind our sexuality that often goes unexamined.
Sometimes when people think of shame, they are actually thinking about guilt. Guilt is feeling bad about something you did – like an action that caused someone harm. We feel bad when we do a bad thing.
Shame is deeper and harder to recognize. It can feel like an identity – like we are the bad thing. Shame can feel like something about ourselves is wrong, dirty or inferior.
We can easily get rid of our feelings of guilt. We often have a hard time getting rid of shame because it becomes so tied to who we feel we are.
Here’s a powerful description of shame:
“Like fog, shame distorts vision and influences what is seen. But more. Shame also feels like a weight, a heaviness, a burden, pressing down often at the top of the back, forcing the body into the characteristic posture that Tompkins (1962-1963) described—shoulders hunched, the body curved forward, head down, and eyes averted. The burden of shame can settle into different parts of the body—the pit of the stomach, the face or eyes, or externally, an aura encasing the entire self. Shame induces a wish to become invisible, unseen, to sink into the ground or to disappear into the thick, soupy fog that we have just imagined. (Morrison, 1994, p.l9.)
So how does shame impact our sexuality?
Most commonly, shame brings up the urge to hide. We hide sex toys, hide the racy photos we send or receive, we practice sexy dances in the mirror but feel shy to dance too provocatively in public, and we use private search windows to hide the pornographic imagery we don’t want others to find.
In the bedroom we may feel the urge to hide body parts, sounds we want to make or we may keep ourselves from telling our partner what we want to try.
Shame is often behind more visceral reactions like contempt (Why would you think I’d be into doing that?!), superiority (No self-respecting woman would do that!) and anger.
So what can you do?
- Increase your awareness. What sexual things in the media embarrass you, disgust you or make you upset? Ask yourself WHY. Why that feeling, why that strongly?
- Examine your upbringing. Surprise – a psychologist is telling you to consider your past! But seriously, shame is often deeply tied to messaging we’ve received growing up. So ask yourself what you were told. What would your religion say about this type of sexual play? Your family? Your culture? How does your country of origin address this?
- Question the Message (and the Messenger!) Question why (and by whom) you were taught your shame. Understand the purpose. Was it a poor attempt to keep you safe from teenage pregnancy? Was it to oppress or control you and give sexual freedom to someone else? Is the message to be worried about what someone will think about you? Was the message about punishment?
- Relearn. We must learn new messaging to drown out the ones that taught us to deny and reject ourselves. Your body is yours and it is beautiful. Sexual play is meant to be fun for you too! You deserve to feel pleasure!
Dr. Jenn is a licensed psychologist, teen parent coach and associate professor of psychology. Using psychology for social justice, Dr. Jenn’s passion is to work toward equality for all marginalized and oppressed people. Follow her at @drjennpsych
Disclaimer: This is not medical advice, does not take the place of medical advice from your physician, and is not intended to treat or cure any disease. Patients should see a qualified medical provider for assessment and treatment.
Morrison, A.P. (1994). The Breadth and boundaries of a self-psychological immersion
in Shame: A one-and-a-half person perspective. Psychoanalytic Dialogues, 4(1): 19-3