Healing Barriers to Intimacy Series:
For the next few months, I will be writing about the common barriers to intimacy and the gems that emerge from facing these barriers. When we push our edges we discover more about ourselves, our partners, and what we need to allow the barriers to soften. This month, we focus on shame.
Shame is not a primary emotion and therefore a complex experience for an individual to sort through. When decoded, we find that shame is a negative relationship between an authentic internal expression and a negative social response to that expression. By social response, I mean the witnessing and reaction by someone else in a family, church, school, etc. or a cultural belief. Shame is the result of our authentic impulses and expressions being considered deviant or taboo by the culture or family to which we belong. This experience serves two functions: First, to give a group a sense of familiarity when the same rules are followed and second, to bring individuals back in step when a cultural line is crossed. In other words, shame evolved out of a survival need to keep a group together and harmonious.
As sexuality is developed, curiosities and discoveries are natural. Curiosities come and go as one develops their unique sexual palette. When one of these curiosities or discoveries are witnessed negatively by a socializing force, the individual becomes “stuck” and what was once just a musing becomes a source of shame and sometimes becomes an anxious-erotic fixation or a source of anxiety and avoidance.
Working with shame requires a layered approach. First, normalizing shame. Everyone feels it from time to time and instead of avoiding it, the experience of shame is begging for a closer look at something important in your relationships. Second, discovering the underlying authentic expression that was negatively reflected and in order to validate the original impulse and need found beneath this expression. Then, facilitate a conversation between the original impulse/need and the negative response to it – a dialogue between the “shamer” and the “ashamed.” What I often find is that the original impulse/need is incredibly healthy and worth validating and that the shamer most likely experienced a misunderstanding or projected their own internal shame.
Shame is also an experience that one needs help unpacking. When we turn it over in our own mind, we often sink deeper into the muck. As an impartial witness, I am able to support my clients to discover the healthy need and reflect this as a positive impulse. This reflection allows one to experience the self in a more positive light and then move forward to find healthy ways for this need to be met. In essence, a positive reflection can be a rewriting of a prior negative experience of the self.
Once we are able to be more comfortable with our impulses, we can be more comfortable in relationship and physically, verbally, emotionally express our needs while giving space for the needs of our partner. When we are no longer threatened by the impulses we find within, we are less threatened and reactive toward the impulses of our partners, providing more space for dialogue and negotiation.
-Melissa Walker, MA, LPC, R-DMT