The teenage girl discreetly handed me the sticky note. I was speaking at an event about my experience with sexting and pornography. The front of the note read,
“I sent nudes to my boyfriend. Then he broke up with me. To get back at him, I sent them to his two best friends.”
On the back of the note, she had written four words,
“I FEEL SO LOST.”
Have you ever thought, “If people really knew what I’ve done, and who I am, they wouldn’t love me.”
This is the core message of shame: people cannot love the real you.
Do you go to great efforts to hide your flaws and failures? You’re not alone.
Do you put up walls or put on a mask to keep people from knowing who you really are? You’re not alone.
Shame is fundamentally a crisis of identity. People who struggle with shame believe that they’re unworthy of love and incapable of good.
When it comes to sexuality, shame takes something that’s good and twists it.
Healthy sexuality cannot be rooted in shame. It’s not possible.
Healthy sexuality is rooted in intimacy, which requires a sense of safety. Intimacy is knowing and trusting another person deeply. Shame is exactly the opposite. Shame and intimacy cannot coexist.
To experience a full, vibrant and healthy sexuality, you have to wage war on shame.
When you struggle or make bad choices, shame tells you to hide. Shame says to protect yourself and pretend.
The Bible tells the story of Adam and Eve, the first man and woman. In the Garden of Eden, they enjoyed an intimate friendship with God and felt no shame.
Adam and Eve eventually disobeyed God’s instructions, and their immediate response was shame. They literally hid from God. Humans have been hiding from God ever since, especially when it comes to sexuality.
Sexual shame enters our lives in many ways. Sometimes it’s because of choices we’ve made, but it can also be caused by the actions of others.
Maybe you’ve experienced sexual abuse or sexual assault. As a result of someone else’s shameful actions, you may be left wondering if you can ever be truly loved.
Shame tells you that the people around you can never know who you really are or they will reject you. It sets you on a journey of masking your true self and/or isolating yourself.
Shame is a self-fulfilling prophecy. You assume people won’t accept you, so you protect yourself from being known in order to avoid rejection.
Shame makes you resist intimacy. When people walk away, you can feel justified in not trusting them.
Healthy sexuality and relationships require authentic intimacy. Otherwise, sex would be just an empty physical act, designed to pursue temporary pleasure or a false sense of security.
Sometimes people try to erase their shame by removing themselves from family, friends, church and other places that remind them of their negative feelings.
Shame by its nature is already emotionally isolating. You cannot overcome shame by isolating yourself and withdrawing from everyone around you.
Shame is overcome by honest relationships with others.
If you struggle with sexual shame, whether it’s rooted in your own choices or the actions of others, the first step toward healing is being honest. Tell someone. That can be a terrifying prospect, so it’s vital to seek out a safe person to tell.
Confidentiality. This can be formal, like a confidentiality agreement in a sexual recovery group, or informal, like verbal assurance from someone that they won’t share your struggle.
If you choose to approach a counselor, teacher, church leader, or someone else with a formal position of authority, you should expect confidentiality. However, you may want to clarify any exceptions they might make. In schools and universities, for example, it may be required to report things like sexual abuse of a minor, rape and sexual assault.
Commitment. Healing from sexual struggles and hurts is never as simple as a quick phone call. You need someone, or a group of people, who will walk through the process with you over a longer period of time. True healing and life change take time.
Honesty. Look for a community where you can share and feel validated. You need a place where you can process your thoughts and feelings in a way that leads to genuine healing. Are the people in your community honest about themselves? Are they willing to be honest with you, even if you might not like it?
Shame is overcome by being honest about your pain and the specifics of your struggles or hurts. Don’t try to go through this alone.
List at least three people or groups you could talk with who fit the criteria above. List how they meet each criterion. (Find out more about accountability.)
Select the person or group you feel is the best fit. Commit to attending the next group meeting or arrange a time with that friend for coffee.
Read more articles in this series. Desire is a series for women that deals with sexual struggles, shame and hurt. “Do I Really Need to Tell Somebody?” has more information about overcoming shame and finding safe community.
For resources on this subject for men, check out the Flesh series.
Jessica Harris an international speaker, blogger and author of two books: “Beggar’s Daughter” and “Love Done Right: Reflections.” To discover more resources for women struggling with sexual shame, visit Jessica’s website: www.beggarsdaughter.com.
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