All of us feel shame. It is not an emotion that is openly talked about or admitted to. Shame can make us feel physically uncomfortable, we can feel our insides squirm, our faces flush, and a strong desire to flee. When we cannot hide, we may lash out in an argument at the person who sparked the feeling of shame, or we may retreat to self-soothe the pain away. Self-soothing methods can be eating chocolate, drinking alcohol, taking drugs, or having sex. This type of self-soothing can lead to an addiction as it becomes the primary method of dealing with pain. When clients come to the Laurel Centre seeking help with their sex addiction or porn addiction, they will at some stage have to face their own shame. This blog will look at the possible causes of shame, and ultimately how to reduce shame to aid the recovery journey from sex addiction and porn addiction.
Much of our shame reactions are rooted in childhood. We are often unaware that when we feel embarrassed or feel our insides squirm, or want to run or fight, that we are being triggered by a childhood reaction. Our brain is remembering a time in childhood when we felt the same way.
If in childhood, your parents or primary caregivers used shame as a method of control and punishment, or they frequently criticised, mocked, or gave you the silent treatment, then you may grow up believing that you are somehow bad, unwanted, or unlovable. If you experienced bullying either by teachers or your peers for the way you looked, or how you spoke, or you were somehow different, you may believe you are stupid, weak, useless, or unimportant. These beliefs about ourselves get buried deep within us and often become accepted as the truth.
Many clients that come for counselling for their sex addiction or porn addiction relay stories from their childhoods that were traumatic, abusive, or neglectful. These childhood wounds allowed negative beliefs to be born and for shame to move in. It is easier to blame ourselves than the person who was responsible to love, protect, guide and nurture us.
Not all shame is born in our childhoods. Many clients who come to the Laurel Centre say they have had ‘good enough’ upbringings and have not brought into adulthood faulty negative thoughts about themselves. Their sex addiction or porn addiction has come into being through opportunity (mainly from smart phones and laptops) and their shame is created from leading a double life. Such as continued hiding, lying, and prioritising their sex addiction over and above their commitments to their partners, children, work colleagues, friends, and finances. Shame can also be created when their sex addiction goes against their own value system such as exploitation of vulnerable people, such as sex workers who may have been forced into the trade. Or the shame may result from being too weak to break the cycle of addiction and having failed to live up to one’s own intentions and expectations.
Shame verses guilt
Feelings of shame and the feelings of guilt can get confused. Guilt is felt when we know we have done something wrong. Shame is felt when we believe that there is something wrong with us. Hence guilt says ‘I have done something bad’ whereas shame says ‘I am bad’.
While someone is trapped in shame, recovery is not possible, and relapse is almost inevitable. Shame thrives in secrecy so the main way of lifting shame is talking about it. This can be incredibly hard for clients to do. Generally, clients who come to the Laurel Centre have had their sex addiction discovered and they are in shock from the damage that has been caused in their family environments. One to one therapy can help the client to recover from the shock and put tools in place to start the journey of recovery from sex addiction. When trust has been formed with the sex addiction therapist, then the client can start to talk about their shame.
However, the biggest healer of shame is connection with others. With people who understand where you are coming from, who have walked the journey before you. People who are also on the road to recovery. 12 step groups such as SAA and SLAA and the Laurel Centre group programmes provide the space and protection for shame to be lifted. Below are some testimonies from clients who have walked the journey and how they found healing in their one-to-one therapy and groupwork:
“The course (Online Intensive) has completely transformed the way I see my life, past, present and future. I was nervous and sceptical of working in a group however I knew it was time to stop hiding. The group dynamic allowed me to understand more about myself through the stories and eyes of others. The course is for those who really wish to commit to making a change and are willing to open up their heart and mind to new possibilities.”
“Individual Therapy has allowed me to deal with myself, my innermost feelings and the reasons for my behaviour. As well as working on recovery techniques and having a person who will listen to me in a safe way. Group Therapy allowed me to listen to others. To see similar patterns, hear about similar experiences and to realise that I am not alone in this. Being totally honest was difficult and there was a strong desire to hold back and to minimise, but my therapist was an incredible support in helping me release all my secrets, which was enormously beneficial to me.”
“I was reluctant at first to join the course (Online Intensive). “We are British, for heaven’s sake!” and really don’t bare our souls publicly. However, the opportunity to share with others on similar journeys was immensely valuable – frequently another member of the group expressed what I was struggling with much better than I could as he described his own circumstances. We became a Band of Brothers on a tough but achievable journey – that’s quite a thing compared tackling the challenge “alone”.
This blog has taken extracts from Paula Hall’s book: “Understanding and Treating Sex Addiction and Pornography” (2nd Edition, 2018)