By Tim Sisk, 2/17/18
I define shame as the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging – something we’ve experienced, done, or failed to do makes us unworthy of connection.
I don’t believe shame is helpful or productive. In fact, I think shame is much more likely to be the source of destructive, hurtful behavior than the solution or cure. I think the fear of disconnection can make us dangerous.
It was crazy-making. Shameful. Or so, I believed. I was taught that certain things were shameful. Maybe not directly. But directly or indirectly, I was taught sex was something that was shameful outside of marriage. Funny that I never thought to question the concept of something being so good and beautiful and right within the predetermined context of a Christian marriage, yet so abhorrent and shameful outside of that context.
I was exposed to pornography very young. From that first exposure I chased after more. Sex was something of great interest to me. I was as much natural developmental curiosity as anything. But over time sex and the fantasy of sex became my nightly escape from a stressful reality of living and buying into a life of extreme religiosity. I feared repercussions of not following the family ideology. My grandfather was a con turned evangelist (yes, I see the irony) and raised my mother into being an anxious, obsessive-compulsive woman with no healthy coping skills. Her angry outbursts would make the greatest storms on earth stand still to watch in awe. During the day I lived and breathed for my mother. But after she would tuck me into bed and close the door to my room my time was finally my own. I would immediately pull out the stash of porn and imagine myself in a happy life with a happy relationship where I was adored by a gorgeous woman. I could only imagine what it was like. Dating was not allowed for me. Neither were “secular” social activities like parties or dances. But in my mind I was the center of attention that I couldn’t be in public. This was all great. Except for the feeling of guilt and shame that tagged along.
The elation of an orgasm was always followed nearly immediately by the dread of shame for what I had just done. (It was years of masturbation without an orgasm before I ever had one – hoping to save myself for marriage)
This continued into adulthood – this self imposed dual life. Once I was living on my own out in the real world my coping mechanism turned addiction blossomed into behavior I only previously dreamed about. Risky sex with strangers, prostitutes, any woman who I could coerce with my wit or my wallet. All the while courting the belle of ball that I met at my new church. We eventually married and I pretended the whole time that I was a virgin until our wedding day. So. Fucking. Awkward.
The shame was alive and well. Any newlywed virginal sexual appetite I “should” have had was killed by the shame of my inner secrets. It was miserable. And I couldn’t tell my best friend – the woman I just promised to spend the rest of my life with. My behaviors didn’t change just because I got married, like I hoped they would. Fantasy in all forms was still my drug. This went on for about two years until I was caught or until I gave myself away – I’m not sure which it really was. That marriage, and my association with my faith eventually ended over the next few months. I straightened up my life, kinda. But I still had a lot of resentment that would lead to flights of fantasy that would lead to feelings of shame that would lead back to resentment, etc.
I remarried and reenacted the entire scene again, except this time instead of having to juggle my faith with my life choices, I had become a father. I was in recovery and doing an ok job at the work. But my sexual sobriety was very shaky. Shaky enough to still be ashamed about it nearly constantly. On my daughter’s second birthday I moved into a friends garage. I was living in a fucking garage, on an air mattress. Oh, and I was also unemployed at the moment as well. I was in the deepest point of shame.
The most incredible thing happened during this time: my daughter still wanted to see me and spend time with me. She still looked forward to being with her dad even if we slept on a shared air mattress in a garage. She carried no shame about the situation. Only love. Incredible, pure, love.
This is when I really started learning about shame and how powerless it really is. Like Pennywise in IT only had power when the children feared him, Shame only has power if you let it have power – if you fear it.
Over time I began to be able to talk about my experience in a way that was empowering, instead of debilitating. Through the 4th step I was able to identify and own what was mine, while also looking at situations in my life that weren’t mine to be responsible for. I was able to begin to separate the guilt of my actions from the essence of my being. This slowly, but surely, took power away from the shame I had been feeding for decades. In not having shame I was able to make better decisions. I was able to have a healthy sexuality without attaching shame to it. I was able to be honest with myself and others. I was able to let people love me or leave me while being fully present and honest with them. It felt amazing to be loved for who I really was instead of for pretending to be who I thought others wanted me to be.
I now have a different relationship with myself and others. I have a more loving relationship with myself and with those I choose to love. It’s not perfect, but it’s a life where empathy and love have replaced shame and fear.