One of the main topics covered in my upcoming book, due sometime later next year, is the shaming effect that society has on our innate sexual selves and what we can do about it. It’s definitely not an easy subject to tackle because both sexuality and shame are extremely complex and cut right to the core of our identities. Save perhaps for urban millennials, who appear to be more sexually open than any other generation in history; it is the rare individual who has been able to escape the ill effects of the social repression of sexuality completely.
For many folks, shame may feel so pervasive that they don’t even realize how much shame they experience; they don’t have anything to compare it to. It may only come out after many years of a committed relationship, where sexual boredom and complacency demand creativity and thinking outside the box. For others, shame is so deeply felt that they enter relationships hiding their true sexual desires, fearing that they will be rejected for who they are. Some of them may believe that they are sex addicts and usually have no difficulty finding someone who will treat them from a pathology lens.
The first thing I want to do when I work with a new client is make it clear that there is no shame or judgment in my office. I’ve heard it all and there is nothing that will shock or disgust me. The books on my shelves range in topic from homosexuality to sadomasochism and I don’t hide them, I put them in full view. The implication is that I’m familiar with all these topics and you are safe here. A supervisor once told me that he thought I should take those books off my shelf, why trigger or shame clients? I told him that it would be a shaming experience for me to have to hide my books, and so I model for my clients what it is like to release shame.
When it comes to working through a shame, I don’t see shame as an independent emotion. Rather, it is part of a whole big ball of yarn, which includes thoughts, feelings, attitudes, and body sensations, that is called a “schema.” Imagine it like this, there are layers of onion and the core of it is our emotions; the next layer is thoughts and attitudes, and the final layer is our behavior. Our behavior is the low-hanging fruit. Research shows it is the easiest (not easy, just the easiest) of the layers to change. For example, a study took a number of participants who had low-level depression (dysthymia) and had them spend two hours smiling at and engaging in pleasantries with people around them, then re-tested them for depression and found that the subjects’ mood lifted significantly. It is almost impossible to force ourselves not to feel an emotion, but by accessing the outer layers of the onion we can start to address the factors that influence that emotion.
By nudging ourselves to explore our sexuality in new but safe and pleasurable ways, we start to chip away at our underlying schema about sexuality. Psychoanalysts call this the “corrective emotional experience.” It’s not just about behaviors though; research indicates that emotions also live in the body. New psychotherapeutic paradigms such as somatic experiencing and sensorimotor psychotherapy build on existing research that shows that all trauma (and hence negative emotional states) begins in the body. Often shame leads us to being disembodied, removed from our physical and somatic experiences and often unable to experience pleasure that we would normally experience if not for all the layers of shame. Learning to locate tense body parts and progressively relax them in anxiety-provoking scenarios (real or imagined) allows us to re-experience our bodies in non-shaming ways.
And finally there are our core thoughts, which are derived from our beliefs and attitudes. The core belief that our sexuality is shameful leads to feelings of shame, tense and disembodied bodies, as well as behaviors that only reinforce that shame. New research is coming out (and most of it is based here in NYC!) on exciting new techniques that have been shown in research settings to change core limiting beliefs that previously were believed to have been beyond reach. I’ll get into all of them and more in future writings, but for now I just wanted to address the corrosive aspects of sexual shame and mention a little bit about how I conceptualize it. As I always tell all my clients, I don’t care what you are into or what you are not into, I just don’t want you to feel shame about any of it because shame is so toxic.
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