In an earlier post, I discussed the importance of self-compassion, and as I progress further in my work, I become more and more certain that it is the cultivation of compassion, rather than the absence of painful emotions and anxiety, that is the hallmark of mental health. I want to expand a bit more on that here, as one integral aspect of compassion towards oneself is self-acceptance. In fact, I’m describing a self-acceptance so complete and pervasive that I call it a radical self-acceptance. What do I mean by this, and what does this have to do with sexuality?
In brief, let me first state before diving deeper, that our culture, at least when it comes to sexuality (and I would extend it further than that) is a shame-based culture. I have much more to say about that in my upcoming book (be sure to subscribe below to the blog or in the sidebar to the newsletter to stay updated on its release), but for now, I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that a country has a sexually shame-based culture when same sex marriage was only nationally legalized a few months ago and people still have their children taken away in custody proceedings due to the nature of their sexuality. My colleague, Joe Kort, has written about the institutional trauma of growing up gay in this country; I would also add that there is an institutional trauma of growing up anything beyond normative and “vanilla.”
Unfortunately, the mental health field, while providing support and relief for millions of people, has also carried within its ranks a dark side, a lineage of sexual repression and shame based diagnostics that reduce the complexity of human sexuality and identity to a matrix of pathology and labels. While conversion therapy has been condemned by every mental health organization, one can still find conversion practitioners operating under some other name. In fact, if you feel shame about any part of your sexual template, you’ll find someone that will eagerly “help” you to pathologize that. Surely, for example, the reason you can’t stop wanting kinky sex is that you are a sex addict, not because… um… maybe you are kinky? I believe I can state without a shadow of a doubt that anyone who seeks help for a part of their sexual arousal template that feels distressing or shameful will be able to readily find some therapist somewhere that will diagnose and treat them as a “sex addict.” But this is not surprising; therapists are only people, so it makes sense that a sexually shame-based culture will produce therapists who are also sexually shame-based themselves and (intentionally or not) re-shame their clients.
I have written before about the implications of labels, such as adherence to a rigid identity and sense of self. I know that some folks find relief in labels. But if it is a negative label, such as “addict” or “pervert,” how does that impact our self-identity? And does that label make it more or less likely that we will achieve the growth or improvement we want? Do these terms play more into self-compassion or self-criticism?
When I use the term self-acceptance, I don’t mean that we unconditionally approve of the things that we do or have done. Sometimes we make mistakes. Sometimes we have done things we are not proud of. And sometimes we may hurt the people we love, including ourselves. But the feeling that’s generated there is guilt. And guilt can actually often be a very connective emotion. By experiencing guilt and remorse, we may feel moved to make reparations, to apologize, and to make things right. But guilt is not the same thing as shame. Guilt is feeling bad about something we did (with a typical reaction of wanting to reach out and make amends), while shame is feeling bad about who we fundamentally are. Guilt is more surface-level. Shame is more core.
When we practice radical self-acceptance, we raise arms against chronic core shame. We may look at ourselves and find weaknesses, aspects we would like to change, and things we would prefer to improve upon, but (and this is the main point) we never shame ourselves. It’s not “yes-but,” rather “yes, and.” For example, by practicing radical self-acceptance, our thought process is not “yes I accept myself the way I am and love myself unconditionally, but these horrible sex fantasies are ruining my life,” but rather “yes I accept myself the way I am and love myself unconditionally, and I happen to have these sex fantasies.” Remember, thoughts, feelings and fantasies are not behaviors, and they do not define who we are. The more we fight them, the more we stop living and drain our energies with unnecessary psychodrama. The faster we accept them, realizing that they don’t necessarily have to define us if we don’t want (but they can if we do), the faster we free ourselves to move on with our lives.
What I teach my clients to do is, in the heat of the moment, when they start to feel self-doubt, shame, distress, spiked anxiety and so on, to create some separation of their core selves from these uncomfortable thoughts and feelings. In other words, to recognize that these are merely thoughts and feelings, not objective reality. Someone may have the terrible thought that they are unloveable, but that’s not objectively true. They may have the anxious idea that they are just not sexually attractive, but does that mean they will always be unattractive and to everyone? Of course not. There is a huge difference between being able to say “I feel unattractive” versus saying “I am unattractive.” Night and day. And when the individual can get to that place where they can automatically recognize that distinction, I know we are on the right track. From then, rather than dwelling on the negative thoughts and feelings, I want to see if my client can get in touch with positive feelings in the moment. Such as self-compassion and self-acceptance. Because blowing up the negative stuff is just a form of self flagellation and punishment.
When we are too mired in the negative emotions, we are unable to have enough mind space to even be aware of what’s pleasurable. When we are caught, for example, in our fears about our sexuality, we may not even know what we want, what feels good for us. I’ll often ask clients who are experiencing sexual anxieties, “what do you like about sex?” and often they don’t know. Instead of trying to fight the anxiety, my aim is to help them realize that the anxiety is merely an irritant, not actual danger, and to help them refocus on making contact with those aspects that would make them feel driven towards sex, rather than avoid it. Similarly, for uncomfortable desires or fantasies, rather than try to suppress them into the dustbin of pathology, I would like to explore what is pleasurable about these fantasies and how they can be explored in a safe and consensual way. These are all forms of self-acceptance and self-compassion. Indeed, making contact with pleasure, rather than ruminating about pain, is one of the highest forms of self-care.