“OOOOOH! SHAAAAAMEEEE!” echoes around kiwi schools, kids putting down kids as they give the wrong (or right) answer in the classroom, drop the ball on the rugby pitch or receive an award at assembly.
What kid hasn’t felt that feeling? Hot face, sweat prickling palms, armpits, lower back. Stomach caving in, words stuck, body frozen.
Isn’t it no wonder we carry the burden of shame into our adult years, and into our sexual lives?
Our shame is simultaneously universal and unique. Feeling shame about your body, genitalia and the fluids that come out of them is incredibly common. Feeling shame about experiencing pleasure in masturbation, fantasies, porn, and talking about sex with people you want to have sex with is also pretty common. And on top of this, you’re likely to carry your own unique shame triggers, a potent concoction of all the body and sex negative messages you’ve received from your parents, siblings, friends, religion, culture, media, teachers.
Physiologically, the bodily experience of ‘shame’ sends a message to our autonomic nervous system that we’re experiencing a threat, which in turns ups our adrenaline, raises our heart rate and switches our body into our sympathetic stress response, otherwise known as fight, flight or freeze. But, to become sexually aroused, feel pleasure and orgasm, we generally need our autonomic nervous system to be doing the opposite thing, easing our bodies into a lovely parasympathetic response known as rest and digest.
It’s a paradox: feeling shame about sexuality is universal, however if we are shamed it’s impossible to fully enjoy and appreciate our sexual selves. What to do?
First things first: get clear with yourself on what you’re ashamed about.
If you’re not sure where your sexuality related shame lies, listen to what and who you’re judging. Shame and judgement go hand in hand, we tend to judge the things we ourselves feel shame about. That doesn’t mean it is literally the same: the person you’re calling a slut isn’t necessarily because you want to explore sex with many partners, but perhaps you’re feeling envious of the sexual pleasure they have in their lives, their open levels of desire, their seemingly easy relationship with their own sexuality.
Internalized shame is when we turn this voice on ourselves, casting judgement on our own needs and desires. It can be revealing to step back and listen to this self-shaming voice (with compassion, and without judging yourself for judging yourself!). What is this voice saying? Where does it come from?
Once you’ve got a handle on what your shame is, the next step is learning how to guide your body and mind to learn what is and isn’t a threat, gaining control over your shame triggers. One way to do this is to share what you’re ashamed about.
Shame needs secrecy and starts losing its power as soon as it is talked about and brought out into the open. This has to be done carefully with someone you trust, who will respect your privacy, listen to you carefully, believe your experience, respond with empathy and NOT FURTHER SHAME YOU. If you don’t have this person in your life, I suggest finding a good counsellor/therapist who will respond to you in all the above ways.
Shame keeps us all down, keeps us from exploring our diverse sexual and gender identity and discovering our unique sexual potential. Talking about the things you’re ashamed about can feel really fucking scary, I’ve been there. But, sharing the dark, icky corners of yourself with someone who responds with empathy, compassion and love, who still sees you as a good person, despite airing your shame gremlins – well, that feeling makes it all worth it.
This column was originally published as “Go Fuck Yourself” in AUT University Students’ Association Debate Magazine, Issue 4, April 9 2017.