Reflections on Shame and Sexuality

September 2020


A gay man goes through phases where he masturbates to pornography, sometimes several times a day. During these times he has trouble looking others in the eye, feels worthless and “lower” than everyone else. 

A woman in her mid thirties loves sex and would be happy with multiple sexual partners. She feels she is defective because of this and does not usually allow herself to have sexual relationships. When it does happen, she feels like she has done something wrong.

A man in his early sixties has a strong libido and a sexual interest in men that he does not like to admit to himself, and definitely not to others. He does everything he can to hide his lust from both women and men and thinks of himself as a "dirty old man".

A woman in her early thirties cannot orgasm during sex. She feels there must be something very wrong with her and that she is disappointing her male partners. These feelings make it difficult for her to feel relaxed and “in her body” during sex - no relaxation means no orgasm, and so the cycle continues.

A man in his early forties tends to ejaculate quickly in highly arousing situations. When this happens he cannot bear to look his partner in the eye, feels a strong sense of disgust with himself and wants to crawl into a dark hole.


The first four people are clients I have worked with in my coaching practice. The last one is me, as recently as 1 year ago. What do they all have in common? Can you relate with any of these people, and if so what emotion comes up for you?

All these people, in their way, are struggling with shame.

Shame is pervasive in our society - in many ways, we are living in a shame-based culture. This is especially so when we look at our relationship with sexuality - sex and shame are so intertwined for us, we often don’t even notice it.

To illustrate this, try this experiment- using your imagination, put yourself in these situations and see what feelings comes, and what you notice in your body - for example posture, temperature, a particular impulse, certain body parts becoming more present.

  • you are in a train and the person opposite you starts to touch themselves sensually, with their eyes closed, clearly getting aroused and enjoying themselves. Notice how this changes if the person is a man or a woman.
  • if you are a man: you are in the sauna, an attractive person comes in, and you feel an erection coming on
  • if you are a woman: you are dancing with a partner in a room full of people and start to feel aroused, perhaps your nipples become more visible through your shirt
  • you are giving a slide presentation to work colleagues using your laptop, and by mistake the porn website you were looking at the other day comes on the screen

Chances are, one or the other of these situations evoke a sense of shame - perhaps accompanied by a slumped posture, feeling hot in the face, and a strong impulse to look away or hide. It is so normal, we typically don’t even question our reaction or become aware of feeling shame, let alone share this feeling with others. 

Silvan Tomkins, a psychologist and one of the most important researchers and theorists on the topic of emotions, lists shame as one of the 9 affects or feelings innate to humans. This means that feeling shame is as natural to us as feeling sad, angry or joyful. According to Tomkins, the healthy function of shame is to act as a limiter on our curiosity, pleasure and excitement. If a child starts playing with a sharp knife, and his mother screams “NO”, the child will feel the sting of shame and it will disrupt her feeling of excitement from playing with her new toy.

In this same way, healthy shame is what prevents an adult from jumping on the next person they find sexually attractive or singing at the top of their lungs when everyone else is trying to sleep. Healthy shame provides us with a sense of humility and thus of consideration towards others - we talk of narcissistic people as being “shameless”, in the sense that they do not feel healthy shame.

Where shames takes a wrong turn is when it becomes “toxic” - again a term from Tomkins. Instead of being associated with a specific action (what I did was bad), it becomes tied in with your self-image, your identity (I am  a bad, worthless, unlovable, broken… person).

Toxic shame is not natural to us - it is learned. Toxic shame can be connected to a specific part of ourselves (i.e. our sexuality but also our anger, sadness, our body, setting borders, or virtually anything else) and in its most extreme form it is an always present background feeling in the core of our being that says “I am not worthy of living”.

According to Jim Bradshaw, author of the fascinating book “Healing the Shame That Binds You”, toxic shame is passed on from parent to child.Take shame around sexuality as an example. A parent with toxic shame around their sexuality catches their small child happily playing with their genitals. Because the parent (often subconsciously) sees their own sexuality as dirty or shameful, they will communicate this to the child, either verbally or non-verbally by showing their disapproval or withdrawing their love in that moment.

And so, the child starts to integrate the feeling “A part of me (my genitals) is bad and unlovable”. As a teenager, this feeling may translate into “my sexuality is bad, dirty, shameful”.  As an adult this person may avoid sexuality altogether, or on the other extreme become a sex addict, objectifying others in other to pass their toxic shame onto them - a strategy of “passing the hot potato” which provides momentary relief.

The tricky thing about shame is its taboo status in our culture - we are ashamed of feeling ashamed. When was the last time you heard someone, in the heat of their shame, saying “I feel so ashamed right now”? Because feeling shame is so unbearably painful for us, and because we have learned it is not welcome in social contexts, we develop different strategies for avoiding it - often these strategies are already developed in childhood or adolescence.

One such popular strategy is addiction - an addiction can be seen as a compulsive behavior we use to give us relief from our pain. Gabor Maté, a Canadian doctor specializing in addiction, says “shame is the common undercurrent in addiction, whatever the object of the addiction may be”. In a sense, we are a society of addicts  - be it to drugs, alcohol, television, pornography, smartphones, fitness or my personal favorite, compulsive nonstop thinking. Did you ever notice that for most people every minute of the day needs to be filled with something, that we are incapable of just sitting and being present with ourselves for 5 minutes? Can it be that we are all perpetually running away from our shame? Couples therapist and witty guy Terry Real likens this to someone trying to run away from their own rectum - in the end, an impossible mission.

The real tragedy of toxic shame is that it leads us to reject who we are and develop a personality (from the latin word persona meaning “mask”) that is acceptable to the outside but in conflict with our true nature. Jim Bradshaw writes in his book

Toxic shame is unbearable and always necessitates a cover-up, a false self. Since one feels his true self is defective and flawed, one needs a false self that is not defective and flawed…To be a false self is to cease being an authentic human being.

This false self can take on many different forms - from people-pleasing (“nice-guy syndrome”) to taking on the victim role, to being rigid and “walled-off”. Terry Real distinguishes between two main strategies we use for avoiding toxic shame - the “one-down” and the “one-up”.

The one-down is feeling worthless, resigned, having a low self-esteem. The extreme form is depression, sadly very common in our society. Ironically, the one-down protects us from feeling our shame intensely. As an owner of a one-down personality, I know this from my own experience. It is much more comfortable for me to make myself small and focus on my weaknesses - showing my greatness or “standing in my power” would bring about a shame avalanche and the fear of being exposed for the pathetic, mediocre person that I am (i.e innerly believe myself to be).

The one-up is interesting - such people avoid their shame by taking on the superior position. Common personality traits are perfectionism, being judgmental, controlling others and grandiosity, the feeling of “I am the best person”. the extreme is the narcissistic personality. Not to generalize, but it is likely that many CEOs and world leaders fall into this category. For the one-upers, the feeling of superiority acts like a drug that temporary relieves them of their toxic shame. Like any drug, it needs constant and increasing doses to be effective - in this cases in the form of recognition, power, admiration from the outside.

According to Terry Real, true intimacy or closeness between people is impossible from both the on-down and the one-up positions. In both cases we are hiding from ourself, hiding from our shame and thus our own vulnerability. It is not hard to see that he who avoids himself cannot betruly intimate with another. Instead, the relationship becomes fertile ground for projections, manipulations, co-dependence - not unusual in today’s love relationships, to put it mildly. Real sees his job as bringing the couple to the position of “same-as” - which requires either coming down from the one-up or coming up from the one-down.

If avoiding our shame comes causes us to sacrifice our true self, it follows that learning to integrate and make friends with our shame is the path to authenticity. So how to do this?

The answer is both simple and complex. The simple answer is, we have to start allowing ourselves to feel our shame. Like any emotion, shame is felt as body sensations that are, in and of themselves, neutral. It is our mind that (often outside of our conscious awareness) labels it is “bad” and finds a way to avoid it. As we become aware of this process, we can catch shame the moment it arises and allow ourselves to feel it fully, resisting the temptation to distract ourselves. The more we are able to “contain” our shame, that is feel it without needing to get away from it, the more we can free ourselves from our destructive shame-avoiding strategies and be whole, or integer, within ourselves.

But The answer is also complex - because toxic shame and the strategies to block it out have been with us since a young age, they are wired deep into our nervous system. This often makes them difficult to change - think of trying to rehabilitate an animal who has learned over many years that human beings are violent and cruel. Since we are so resistant to going to the root of our shame, we often we try to address the symptoms- for example by using our will power to stop an addiction or trying the latest diet. As long as we do not make friends with our shame, these attempts usually end in failure.

As a first step, facing our shame requires going into and feeling ourselves and our bodies, a scary proposition for many of us. My personal path into feeling myself benefited greatly from the Feldenkrais method, Tantra and sexuality work, 5 rhythms "free" dancing and my IBP (integrative body psychotherapy) training. For you, it may be something else - there are many paths to Rome.

It can be particularly powerful to show your shame to others who can “hold” it, that is not go into their own shame or judge you. This can be a partner, a therpist, a friend, or a supportive group. Often intense shame carries the feeling of wanting to die on the spot - positive experiences such as this gradually teaches your nervous system that feeling and being seen in your shame is tolerable and that you will not die from it.

There is a hidden treasure here - in the moments of openly showing our shame to another, we discover the sense of connection or intimacy with this person immediately deepens. In these moments, we are dropping our armor and making ourselves vulnerable - and this vulnerability acts as a key for connection. It is also they key for a fulfilling sex life.

Feeling myself has not always meant feeling better - after all, there was a reason I numbed out all those feelings for so many years, and I am still working on making friends with my shame. Without a question, though, the path continues to show me how it feels to be truly alive, loving with myself, connected to others. The path into feeling has led me to make many big changes in my life, to live in a way that is somehow more “me”. Turning around and facing my shame has given me, and continues to give me, the inner freedom to do so.