The emotions that most pervade a society tend to operate in the shadows. For our society, envy and jealousy are pervasive yet unacknowledged. But the most insidious emotion is shame. Shame is an assault on the integrity of the self.
It’s peculiarly crippling, far worse than guilt. Guilt is the belief that you’ve done something wrong. Shame is the belief that you are something wrong, or broken.
In my work, we come across sexual shame a lot.
For men, the shame is often associated with performance. Men who lose an erection, or can’t get one, often suffer crippling shame. And they can’t talk about it with their partner, because that’s shameful. And they avoid any intimacy which might lead to an expectation that they “perform”, mortally wounding the intimacy necessary to sustain a relationship. It’s like a vortex.
For women, it’s often expressed in a sense of not being ‘normal’, either physically abnormal, viewing their bodies, and very often their genitals as ugly or performatively abnormal, not being able to orgasm with a partner “like everyone else”.
One of my Gestalt teachers said that the only cure for shame is courage. It impressed me tremendously at the time but it’s only half true. You need to have courage to see the shame and name it, and decide to do something about it. You need to have courage to see people like me.
But what cures shame isn’t courage: it’s connection.
Shame is like the amputation of our adult self. We feel helpless and isolated.
So the way to address it is to build a relationship of trust, warmth and connection, and that’s what I try and do in my work. And that relationship is both between me and the client, and also within the client, reuniting body and mind and reclaiming the autonomy and dignity of the body.
So, for instance, if I’m working with a man suffering from erectile dysfunction, I don’t focus on a technical fix, rather, I explore the alienated perspective he might have of his body: the idea that his body is like a machine which isn’t working properly, rather than that he is his body, and I try to bring him back to himself through connecting and compassionate Bodywork .
Or, if I’m working with a woman with a belief that her body is broken, or worthless, or ugly, I use Bodywork to restore attention to what is actually being felt, the richness of actual experience, rather than some idea of how things ought to be.
Shame comes in myriad forms, but it always involves a suppression of the rich life and multifaceted experience of the body. My work is to restore that, and thus to restore the dignity and beauty of the person.