Healthier Shame vs. Toxic Shame
Healthier shame is like an internal alarm bell that lets you know when you’ve crossed a boundary or are too walled off. Ideally, it’s part of your broader conscience that keeps you out of trouble. Unfortunately, a hallmark of sexual compulsion is the inability to know your limits, or a tendency to reject them. When you started to realize your sexual behaviors were unmanageable, you likely wanted to stop them but couldn’t. Crossing boundaries, intruding on others’ personal space, and not knowing how to cease high-risk behaviors are signs of compulsive sexual behaviors. Establishing clear standards of behavior is the key to healing your healthy shame detection system. Clear boundaries are also crucial to establishing respect, trust, and intimacy with other people.
In recent years, renowned author and social scientist Dr. Brené Brown has done groundbreaking research into shame. Her 2010 TEDx talk, “The Power of Vulnerability,” presented shame as the fear of disconnection. In general, sexual compulsives are terrified of authentic connection, vulnerability, and emotional risk-taking. Sustainable recovery takes shape when you step outside of fear and courageously move toward real intimacy.
How exactly does this relate to out-of-control sexual behavior? Toxic shame is often the cause as well as the effect of the problem. Your inner child carries shame, which sets you up to withdraw and act out as an adult. Sexual acting out is socially taboo, so you blend in secrets and lies, leading to a double life—one you show others, and one that becomes your “shadow,” or addict self. On the surface sexual compulsion seems like a self-inflicted wound, but it’s actually an attempt to feel better for things that weren’t your fault. Unfortunately, your survival strategy backfires as toxic shame escalates, prompting even more out-of-control sexual behavior.
Dr. Brown says that healing necessitates shame resiliency. For example, secret affairs or excessive porn consumption result in toxic shame, right? If you find relief by processing these events with trusted confidants, sustainable sobriety is more likely. If you don’t, the activity will always feel heavy and shameful, leaving you at risk for further acting out. Keep in mind that shame resiliency reduces the likelihood of compulsive sex because it encourages you to set boundaries and limits, which in turn leads to self-acceptance, self-compassion, and self-respect.
The twelve-step slogan “compare and despair” suggests that contrasting yourself to others is another form of shame. You’ve probably heard the expression “keeping up with the Joneses”—the desire to be as successful as a neighbor in regards to housing, cars, clothing, and the like. Where I grew up, a suburb of Philadelphia, the popular kids wore Lacoste polo shirts that were recognizable by the alligator logo on the chest. My family didn’t spend much money on clothes, so Lacoste was not an option for me. As a result, I felt jealous, alienated, and resentful that there was no alligator on my shirt. This sounds silly in retrospect, but I wanted to fit in that badly. In the end I never was part of the popular crowd.