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On shame

Sophie Mackintosh

October 30th, 2023

How can we move past the shame-filled narratives surrounding desire, towards a place of vulnerability and acceptance?

We don’t like to think about shame; we don’t like to acknowledge it or dwell on it. Few emotions have the capacity to wound us the way shame does. It’s powerful enough that it can change the course of our lives, forceful enough that it can cause physical reactions. Who among us hasn’t cringed while thinking of something they’ve done that they regret, or tried to shut down a painful memory? Who among us hasn’t fought the voice in their head telling us that we are worthless and undeserving?

Few areas of our lives are more loaded with shame, and potential shame, than our relationships and desires. We can feel shame for wanting sex, or for not wanting it. We can feel shame for the ways our bodies respond, the things we want, the things we have been told, the things we tell ourselves, and the things we hold, physically, long after the shameful event has passed. We can feel shame about our kinks, our sexuality, our relationships to ourselves, and to the world.

From a young age we’re bombarded with messages about how sex is bad – we shouldn’t put out, sex leaves us vulnerable, female pleasure isn’t valued. Paradoxically, on a surface level, it can also feel like we exist in a world freer than shame than before. We’re living in a post-sexual revolution epoch. We are, theoretically, in a space where owning our desires – and articulating them – has never been easier. But as anyone who has tried to ask for what they want knows, it’s never that simple. The pressure of being new to desire, of feeling unmoored by how our society views it, can be another kind of shame. Let alone the fact that there are still many places where shame is life-or-death; where expressing your desires or being who you are, is too dangerous to contemplate.

At the heart of shame are narratives about who we are, what we should do, and what we deserve. How do we unlearn years of being told what is “right”, and what is “good”? How do we get away from the narratives that are foisted upon us, that we tell ourselves, that can come from the darkest parts of our lives, and which are reinforced so casually by the attitudes we encounter? That’s the thing about shame; it’s insidious. It gets everywhere. It shape-shifts, it sneaks up on you, it spreads from one area of who we are into another. And we have to fight against it – not by pretending it doesn’t exist, not performatively, but through accepting our shame. This acceptance comes through trying to understand it rather than suppressing it. 

I have wanted to take my shame off like a coat and discard it. I have spoken about shame to a therapist and heard the words come from my mouth with something approaching disbelief, these words entrenched within me that I had never vocalized before. If a friend had said the things I was saying about myself, I would have been shocked. I had been carrying it around with me the whole time, and never really questioned it. When a former partner insisted that our respective (and similar) sense of shame bound us together, and that it excused the unhealthy ways we treated each other, I never questioned that either. But these are the kind of things we should question; these are the things that we have to square up to in order to attempt to live a life free from shame.

We can’t just magically throw off our shame overnight and decide that we’re fine. But we can sit with it. We can understand that shame can lead us to transformation if we’re willing to do the work. Much like how in ethical non-monogamy negative feelings such as jealousy should be approached as opportunities, if we look at our shame gently but truthfully, we might be able to move through it to a place of self-compassion. It’s in our most painful and vulnerable places that self-knowledge and growth can be found. This self-knowledge can lead to the embracement of a kink (or the discovery of one); a more secure relationship to ourselves and to pleasure; forgiveness and self-acceptance.

By interrogating our shame we might be able to get deeper into who we really are, and to understand why we feel the way that we do. Through not running away from our shame we can move towards intimacy, with ourselves and with others. We don’t have to live within the stories we have been told about ourselves, but instead we can create new and happier ones through being open about our vulnerabilities and caring for ourselves.

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