What Is Shame Telling You? (And How Should You Respond?)

Shame is an incredibly powerful emotion. So powerful in fact, that we often find it at the root of the addictive behavior. Shame can eat a person’s confidence and self-esteem, leaving only an empty anger behind.

A coping mechanism can easily be born in the heat of intense shame, and as we’ve seen here at Compulsion Solutions and in the Neulia course, that coping mechanism can often manifest as a person acting out sexually. Many times, this might mean that the addict uses porn compulsively, and other times, it might lead the addict to seek out mindless sex with escorts, or women with whom he shares no intimacy.

Everyone I’ve treated in my years as a counselor has had some feelings of shame associated with sex. In their attempts to process this shame, they try to bury it with destructive, addictive behaviors. Addictions are deceiving though, because these behaviors are not actually soothing. They do not actually address any underlying issues. They only keep the addict in a cycle of shame, acting out, and then there’s a need to self-soothe with the very actions he is ashamed of in the first place.

Make no mistake, shame can be scary. It takes real courage to take on shame, and many people spend a long time working up the nerve. Still, there is no better way to tackle shame than simply attacking it head on, and that’s one of the best lessons I can teach to the addicts I work with.

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Here’s How To Talk Back To Shame

In my counseling, I like to use a practice with my clients called “The Unsent Letter.” This is a writing project that allows the addict a chance to sit, and quietly explore their feelings of shame. Where are they coming from, originally? Which events led to you first feeling ashamed about sexual behavior? Who was present at the time, and how did they make you feel ashamed?

Sometimes, these feelings will begin with a parent. A curious child stumbling upon sexually explicit materials might wind up in severe “trouble” for their accidental discovery, leading them to always associate sexual feelings with personal shame. In cases of abuse, the feelings of shame stem from the way the addict was treated as a child — a child who was unable to defend himself.

The Unsent Letter is a chance for the addict to address the person (or people) who first made them feel ashamed about sex. In the letter you can talk about how the event made you feel, and how the experience has colored the rest of your life. By working it out in writing, you can begin to take back some of the power that was stolen from you as the result of this early experience.

After the letter is written, do what feels most right with it. If it feels good to keep the letter, then that’s what should be done. Some have done a cathartic burning, shredding or burying of the letter, as a symbol ending their shame. Still others like to keep the letter as an ongoing document, to be added to, or edited as needed.

The main point is to have the chance to explore these painful feelings in a safe and analytical way, and express something you may have always wanted to express. It’s empowering…. and it’s an important step towards recovery.