Alcoholics Anonymous was founded over 81 years ago, and today it’s practically a badge of honor to admit that you’re a recovering alcoholic or drug addict.
But not for sex addicts.
Using words like “pervert” and “sleaze” to describe sex addicts is the norm for the uninformed, misinformed, or those who would criticize, condemn, or mock sex addicts. No wonder sex addiction is still in the shadows—covered with a thick, heavy blanket of shame and stigma.
Sex addiction is further stigmatized by the relentless criticism of therapists working in the field of sex addiction treatment who are accused of building treatment centers to take advantage of people who erroneously believe they’re sex addicts, being in it for the money, being “sex negative,” or worse.
As a partner, you’re all too familiar with the relationship between sex addiction and shame, although—depending on your understanding of shame and its symptoms—you may not realize it.
Not all shame is bad.
Shame is an appropriate emotion to feel when you’ve behaved in a shameless way. Anytime you’re contemptuous of another person, behaving as though the rules don’t apply to you, or are verbally, physically, emotionally, or sexually abusive, you’re acting in a shameless manner.
Healthy shame is the experience of humility and embarrassment around your own thoughts and actions.
Toxic shame is the feeling that you’re defective, less than, or a worth-less person. Toxic shame makes you want to hide or disappear.
The shame I want to talk about here is the second type—toxic shame. When a partner feels shame about what the addict in her life has done, that is toxic shame.
Pia Mellody refers to the shame one feels about their partner’s behaviors as “shame by association,” meaning you feel shame about what your partner did because you chose him/her to be in relationship with.
However, even though you chose him, you’re not responsible for his actions or behaviors—past, present, or future.
Here are some examples of how partners experience and feel shame that rightly belongs to the addict, rather than the partner:
- Avoiding disclosing or giving details about something the addict has done—even to you—because you feel shame about it.
- Feeling shame when you come into contact with a past affair partner, or when you see a sexually oriented business where the addict spent time in the past.
- Feeling shame because of any of the addict’s acting out behaviors.
- Feeling shame because you “should have known” about his behaviors, despite his repeated lying and deception.
- Feeling shame when you come into contact with someone who knows about or participated in the addict’s past behaviors (a friend or co-worker, for example).
While it’s completely understandable to feel shame about your situation, I encourage you to get clear about where responsibility lies, and to let go of any shame you’re carrying that doesn’t belong to you. It’s toxic—and it will make you sick.
So how can partners avoid taking on unnecessary and toxic shame that doesn’t belong to them?
Here are 5 ways:
Connect & Share
I know, this one is difficult to do. But one of the most effective and rapid ways to reduce shame is to talk about it. You need a safe and supportive place to speak your shame.
The isolation, stigma, and shame of sex addiction is a powerful combination. Shame thrives in secrecy. You will find that the simple act of speaking your shame can completely eliminate the heavy, negative feelings and take away the power shame is wielding over you.
Finding a community of support can be difficult for partners, although there are many more options today than even 5-7 years ago. (See my Resources page for a list of communities of support.)
And if you don’t have a community of support, you can journal about what’s causing you to feel shame. Journaling is a very effective way to process and get clarity about past events, thoughts, and feelings.
Give Back the Shame
Since you weren’t the person who engaged in the behaviors that are causing you shame, it doesn’t belong to you. You need to give it back.
Imagine—in your mind’s eye—that you can give back any shame that doesn’t belong to you. You can visualize what the shame might look like if you could see it, and then in whatever way works for you, imagine that you are returning it to its rightful owner. You can do this silently, and at any time.
Remember that when you visualize giving shame back to anyone—a partner, parent, or past abuser—the shame cannot hurt them. That’s because when we face and feel our own shame it facilitates transformation and healing. When we carry it for others, it’s toxic to us.
Consider Your Sister, Friend, or Daughter
Sometimes even when partners understand a concept like getting rid of toxic and unearned shame, they struggle to fully embrace it because of distorted thinking or their own feelings of unworthiness.
When that happens, I often ask partners to consider what they would think or feel if the same thing was happening to their sister, their best friend, or even their daughter. More often than not, they can then move past blocks or distortions standing in the way of releasing whatever is holding them back.
What seems tolerable, or “no big deal” often becomes completely unacceptable when you consider it happening to someone else who is dear to you.
Do a Cleansing Ritual
When shame gets on you, it can feel heavy—even dirty. Consider doing a cleansing ritual such as burning sage, sweetgrass, incense, taking a bath with dead sea salts, or using a scrub for a deep skin cleanse.
The Jewish tradition of mikveh is a beautiful example of a cleansing and purifying water ritual used for special occasions like preparing for one’s wedding, religious conversion or ordination, and certain milestone birthdays (e.g. 30, 50, or 60).
Offer Your Shame to Your Higher Power
And finally, you can offer any unearned shame to your Higher Power, the Divine, God, or however you conceive your Higher Power. Simply say, “God, I give this shame to you.”
Have you taken on the addict’s shame as your own? If you have, choose one option for releasing it from this list, and make a plan to do it.
Most of us have enough of our own shame. There’s no need to carry any more.
If you’d like to receive blog posts just as soon as they happen, enter your email address now in the Subscribe to Blog via Email form on the right of this page.
© Vicki Tidwell Palmer, LCSW (2016)
All submitted comments are subject to editing to protect confidentiality and maintain anonymity.