Sexuality and Addiction: The “You-Know-Whats” of the Modern World
Can you imagine yourself having an open and honest conversation with someone close to you about your deepest and darkest mistakes and weaknesses. How would you feel having a conversation about pornography? What about talking to your child about healthy sexuality? Or telling a loved one about an addiction? Chances are, even just mentioning these things makes you uncomfortable. But why?
These conversations bring about the crippling emotion of shame because of their tabooed and feared nature. Do you remember the scene in the first Harry Potter movie when Hagrid refused to tell Harry the name Voldemort? Using phrases like “He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named” or “You-Know-Who,” Hagrid tiptoed around the issue because of the fear it inspired. Today, words like pornography, sexuality and addiction have become the real life equivalents of J.K. Rowling’s “Voldemort” — the “You-Know-What’s” of our modern society.
Fortunately, Rowling provides insight into this problem when her character Hermione famously shouted, “Fear of the name only increases the fear of the thing itself!” It may seem intuitive to run from these topics, but that simply does not help. As a whole, we must learn how to combat feelings of shame in these essential conversations and learn how to help others feel valued and respected, not ashamed— regardless of their weaknesses.
Teasing Apart Shame and Guilt
Before moving forward with this topic of shame, we need to understand the difference between guilt and shame. Maybe you are thinking, “but if we eliminate shame surrounding those things, wouldn’t they become normalized and acceptable?” Let us explain; at one point we too had similar worries.
In her TED talk, Brené Brown explained: Shame is a focus on self, guilt is a focus on behavior…Guilt: I’m sorry. I made a mistake. Shame: I’m sorry. I am a mistake.”
Confronting shame and removing it from our most crucial conversations is not about normalizing bad behavior. It is about helping people make meaningful connections by embracing opportunities to be vulnerable. This is especially true when discussing issues of pornography and addiction. Refusing to address these issues pulls relationships apart. When left unchecked, shame evolves into isolation, perpetuating the addiction cycle.
Connection Is The Antidote
So how do we break the cycle? Johann Hari, author of Chasing The Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs has famously reported that, “the opposite of addiction is NOT Sobriety. The opposite of addiction Is human connection.” Unfortunately, the inordinate amount of shame surrounding any form of conversation on pornography, sexuality and addiction perpetuates the problem, drives people to isolation and allows this plague to continue unhindered.
Consider this story submitted anonymously in January, 2017 to Fight the New Drug (a well known anti-porn group) where the author intuitively gives his experiences the title, “How Shame Made My Struggle With Porn Worse, Not Better.” To summarize, this person explains how he struggled with a porn addiction since his childhood but was never able to open up about it and get help he needed because of the shame he felt. When his marriage began falling apart and he had finally told his wife, he hit rock bottom. He described himself as being “completely overcome with depression and self-hate.”
This continued until one night when that all turned around:
After our argument had turned to silence, I tried to escape by taking a shower. I thought I was alone and in the shower I collapsed onto my knees and began sobbing. In our 10 years of marriage, I have probably only cried a handful of times…
I didn’t hear her come in, but my wife saw me there and climbed into the shower, still clothed, and held me as we cried together. I tried to push her away at first; it wasn’t fair for me to ask her to support me and I didn’t deserve it, I thought to myself. But my wife would have none of that. She told me that she loved me and she knew that we could get through this if we forgave each other and focused on uniting as a couple.
It didn’t come easy after that night, but there was hope in my life for the first time in years. I now had the lifeline I needed to overcome it and I had finally opened myself completely. I wasn’t hiding anything any longer, I had admitted that I was helpless and I needed to rely on someone other than myself. Today, I finally believe I am the man that my wife deserves. We are very grateful for each of our choices that led to us staying together and valuing our marriage above all else.
Did you notice when the relationship and his addiction turned around? The shame he felt at first only increased the severity of the problem. It wasn’t until he and his wife embraced each other in empathy, love and understanding that real change could begin.
Getting To The Core
Shame is damaging to us and our relationships because it attacks our identity and the core of who we are. Our identity is the foundation of our relationships and purpose. When our identity is skewed through shame we lose power to change or act differently. We are left torn apart, lost and alone. This identity crises can become crippling.
People react differently to this attack on their identity. Some people become angry and irritated. Then conversations go from productive discussions to arguments of blame and personal attacks. Others just end the conversation and numb themselves from feeling the pain resulting from shame. Regardless of the reaction, these feelings stop us from being able to live wholeheartedly. Our ability to experience love and joy is hindered and we become disengaged from those around us.
But there is hope. We can learn to separate feelings of shame from feelings of guilt and cultivate shame resilience. Let us go back to Brene Brown from earlier:
“Shame is highly, highly correlated with addiction, depression, violence, aggression, bullying, suicide, eating disorders. Here’s what you even need to know more: Guilt is inversely correlated with those things. The ability to hold something we’ve done, or failed to do, up against who we want to be is incredibly adaptive. It’s uncomfortable, but it’s adaptive.”
In short, shame is destructive, guilt is productive. Remember the story of the ugly duckling? The duckling felt ashamed of its identity and image and therefore was unable to live up to the majesty of being a swan— until the day that changed. We too can reach our fullest potential when we obtain and maintain a healthy and proper self image. This begins and ends with recognizing the difference between guilt and shame and then taking the proper steps towards combating shame.
Take It Home
Take a moment to think about the last time you experienced shame. No really, take a couple minutes and think about the last time you had a conversation that was really uncomfortable, that made you want to run away.
Got one? When did you start feeling shame? What caused it? What did it do to the conversation? How did it affect your ability to talk openly? How did you feel after the conversation? Take a few moments to really think about this. It may bring back painful memories, but trust us, it will really help.
Where to go from here:
If you are serious about having the essential conversations necessary to a happy, connected and fulfilling relationship then please commit to applying these principles and reading more resources you begin to practice shame resilience.
Step One: Learn How to Cultivate a Strong Sense of Self Worth
This is different for everyone and there are entire books written on this (see endnotes for suggestions) but cultivating a strong sense of identity is essential for those times when we are hijacked by shame. When we feel shame coming on, reminding ourselves of our true identity allows our brains to refocus and take back control. Remember, we are never defined by our mistakes.
Step Two: Learning and Adapting Shame Resilience Principles as outlined by Brene Brown in her hit novel “Daring Greatly”
1) Recognizing Shame and Understanding Its Triggers. Shame is biology and biography. Can you physically recognize when you’re in the grips of shame, feel your way through it, and figure out what messages and expectations triggered it?
2) Practicing Critical Awareness. Can you reality-check the messages and expectations that are driving your shame? Are those message realistic?
3) Reaching Out. Are you owning and sharing your story? We can’t experience empathy if we’re not connecting.
4) Speaking Shame. Are you talking about how you feel and asking for what you need when you feel shame? (Brown 75)
Life Changing Implications
Now can you imagine having these kinds of conversations? Is it possible to talk to a loved one about an addiction without feeling the crippling effects of shame? We emphatically answer yes! Having hard conversations is difficult. Learning to be comfortable having these conversations is even harder. Reach 10’s purpose is to help you navigate each of those, but we have to learn to manage our shame first. Without this, no matter how much we practice and learn methods of conversation, these efforts will go nowhere. Good luck on your journey to living a wholehearted and joyful existence!
Authors: Craig Smith and Crishelle Stegelmeier