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 destroys self-confidence.
It’s peculiar crippling, far worse than guilt. Guilt is the belief that you’ve done something wrong. Shame is the belief that you are something wrong.
In our 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.
For women, it’s often expressed in a sense of not being ‘normal’.
One of my teachers said that the only cure for shame is courage. That’s 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 us.
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 we try and do in our work. And that relationship is both between us 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 we’re working with a man suffering from erectile dysfunction, we don’t focus on a technical fix, we 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.
Or, if we’re working with a woman with a belief that her body is broken, or worthless, or ugly, we work 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. Our work is to restore that, and thus to restore the dignity and beauty of the person.