Societies and cultures generally have norms that everyone is supposed to live by. Unfortunately, these rules are usually very narrow -- especially when it comes to sex, bodies and pleasure. They tell us what our bodies are “supposed” to look like, what kinds of sex we’re expected to have and enjoy, who we should date, what our gender is and how to express it, what makes us a “worthy” person, and so on.
Exhausting, isn’t it? That’s where shame comes from.
Shame can feel different for different people. It can feel like a weight on, or butterflies in, your stomach. Some folks feel their heart race or tighten, while others experience shame like a heavy blanket over their whole body that shuts them down. You might feel it differently from these, and it might feel different on different days or under different circumstances. But what is common is that shame makes it hard to hold our head high, stand up for, and feel good about ourselves.
We've prepared six ways to begin addressing shame!
When you experience shame, consider which societal “norm” or expectation is behind the feeling - how and when did you learn it?
Journaling can be helpful -- you don’t have to show anyone what you wrote, and you can even destroy the writing afterwards. An open-minded friend, mentor or therapist can help you see these norms and challenge the rules that are creating this feeling for you.
For example, maybe you’re judging yourself for not feeling attractive, or worthy of love. But everyone deserves love and respect no matter who they are! Which societal expectations are behind this feeling? Consider examining whether it’s something fair, or inclusive. Or whether it's something that you want to believe in at all.
Surround yourself, as much as possible, with people who share your values. We can look for friends and groups online and in-person who share similar perspectives and challenge the norms that we grew up with. This can also look like following newsletters, books, and social media accounts that affirm who you are. The more we can counteract the negative messages with positive and affirming ones, the more we can feel awesome about our own uniqueness and make no apologies for what makes us sexy and fabulous humans!
Decide what your boundaries are for how people interact with you. It can be challenging and scary to stand up to parents, teachers, partners or housemates when you assert limits on their behaviour toward you. Be realistic and decide what is possible for you. Even if you can fantasize about what you’d like to do, you can help keep the effects of shame at bay.
Shame loves resurfacing at unexpected times, whether it’s a friend making a salty comment, or seeing a fitness ad on your Instagram feed. It can help to develop one or more strategies for managing your emotions when that happens.
Some people need to distract themselves, especially until they can get somewhere they feel safer. Focusing on a positive message saved in your phone or a social media account you enjoy can be good options. If you feel empowered to speak up and assert your boundaries, that’s great, too! Others might also seek empathy from a trusted friend. You can also remind yourself that those outside values are harmful, and reflect on your own, instead.
Take back your own pleasure through masturbation or with a partner. Fantasize about what, with whom and how you experience sex and love. Send positive messages to the places in your body and mind that still feel shameful. See if you can start to reclaim some positive feelings of pleasure in those places.
You might still feel shame even after trying to counteract the negative self-judgments. Allow yourself to feel compassion for yourself- sometimes this is a longer journey than we want, which is (unfortunately) very normal. Offer yourself some empathy for the pain and suffering you’ve endured and for how it still shows up for you. Talk to yourself as you would to a friend who was having a hard time. And if you feel comfortable, share those feelings with a trusted friend who can also offer you compassion.
Feeling understood and supported can help break the secret that helps to keep the power in shame.
Founder of Good for Her Store, Sex Therapist, RP