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The Link Between Sexual Shame and Addiction and Why It Should Be Addressed

As sex addiction expert and author Robert Weiss argues in PsychCentral, the connection between addiction and shame is well established. Those prone to addiction often feel ashamed of themselves; it’s an inward-facing criticism with the potential to lead to problems such as anxiety and depression, which in turn creates a desire to escape through the use of substances. This much is accepted, but the importance of sexual shame is woefully underrepresented in many treatment programs, according to Weiss. Understanding how sexual shame influences people who struggle with addiction and what can be done about it can help you identify what may be a core issue underlying many of the more overt problems you’re experiencing.

The Types of Shame

It’s ordinarily argued that there are two types of shame: “healthy” shame and “toxic” shame. Healthy shame is a more transient feeling, which occurs when you’ve done something that runs contrary to your personal code of ethics, such as lying to a friend. Toxic shame is a more severe emotional state, wherein the individual literally feels ashamed of him or herself as opposed to some specific recent behavior. This is the type of shame usually associated with addiction: the guilt from a minor recent indiscretion won’t drive somebody to drugs, but if you feel that you’re a fundamentally defective or a bad person, it doesn’t just disappear and can ultimately lead to depression, anxiety and other mental health issues. There can be positive consequences of guilt (when the feeling serves as motivation to make a change, for example), but toxic shame generally sends individuals into a pit of self-loathing and apparent hopelessness, which may then drive them to use drugs or alcohol as a means of escape.

Sexual Shame and Addiction

Weiss argues that while most treatment providers are aware of the link between shame and addiction, the importance of sexual shame is often underplayed or even ignored entirely. Sexual shame is rooted in childhood, created by some form of sexual trauma in combination with emotional abuse or neglect, and often leads to issues with trust and affection, body image problems and shame about being looked at or touched inappropriately. These feelings are powerful and painful, and often lead children to self-medicate in some way as they get older (often beginning around adolescence). This can occur through use of alcohol or drugs, but may also involve sexual gratification. While both can be damaging, when sexual gratification is used to self-medicate, it often involves the source of the shame itself, which eventually creates even more sexual shame and increases the desire to self-medicate even more. The destructive cycle is set up in adolescence and can continue well into adulthood. The big problem when it comes to addiction treatment is that this sexual shame – potentially at the root of the entire issue – is generally buried and hasn’t been addressed by professionals or the individual themselves. The temptation for treatment providers is to focus on the problem the individual has come in for – the self-medication in the form of drug addiction – and not to address the underlying sexual shame. In some cases, the sexual shame and drug addiction are tied together, with the individual using stimulants to accomplish dual goals of getting high and having extended periods of sexual activity. However, this isn’t always the case, and when the drug use is apparently separate from the sexual behavior, it’s even harder for treatment providers to recognize.

Addressing the Issues Together

Treating a sexual shame-related case of addiction is similar to treating any addiction, but the sexual component of the issue needs to be overtly addressed in treatment. Instead of focusing solely on the drug addiction, mental health professionals need to take a sexual history and examine the sex and relationship behaviors of the individual at present. If any issues are uncovered, the key to tackling sexual shame (and even shame in a broader sense) is addressing it openly as part of treatment. Sexual shame and addiction treatment need to be integrated in order to be effective, because the issues are frequently interlocked.

The Importance of Sharing

Sharing is vital. If the individual shares the key events that led to the sexual shame with a therapist or a group of peers, he or she comes to realize that the event or behavior – whatever it is – doesn’t mean that they’re in any way “defective” or “bad.” It tackles the toxic elements of the shame, which still affect them in the present. The core idea behind toxic shame (“x happened to me and therefore I’m a defective person”) doesn’t make sense when analyzed critically, and the process of sharing helps the individual do just that. That’s why group sessions and one-on-one counseling – if correctly focused – are ideal for tackling sexual shame-related addiction.    

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