Shame is one of the most common and destructive of all human emotions. Further, I can say, without reservation or qualification, that shame is a completely useless experience. One of my goals as a therapist is to help eliminate shame whenever I encounter it.
Sadly, many folks misunderstand what shame is. Even dictionaries confuse it with guilt Shame Definition & Meaning – Merriam-Webster. To be clear, guilt is what we feel when we do something that we know is wrong. Guilt refers to feelings of regret over having done something that violates our sense of morality or ethics. Guilt is something that you can do something about to make amends.
I disagree with Webster. Shame does not stem from behavior. I believe that the sense of shame that a person feels stems from an underlying lack of self-worth. It is the comprehensive feeling of self-condemnation for who one is. Shame is an irrational, pervasive, and negative sense of self that falsely seems hopeless and unchangeable.
Another important thing to know is that shame is learned. People have a natural sense of embarrassment but not shame. Shame is the consequence of abuse, be it physical, emotional or verbal.
With these thoughts in mind, I want to focus today on sexual shame: where it comes from, how to get rid of it and how not to shame others.
I. What Causes Sexual Shame ?
Other sources of sexual shame are cultural influences, particularly negative attitudes about sex which come from conservative religions. The result of this influence is that a person may erroneously feel responsible for something bad for which they were not responsible and are completely innocent. Christianity, Sex & Shame | Pastoral Counseling Syracuse NY (revmichaelheath.com)
For example, sexual shame can occur when a rape victim feels ashamed of having been assaulted. How to Practice my Best When Stuck in Feeling Down on Myself | Genius Recovery
Sadly, much shame comes from negative, often medically erroneous, religious beliefs about sex. In any case, harshly negative parental reactions to sexual issues can push a child’s reaction beyond normal embarrassment into shame. Indeed, non-empathic comments or even a disapproving silence can have long-lasting negative effects on a child’s self-esteem.
2. How to Recover from Sexual Shame.
The first step to recovering from sexual shame is to review how accurate is a person’s knowledge about sex. Many who experience shame have a grossly inaccurate understanding of basic sexual facts.
The next step in recovery is getting a rational perspective on the origins of their sense of shame. For someone who experiences sexual shame, it is important to explore how and when those painful feelings first arose. Although people have different experiences, a basic approach is to use their imagination to revisit a traumatic moment. In re-viewing the incident now, the perspective is one of a reasonable adult and not of a distraught child.
The ability to look back often increases a person’s ability to see themselves in a compassionate way rather than a shameful one. Consider an instance where a parent walks in on a teen masturbating.
From a rational point of view, it is easier to have empathy for the child rather than disgust. Likewise, one is better able to imagine the kind response that the child needed rather than the harsh/ disapproving one that s/he actually received.
The difference between receiving an “excuse me” or “sorry” rather than a disapproving scowl or shaming expression is like night and day. When a person realizes that what they were doing was normal, imagining how an empathic reaction would have felt can have an enormous impact on a person’s self-esteem, accompanied by a huge sense of relief.
The ability to, not only imagine having received an understanding response but also to realize that a sensitive reaction is what you deserved, can dramatically erase the humiliating experience of shame.
It is amazing how realizing that you were innocent and that the anger or criticism was your parent’s problem, not yours, can change everything.
3. How to Prevent Sexually Shaming Your Children.
Even for those who haven’t felt sexual shame, it is important to understand how not to shame others. It is also important for parents to understand that non-shaming behaviors do not require a certain outlook toward sex.
Regardless of your religious beliefs about sex, a parent’s first job is to love and be understanding of their children’s experiences. Shaming is never necessary to teach children right from wrong.
Using an incident of being caught masturbating is a good example to prove my point. Even for parents who disapprove of masturbation, educating their children about their beliefs does not have to involve harsh denunciation in the midst of a traumatic moment.
Talking about the incident later can provide an opportunity to more calmly educate the child about the family’s values and beliefs. It is hoped that any conversation about sex will be based on medically established facts.
A crucial aspect of non-shaming behavior is for parents to be aware of their own hang-ups and prejudices about sex. Most of us can be triggered into disturbing irrational thoughts about sex.
Indeed, many parents struggle with shame, too. In addition to being a better parent, dealing with your sense of shame can also help you break free from its unnecessary and humiliating grip.
It is important not to project your issues onto your kids. With a little reflection and conversation with your spouse, you can learn to respond to your children out of their needs and not your own. _______________________________________
Whether you struggle with shame or are trying not to shame your kids, know there is hope. Shame does not have to be a life-long curse. Like always, if the struggle is too much, please get help from a licensed professional.
Rev. Michael Heath, LMHC, Fellow AAPC 11 3 2023