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Toxic Shame

Sex Therapy

It had been over a year since I last saw them. Former clients with sex addictions. I looked at their faces- both very familiar and the same, yet undeniably different. “You both seem to have a… well… a lightness to you.” I motioned to their faces, struggling to find words to adequately describe the difference I was seeing- sensing. They both laughed, one responded immediately, “that’s because you saw us when we were dead.” I saw them when they were dead. And now, before me they stood. Alive. Yes- that’s what I was witnessing- awakened life.

The term, “sex addiction,” can cause a variety of reactions. Fear that moral responsibility and personal accountability will be lost in the disease model of addiction; concern aspects of sexuality will be pathologized to fit a “rigid” perception of “healthy sexuality;” disgust towards a group deemed to all be “rapists” and “pedophiles;” despair from a betrayed partner wondering how this became his/her reality and if healing is but another kind of illusion. And, for many still, the kind of relief that comes from the naming of the chaos, and hope that where there is a name, there might be a road to lead them out.

Terms, diagnosis, pathology- these conversations have their merit and their place. This conversation is not about that. It is about a man who claims “sex addict,” who discovered that the place of his deadness was ground zero for awakened life. It is about a woman who discovered the source of crippling anxiety was not an “insatiable sex-drive,” but her belief that she was at her core, fundamentally broken-unlovable.

This conversation is about toxic shame. That insidious voice which both whispers and screams, “you are not enough. You never will be enough. You will be discovered as the fraud you really are. You burden people. You are not lovable unless…” With this voice comes a sick feeling in the gut. The feeling is unbearable. The solution appears non-negotiable- avoid, hide and escape.

Toxic shame is different from shame itself. Shame is about feeling exposed. The gift of shame is embarrassment. It is appropriate and important for a person engaging in compulsive sexual behaviors and/or behaviors of betrayal to feel embarrassed. The feeling is uncomfortable and the instinct is still to hide, yet the exposure can lead to accountability and change. The voice of this shame says, “I see my actions for what they are: Not ok. Painful to the ones I say I love. This is not who I am, not who I want to be. I did this. No one else. I will not hide.”

Toxic shame destroys connection, both with self and others. The ‘avoid, hide, and escape’ strategy feels critical to survival. Healing occurs through connection. Healing betrayal wounds in a coupleship requires the betraying partner to face and enter the pain of the betrayed. Toxic shame serves as a thief, stealing the vulnerable pain voiced by the betrayed partner and turning their voice into one of the self-loathing choir members chanting “you are bad.” The partner is left once again, alone in their pain, feeling disconnected and unsupported. The betraying partner also feels alone with this choir and soon avoidance and hiding beckon- any escape. The cycle continues.

To the reader who is all too familiar with toxic shame- Listen.
Hope comes through letting go of the old choir and inviting new members to sing. Freedom requires reclaiming core truths.
I am enough.
I am inherently worthy.
My value does not come from others.
I am honest
I am a protector

It takes time for these truths to feel believable. Keep claiming them. Act on them.
It is not your partner’s job to make you believe your own core truths. It is yours.

Another tool is to pay attention to triggers for your toxic shame. Keep a daily journal log. As you gain awareness of your triggers, you will be better able to intervene, take a few deep breaths, reconnect with core truths and be present with the person before you. “Time out, I am starting to feel overwhelmed with thoughts of how awful I am. I need a few moments to reset so I can be present with you and hear what you are sharing with me.”

Toxic shame can be generational. You may be carrying shame you received from your caregivers. Addressing early childhood attachment wounds can provide powerful healing for toxic shame.

Life is calling you.

This Post Written By:
Jennifer Rasmussen, LAMFT – Therapy With Heart
8737 E. Via De Commercio, Suite 200
Scottsdale, Arizona 85258
Phone: (480) 888-5380
Fax: (480) 203-2881