Shame is a Powerful Medicine

I spend a lot of time thinking about and talking about the connections between sex & shame. To be honest, I think it’s a real problem that we have so little language for thinking about and exploring shame because it’s part of everyone’s life. And it’s especially part of almost everyone’s sex life.

One of the assumptions that I hear quite often is the notion that shame is a bad thing. And while I agree that it’s often difficult to experience, and although I certainly know that it gets used with a too-heavy hand, I believe that it’s not necessarily a bad thing at all. In fact, I find that when I am able to listen to shame, when I can give it the attention it deserves, it becomes one of my most powerful teachers.

So let me explain what I mean about how shame can be helpful.

Shame is both the cause and the result of disconnection from other people. Disconnection can take many forms, from a minor misattunement in the relationship to a snub to a full-on “I never want to talk with you again”. In general, the more we want to maintain the connection, the sharper the disconnection, and the deeper the disconnection, the bigger the experience of shame. This makes shame a potent tool for communicating our dislikes, our expectations, and our relationship/family/social/cultural rules. In fact, it’s one of the ways that young children learn how they are supposed to act within their families- if they do something that leads to disconnection from caregivers, it’s a strong reason to figure out what to not do anymore and to change their behavior.

Of course, there are lots of ways that this can go awry. When the rules are inconsistently applied, when the disconnection is disproportionate (such as when the we are triggered and overreact), when there isn’t a clear path to reconciliation, or when the rules simply don’t make sense, shame can easily become toxic. When we don’t know how to heal and rebuild the connection, it’s easy to become insecure in the relationship. Of course, all of this is a vast oversimplification of a very complex dynamic. If you’re interested in learning more, Attachment Theory is a good place to start.

But the thing is- the discomfort that comes from the disconnection is a strong motivator. It’s one way we can get the impetus to change how we interact with the people around us and unless we are willing to experience it, we will be limited in how much we can learn and grow in our relationships.

Here’s a personal example. Last weekend, I was at a party and I was (uncharacteristically, I think) rude to someone I was talking with. Without getting into the details of the interaction, I was not nearly as respectful as I strive to be. And when they walked away from me, I could feel the disconnection as a palpable sensation in my body. Since this was a casual conversation and not someone I knew very well, it wasn’t as intense a feeling as if it had been a close friend, a family member, or my partner. But it was still on the same spectrum- think of it as a 4 instead of a 9.

Now, there was a time in my life when being open to that feeling was much harder and I would have been much more likely to either blame the other person or to try to convince myself that I hadn’t actually done anything wrong. Instead, I sat with the feeling for a while, thought about how I had acted, acknowledged to myself how I had misstepped, and framed an apology. I have no idea if I’ll ever be in a position to offer it, but I’ve done as much as I can without a follow-up conversation with this person. And I could only do that because I was able to move through the embarrassment I felt in response to the (entirely reasonable) disconnection.

This is what makes shame a powerful medicine. When we need it, a little bit goes a long way. Unfortunately, it gets used too often and in too large a degree, so it easily becomes toxic. There isn’t anything in the world that doesn’t become dangerous when we have too much of it. Even water. Shame is so potent that it works best when it’s used sparingly.

I find that when people talk about this, there’s often an assumption that disconnection is always bad. But I disagree with that because there’s a connection-disconnection spectrum. When we’re too connected, we’re enmeshed or codependent, and we lose our identity. When we’re too disconnected, we’re isolated and we lose our relationship. And so we’re constantly finding a balance between the two, in an ever-changing dance between too little and too much. But if we can’t tolerate small disconnections, there’s no room for the joy, pleasure, and love that creating closeness and connection can bring. We need to be able to make room for disconnection and the shame that it can inspire, whether it’s a small one or a large one in a given situation, because otherwise, all we can do is move closer and closer together until there’s no space to be an individual any more.

In his book, Passionate Marriage, David Scharch writes about how couples who are enmeshed often stop having sex, precisely because they’re so close together and so overwhelmed with each other that there’s no reason to want to move any closer. Since sex is, for many people, a bonding experience that brings people together, it’s often jettisoned in these situations. When the individuals in the couple learn to get some distance from each other, they often find more pleasure in sex, precisely because they’re acting as two individuals in relationship, rather than two beings who have merged into one. Learning to tolerate and experience the small disconnections that inevitably arise in a healthy relationship can create the room to be individuals. Part of that is learning to tolerate and experience emotions on the spectrum of shame.

In the video below, BrenĂ© Brown makes the point that we can’t selectively numb our emotions. We can’t turn the volume down on our shame, our sadness, our fear, or our anger without also turning it down on our happiness, our joy, our excitement. So this is another reason why learning to listen to our shame can help us- it opens us up to all of our experiences.

So rather than thinking of shame as something to be avoided, I invite you to imagine it as a potent tool or a powerful medicine. It needs to be handled with care, but that doesn’t mean that we need to deny its value. And since it’s going to happen to most of us anyway, simply because it’s one of our emotions, we might as well learn to give it the attention it asks for. After all, that’s the fastest way to get it to calm down, anyway.

Enjoy the video. It’s well worth watching.

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