Moving Through Shame3 Min Read
In the words of the hosts of the podcast “Guys We Fucked,” shame is a tape in your head constantly reminding yourself, “I am bad.”
When it comes to sexual shame, it’s no secret that the majority of people who feel shamed for their sexual experiences are women or LGBTQ+ people. It can be common to feel shamed for having “too much” sex, or the kind of sex you specifically want. Paradoxically, when men feel shame — which, by the way, is often — they do so when they are worried that they’re not having enough sex.
When did something so natural become so intertwined with judgment, self-hate, and insecurity? Solving the problem of sex or slut-shaming requires a societal-level solution.
To start: shame derives its power from being intangible, and often non-verbal. As Brené Brown explains in her book Daring Greatly, “If we cultivate enough awareness about shame to name it and speak to it, we basically cut it off at the knees… the conversation isn’t nearly as dangerous as what we’re creating with our silence” (1).
Sometimes the feeling of shame is hard to identify because you aren't used to recognizing its presence. Therefore, awareness can be the first step in finding the right tools to move through it. One helpful tip is to identify the difference between the feelings of guilt and feelings of shame.
Guilt is an action, not a core attribute. Phrases you might think or say when you are feeling guilty include “I did something bad,” or “that was a crappy thing to do.” (1).
Shame is a core attribute. Phrases you might think or say that reflect shame include, “I am bad,” “I am stupid,” or “I am unworthy,” to name a few. Furthermore, when you feel shame, you can often use blame to protect yourself (1).
Moving Through Shame
One of the last times I felt shame, I worked to put these ideas into action. I started by spending a few minutes writing down what I was feeling. “Take the time to write down the voices and see them as something else,” Brown suggests in Daring Greatly. In other words, putting the thoughts right in front of you can sometimes offer the advice that you are externally seeking.
I’m not going to lie: This step was not overwhelmingly helpful at first. But it was a step nonetheless. Next, I FaceTimed a close friend to talk about all the things I really didn't want to say. I just kept reminding myself that shame gets its power from being unspoken. There I started to realize that journaling had been more helpful in outlining my thoughts and feelings than I had realized.
I had never methodically moved through these steps before, and was genuinely surprised at how helpful they were in the end. I started reflecting on other times I’ve unintentionally walked through this process and remembered the sigh of relief I often felt once my false beliefs were out on the table. I think my main takeaway was that I should repeat these steps as early on in my shame experience as possible.
… And to always remember that shame gets its power from being unspoken.
Work With A Friend's Sexual Shame
I can think of countless times where friends have come to me with their own shame, and I often get an overwhelming feeling of both wanting to help while also sometimes not knowing how. So, the latest tip I’ve learned here is that if and when a friend expresses these types of feelings to you, the obvious first step is to listen. Allowing them to feel heard is more helpful than many people realize.
The next step is to ask the right questions. Keep them judgment-free. For example, if a friend is expressing feelings about how many people they have had sex with, phrases like “That’s good” or “That’s bad” won’t provide much insight.
Instead, ask them questions such as “How do you feel?” This tactic encourages the person to identify their own emotions, which will help to inspire their own reflection (3). Keeping your own opinions out is harder said than done, as it is natural to toss in subjective experiences on the matter. But, it’s something worth practicing and implementing when you can!
- Brown, Brené. Daring greatly: How the courage to be vulnerable transforms the way we live, love, parent, and lead. Penguin, 2015.
- Hutchinson, Krystyna and Fisher, Corinne. F--ked: Being Sexually Explorative and Self-Confident in a World That's Screwed. HarperCollins Publishers. 2017.
- Orenstein, Peggy. Girls & Sex-Navigating the Complicated New Landscape. Simon and Schuster, 2016.