Ordinarily, I bounce along in life, having a series of wild and wacky and usually embarrassing things that happen to me that I can pass onto you in the context of developing a deeper and richer sex life.
But lately life has been teaching me about something more serious. Something that causes one to stop, to ponder, to contemplate. Something that is extraordinarily uncomfortable to acknowledge. And yet something that, I believe, is at the heart of why so many people have such pain when talking about their sex lives.
My personal journey started when I was doing that aforementioned bouncing along and I ran smack-dab into a situation wherein I had caused pain to another. To be sure, this was not intentional on my part in any way, but intent did not mitigate the fact that I hurt someone. I did. And I felt awful for having caused them pain.
But their reaction to me – whether or not they intended it to be – was devastating. I was shaken to my very core. Suddenly my emotions were all over the map.
I cried. I raged. I had dialogues in my head wherein I called upon all my debate skills from law school and trounced them in public. But when all of this subsided, I wondered, “why is this affecting me so personally?” To be completely blunt, I had apologized to them for causing pain, so I could not figure out why I was still in emotional turmoil over this situation!
So, as is my habit when I find myself in unknown waters, I researched. And to my surprise, my research led me to the concept of shame.
Dr. Brune Brown (a self-described researcher/story-teller), who has spent a decade researching “connection”, says that shame is the fear of disconnection. It is the silent, inner question that we all ask, “Is there something about me that if people see, I won’t be worthy of connection?” And in her brilliant book, The Artist Way, Julia Cameron defines the act of shaming as “the attempt to prevent a person from behaving in a way that embarrasses us.”
We all have things within us that we are deeply afraid to reveal to others. Dr. Brown asserts that all humans capable of empathy have shame and the less we talk about it, the more we have it. We all wear masks that hide the parts of us that we don’t want others to see.
It is my profession to poke behind the masks that people wear and peek into their innermost fears and doubts. I cannot count the number of couples I have met who appeared to all those around them to “have it together” and yet they were secretly meeting with me to discuss their sexless marriage, or the incompatibility of their sexual proclivities or the fact that they loved each other, but were no longer “in love”.
I have also met countless young couples, boasting that they would do just fine in their sex lives because they had done all the research on the quantitative and qualitative elements necessary to sustain a healthy relationship. Later, they creep back to me because, in their youthful zeal, they had failed to see that there are things that you very simply cannot anticipate through theory…only experience can truly test whether you can thrive. Relationships, simply put, are not academic.
But what happens when we say something or do something (intentionally or inadvertently) that rips the mask off of someone and exposes their shame?
Most people resort to blame. (Dr. Brown says the clinical definition of blame is “a way to discharge pain and discomfort.”) For if they can turn the argument around and make you look and feel bad – if they can shame you – then they will feel safe and secure once again with their mask firmly back in place. It turns the spotlight from shining on their insecurities to redirects the light onto you. For, as we all know, the spotlight can be extremely uncomfortable.
Here is an example from my coaching practice. I met with a woman who had been married for decades and had decided that the sex life she had lived with was not what she wanted for the rest of her relationship. She had come to the place of needing a substantial change if she was going to stick around. After a series of conversations, her husband threw up his hands in disgust and said, “What is wrong with you? Sex has always been good for me!”
This woman, after years of silence, had expressed a desire to change their sex life, and his response was to cover his own shame of being unable to satisfy his wife by telling her that she was the problem. She had embarrassed him, and he responded by shaming her.
So how do you confront shame and blame in the bedroom?
- It starts with you. Shift your focus from the other person and onto you. What did they say that made you feel vulnerable, exposed or insecure? Is there any truth to what they said? If so, what changes can you make in your behavior, your choices and your attitudes towards yourself and others? Once you have that figured out, get to work.
- Do not deny the pain. Cameron has a profound way of addressing shame and blame. Instead of saying, “It doesn’t matter”, she instead says, “I will heal.” In this way, she encourages us not to deny the feelings that resulted from the blame, but rather to allow ourselves to move past them.
- Be patient with others. Sometimes just understanding that we are all covering our own shame gives us patience and grace for others. Furthermore, when we refuse to accept the shame and refuse to strike back in blame, we disrupt the pattern and thereby grow in personal strength.
- Be kind to yourself. Because she is a teacher of the creative, Cameron suggests that the very best way to move past shame is to be creative once again. Perhaps you do not consider yourself a creative person, so you think this is not a solution for you. The point, however, stands. Do something that reminds you of who you really are: have lunch with a friend who can kindly speak truth to you, read old letters from people who love and encourage you, or write in your journal about the things you believe to be true.
- Move to a place of forgiveness. Eventually, when you are ready (do not rush this process just because it is the right thing to do!), begin the process of forgiveness. If you need pointers, read my article Freedom of Forgiveness.
Of course, putting several bullet points on paper makes the process seem simple. Let me to assure you that it is not. But it is a starting place. If you want to research a bit more, take 20 minutes and watch Dr. Brown’s presentation at TED here.
So what do you think? Have you ever been shamed…have you ever reacted to someone by shaming them? Your thought are always welcome!