We’ve all felt it at some point. Often coupled with the desire to hide, shame comes when we feel embarrassed or unworthy. Its the feeling that we are flawed or damaged in a way that we assume is unacceptable to others.
Maybe a friend laughed at you when they discovered you wet the bed until middle school, or worse, uncovered your secret stash of Backstreet Boys CDs.
Obviously these are lighthearted examples, but shame is something that takes hold of you at a core level, telling you that you are not good enough. When it comes to viewing pornography, shame may be not only harmful to recovery, it may be making making the problem worse.
What is Shame?
Shame is more than just feeling embarrassed about something you’ve done. It’s a powerful and painful emotion that surfaces when we come to a realization that we have failed to reach an ideal state.
One of the most well-known and respected authorities in the field of shame research is Dr. Brené Brown. Her TED talks about Shame and Vulnerability have amassed millions of views on YouTube and she is as entertaining as she is insightful.
Three things Brown says about shame:
- We all have it
- We don’t want to talk about it
- The less we talk about it the more powerful it gets
That last statement holds the key to overcoming the negative effects of shame, but more on that later.
Shame vs. Guilt
Often we hear the terms “shame” and “guilt” used interchangeably, but their meanings are actually quite different. In her talks, Brown draws a clear distinction between Shame and Guilt.
- Guilt is feeling bad about a mistake you made. Guilt itself is not necessarily a negative emotion. It can be useful in allowing us to recognize that we made a mistake and gives us an opportunity to make amends.
- Shame is feeling that you are the mistake. Instead of feeling bad about an action, shame deals more with self-worth. It is feeling like we are no longer a good person because we do not match up to the picture of what we think a good person should be.
Shame and Pornography
So how exactly does shame make pornography use worse? It really boils down to two main things. First, holding ourselves to unrealistic expectations and second, feeding shame with silence, secrecy, and judgement.
We all have expectations about what we think a “good person” should be. While the specific details about this imaginary person vary, there are a few attributes that most people would agree on. Knowing what we know about pornography and its harmful effects on our brains, our relationships, and our happiness, it’s an easy jump to assume that people who view pornography are not meeting up to expectations. Even a single accidental viewing can cause those budding feelings of shame to surface, and once that first viewing becomes more or less a habit, the feelings only intensify.
Now, think about what may happen when those unmet expectations are coupled with the three things Brené Brown says feed shame: judgement, secrecy, and silence. For someone who is already struggling with not measuring up, throwing the judgement that is so often assigned to people who view pornography can make you feel even worse. On top of that, you also have the silence and secrecy that naturally comes along with porn use.
When you are feeling ashamed about something, the last thing you want to do is talk about it. Opening yourself up to someone about your struggles can be painful. Unfortunately, this silence and secrecy makes us feel like we are alone in our struggles and feeling alone is one of the main triggers to retreating back into pornography. Without something to interrupt this destructive pattern, shame stays in control.
Shame and Addiction
Again, let’s apply those three things that feed shame, judgement, silence, and secrecy, to pornography. When we stigmatize pornography by avoiding talking about it, or talking about it in terms that only describe it as wrong, unnatural, or evil, we give permission for shame to gain power over the person who is already struggling with guilt. These intense feelings of shame, to some experts, are what is most likely to cause addiction, rather than the porn itself.
A recent study headed by researchers at Brigham Young University shed some light on the subject. They found that in situations where there is both an expectation to meet a socially accepted ideal and a reluctance to talk openly and honestly about the problem, the shame pattern of feeling alone and retreating back into porn kicks into overdrive. Sometimes, this combination makes the person viewing pornography believe that they are addicted, when they really aren’t. The assumption that a person who views pornography will inevitably become an addict, may do as much, if not more damage than the pornography itself. For more information about this study and the relationship between pornography, addiction, and shame, check out this article about the research done by Brian Willoughby.
So is there a cure for shame? Luckily, there is, and it’s something available to everyone who wants it.
According to Brené Browns research, the antidote for shame is empathy.
Empathy is the act of understanding, listening, and sharing feelings with someone else.
To heal and recover from shame, a connection with someone is important. Whether you yourself are struggling with pornography use, or you are supporting a loved one, empathy and communication will help reverse the self-destructive patterns of silence, secrecy, and judgement. We need to know that we are not alone. A lot of people who have viewed pornography have felt these same feelings of guilt, and these feelings are normal. Just hearing that we are not alone makes a world of difference.
Could the answer be that simple? Possibly, but empathy and healthy communication are skills that take just as much work and practice as learning a language. The good news is, once you have reached out to someone who you can speak honestly with, you can work on these skills together. And learning something new is always more enjoyable with a friend by your side.
A long chat with a good friend can do a world of good.
Sometimes it’s scary to open up to someone about things that we are ashamed about. It may take awhile for you to find a person who you know will love and support you no matter what. Remember that talking through your recovery is important. In time, those feelings of shame will slowly begin to melt away. We all make mistakes, and we all stumble from time to time, but you are not a mistake. You are loved and valuable, and are worthy to let go of shame.