Shame is the ultimate culprit at the very root of almost every self-imposed problem.

What is shame?

A popular definition describes shame as: a painful feeling of humiliation or distress caused by the consciousness of wrong or foolish behavior.

If we engage in a behaviour that we enjoy, why would we ever have shame for doing it? Examples could be sexual behaviour, sexual orientation, or even an individual passion that is not the ‘norm.’ If it’s not actually a destructive behaviour, action or way of being that’s hurting someone (ourselves or others) or causing problems in our world, why would we attach any shame to it? The only reason for attaching shame to what we do is because we are judging ourselves by someone else’s beliefs and/or projections on what is right or wrong. 

I used to feel incredible shame around my personal passion/obsession with Madonna because the people around me told me it was absurd and unrealistic. 

If we want to develop self-esteem and self-respect, we don’t have to stop engaging in behaviours and actions that we feel shameful about—that would be people-pleasing, which is the exact opposite of having integrity. 

And who is actually judging us anyhow?

Generally, when we try to change what we do or what we are because of perceived judgment from others, we are people-pleasing an imaginary audience. And even if someone—or some people—are actually judging us, they are simply projecting their own shame. These people—imagined or real—will not be crawling into our casket with us when we die, so why would we stop what we are doing or try to change the way we are to make them happy?

The only way to concretely build esteem and self-respect is to entirely remove shame from what we are doing, and continue to nurture what it is we enjoy and what it may be that we are. 

How do we do that?

We first have to look at why we think there’s something wrong with what we are doing. 

For me, and from what I see in general, a lot of notions surrounding shame crop up around ideas about sexuality, body image and social class. 

In my life, this almost always has to do with the homophobic environment I grew up in. I internalized that homophobia, and I had gotten in a habit of looking on my sexual or love/relationship behaviours with shame and a belief that something was wrong with it. 

Also—I’m going to say it—internalized slut-shaming is a thing. 

If we have sex—in any capacity at all—who is to say that there is an acceptable or moral amount to have or way in which it’s done?

Nobody. 

There are as many opinions about sex as there are adult humans on the planet. Why would one—or one collective—opinion be the absolute truth?

Slut-shaming is merely another form of judgment to declare someone’s own righteousness and justify their own behaviour. It’s also quite likely a projection of their own shame about their desires. 

When we internalize slut-shaming and condemn ourselves for the amount of or type of sex we have, we are once again people-pleasing by negatively comparing ourselves against what we believe is a generally accepted collective ideal. 

Think about it: if we are naturally attracted to or inclined to behave in any manor at all that is not technically harmful—and/or it’s consensual—then it stands to reason that there is not possibly anything at all wrong with it. 

Even with the tempting sway of jumping a majority opinion bandwagon, there are always examples that dispel the idea that a majority belief or opinion is correct. For example, most of the population of any given community—or the entire planet for that matter—is not physically fit with ten percent or less body fat, yet this specific body composition has become a majority ideal and considered what we should aspire to be. Most of us fall short of these societal ideals and end up experiencing shame because we are not as ‘good’ as we could be. Sometimes our shame or perceived inadequacy can drive us into destructive behaviours—and even addictions—to try and achieve an impossible idea of what is ‘right.’

How could it even be possible that there would be one absolute and universal idea of what is right or appropriate?

And how about social class or wealth? Is the one percent wealthy class really the ideal we should be aspiring to—and feeling shame about when we don’t achieve it—even when 99% of the world lives within a lower income and modest lifestyle? Once again, the drive for power and wealth—and to achieve this perceived ideal—can instigate major problems and even become the basis for war.  

I’m not suggesting that people have no ambition, but maintaining a healthy and balanced lifestyle and work ethic, and self-acceptance, in my opinion, is a much more desirable ideal to strive for. 

I spoke with my mentor about the pressure I feel in the fitness industry, the gay community—and in my general life—to always eat ‘healthily’ and present myself as fit. He suggested I remove ‘pressure’ and change my wording to a statement of maintaining a balanced and healthy lifestyle, and to drop the conditioning I have to believe that I need a six-pack to get a boyfriend. ‘Balanced and healthy’ allows room for desserts and rest days and reminds me that I have many admiral qualities that are not my physical appearance. 

I’ve also heard many times in the course of my life in recovery that a lot of people feel shame in their addictions. I don’t believe anyone wants to be an addict because of the destruction it causes, and so it makes sense that there is a societal understanding that addiction is ‘wrong’ or ‘bad.’ Consequently, it makes sense that most people wouldn’t want to run screaming from the hilltops that they are addicts. However, the shame around addictions can be crippling and stop us from reaching out or asking for help, which, in turn, fuels our shame and perpetuates our addictions. 

Admitting and sharing our addictions and our shame surrounding them with an appropriate (perhaps anonymous) audience/support group, can help dispel our shame and aid in our recovery. 

I just returned from the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall uprising in New York and was moved by the remembrance of those who rose up against the widely-accepted ‘norm’ of being straight. At that time, there was very little acceptance of homosexuality, and almost no positive representation in the media of alternative lifestyles whatsoever. So how did these people know they weren’t ‘wrong’ in being who they were and in rising up against police brutality and laws that considered them deviants and second-rate citizens?

In my belief, this strength in character requires a detachment from societal beliefs, religious dogma and cultural conditioning. These human ingredients must be replaced by a deep listening to and honouring of the longing of our souls and what it is we are naturally and intrinsically drawn toward being or doing. This presents a strong case for the need for self-reflection and meditation. 

So be it gay sex, straight sex, a lot of sex, no sex, eating a pie or a salad, being obsessed with Madonna, or being wealthy or not; wouldn’t it make sense to honour and accept what makes us tick and remove the shame from what we do and from who we are, once and for all? 

Michael DeCorte

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Michael,
An excellent article. Thank you. ‘Slut shaming’ jumped out at me, as it’s only been recently that I became aware of something so central to my internalized homophobia.

How’s this for a mantra to live by, even longer than my 30 years living with HIV/AIDS? “If anyone deserves to die from AIDS, I do!” I have long since unpacked the absurdities of the statement but hints of it linger to this day and manifest in many ways.

I’m a survivor sickened mainly by the negative messages I’ve internalized.

Thanks again for getting me to think and feel this.

Kenn

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