Loving people out of their shame
When people ask me what I actually do as a pleasure coach, I have found that the most succinct way to describe it is I "love people out of their shame".
I realise that straight off the bat I’ve dropped two big words in there! LOVE and SHAME. Notice what happens in your body as you read those words. What associations come up for you?
Now, love may be a word that makes you feel warm inside, or perhaps it fills you with sadness, dread, or even confusion. Alongside whatever the word stirs up for you, you might also be feeling its “out of place-ness” hearing it being used in a professional context. After all, my clients aren't looking for a romantic relationship with me and it’s not something I offer or would be willing to engage in. But, that’s just one way to view love - as something we fall into on the escalator to our happily ever after.
I believe that love plays an absolutely fundamental role in the work I do. I have thought many times about softening this description to make it more palatable - in Sexological Bodywork we tend to use the phrase “unconditional positive regard”. But, the truth is that I do feel myself pouring love into each and every one of my clients. Whatever they come to me for and whichever exercises we choose to engage with, it's all taking place within the context of me opening my heart to receive them fully as the unique bundle of humanness that they are. I genuinely believe that this is the magic ingredient that makes powerful shifts possible.
But why on earth would somebody come to me to be “loved” in this way? Well, this leads us on to the next word - shame.
Shame is all about how we perceive ourselves in relation to the social norms in which we believe. If we believe that we have violated these norms in some way, it can lead to feelings of being exposed, and to view our entire self negatively. If you’ve ever experienced not being able to look another person straight in the eye, or discomfort deep in the pit of your stomach, it may have been as a result of this emotion. We don’t even need for our “violation” to have been directly witnessed or judged by another person - simply imagining another’s judgment is often enough to trigger the shame.
One of the most common sources of shame is our sexuality.
There are few things more deeply ‘us’ than our longing for sexual connection and therefore any feelings of unworthiness – any worries about how nice we are, how deserving we may be or how legitimate it is that we exist – have a sure habit of cropping up in the bedroom and of destroying our ability to be straightforward and unconflicted sexual beings. To generalise crudely, if there is any danger of us feeling bad about ourselves, we’re going – by a psychological inevitability – to feel bad about ourselves and sex.
The School of Life
Sex and intimacy can stir up so many deep-rooted insecurities in us - about the way our bodies look, feel, smell, sound, taste, and behave, about the sexual thoughts and desires we may have (or not), and what this means about us as an individual. We may feel embarrassed, ashamed, scared of our true erotic selves being “found out”, or isolated because we don’t feel we can share our authentic selves with anyone.
Let’s be real here. If you are fully able to express your authentic sexual selves with confidence, to ask for what you want, and to say when something isn’t enjoyable, you are in the minority! Shame is so prevalent in this space. I've yet to meet a client who doesn't believe on some level that their sexual self is wrong or outside of the norm. Many of us will have had experiences earlier in life where we didn’t accepted and/or safe enough to explore ourselves and our bodies. We don’t get taught how to do this so often we enter relationships pre-loaded with shame and hoping to figure it out with another human who is likely in a similar position. You (or your partner/s) are NOT broken if you find this challenging!
Bringing this back to the L word, my work is often about witnessing people in their authentic sexual expression. It’s about seeing all the parts of them that are ready to be seen and meeting them with an abundance of acceptance and love. To pour this love, if welcomed, into those cracks and crevices that life has left behind. To tend to the parts that you may not yet have learnt to love, or perhaps have become disconnected from along the way. The happiest moments for me are when a client is then able to meet themselves with the same love and acceptance. I remember one of my clients telling me in a session "You accept me and so I accept myself... instead of guilt and shame, I feel calm".
Often we are told in the personal development world that we need to learn first to accept ourselves before others will accept or even love us. That's great but sometimes our wounds are so deep that we need some extra help, to be compassionately witnessed, to know that we are OK as we are, and won't be rejected or hurt if we show ourselves. When you choose to seek support for this consciously is it less powerful, or less empowered? I don't think so. I celebrate anyone who dives into this work in order to show up in the world without the burden of their shame.
There are of course a great many dangers around an unbridled hurtful expression of sexuality, the kind that destroys the confidence and lives of innocent people. But there are also enormous dangers in living with an unwarranted sense that we are sexual aberrations. In a caring, mutually supportive environment, our acceptance of our sexuality is one of the most generous and mature acts we’re capable of. We – the ashamed ones – deserve to rediscover sex not as a zone of guilt and fear but as an intensely fulfilling, innocent and in the profound sense ‘fun’ pastime, something we truly deserve to enjoy in the same way that, despite early intimations to the contrary, we truly deserve to exist.
The School of Life
And so, my invitation to you, dear reader, is to start paying more attention to how shame creeps into your day-to-day life, particularly shame that relates to your erotic self. Sometimes this may be most visible through our resistance to engage, or through the judgments we have about others.
Here’s just a handful of examples of the different kinds of sexual shame that I’ve seen come up recently:
“Why would anyone want to touch my body when it looks like this?”
“If I experience intimacy (of any kind) with someone of the same sex, what does it mean about my sexuality?”
“I would rather be in service to someone else - doing what they like - than to think about, never mind ask for, what I would enjoy.”
“As a queer person, I’m afraid of engaging with someone who is heterosexual as they will clearly think that I’m coming on them or will generally feel uncomfortable around me.”
“I don’t feel I am queer enough to be accepted in space”
Vulnerability shame or the “vulnerability hangover” that can come after allowing yourself to be seen or heard
On a personal level, I spend most days talking to others about sex and intimacy. I have seen or heard more than some people will in a lifetime! My curiosity helps me to be authentically broad-minded when it comes to most things in this field. I can be comfortable in the presence of the strong emotions that this work often evokes. And yet I am not impermeable, perfect, or complete in my own personal work to overcome the deeply ingrained sexual shame that exists in most of us. In fact, I’m not sure I will manage to undo all of this in my lifetime! I still feel the pangs of shame from time to time. Most recently, I found myself entangled in someone else’s projections of shame about the work I do. The fact that this landed at all made me reflect on whether there was some truth in this for me as it can feel so real in the moment. I’ve found that the best way to move through this is to come back to my own sense of integrity and values. After all, if shame is based on a perceived violation of societal norms, I want to be sure that those norms actually mean something to me. Are they values that I actually want to live by or have they been imposed on me by others?
As with most aspects of this work, we are working to unlearn behaviors and beliefs that no longer serve us. Many people who start exploring their sexual selves through this work quickly start judging themselves for all the things they didn’t know or act on in the past. We need to know that the cause of our shame often isn’t our own stuff, it’s other people’s. When we can acknowledge this, it is easier to come back to (or begin) our practice of self-compassion, acceptance and love. This is a gift not only to ourselves but to all of the people we engage with.
Some additional notes:
The phrase “loving people out of their shame” first came up for me in conversation with one of the sub coaches during my Psychological Domination training. They were using it in a slightly different context but it resonated so deeply that it’s stuck with me ever since.
References and further reading:
The scientific underpinnings and impacts of shame (article from Scientific American): https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/the-scientific-underpinnings-and-impacts-of-shame/
The problem of sexual shame (article from The School of Life from which I’ve included a couple of quotations in this piece): https://www.theschooloflife.com/article/the-problem-of-sexual-shame/