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  • The Timothy Center

Sex Addiction and Shame

By: The Center for Growth Therapists

When it comes to sex addiction, shame plays a significant role. Shame is a primary drive and trigger in sex addiction, from having shame and guilt for the sexual acting out, as well as carrying shame from the past whether it’s previous mistakes made or childhood trauma. As the individual continues in his/her sexual behaviors, the feelings of shame continues to pile and build. Individuals who are actively acting out sexually are often unaware that what their feeling and trying to numb is shame. They have no idea the power shame holds, and they have no idea the power they have given shame. Shame can push the addiction further, it can prevent individuals from asking and accepting the help that they need, it is also reason for relapse. 

Shame tends to be overlooked as a powerful emotion and it is often confused with guilt. Guilt serves as a moral compass. We feel guilty when we feel responsible for our actions. For example, I made a mistake, that behavior did not fit with my values, I hurt a loved one’s feelings in the process, I should not do that again in the future. However shame says, “I am the mistake I made.” “If I did something that was bad, I am bad.” For example, sex addicts feel shame for who they are, vs. guilt when we feel guilty for something we did. 

The origin of shame depends on the level of shame, the origin likely stems from less than nurturing experiences in childhood.  Sexual behaviors can serve as a way to numb the painful experiences, receive that desired validation or attention. Some individuals may have developed shame once active in their sexual addiction.

Shame as Coping:  

As mentioned before, most individuals engage in sexual acting act out as a way to cope with their loss of self. As a way to cope with this and the shame of the behaviors that they struggle to stop, they cope with the difficulty and the consequences of the addiction in the only way they know how, by further acting out. In the very short term, the acting out serves as a way to self-soothe and to preoccupy their mind. However, the level of the addiction and the level of shame gets to a point where the individual may be living two different lives in order to keep their behaviors and their “other life” a secret. The shame becomes layers upon layers of pain and negative self thinking as they continue their behaviors. The fear of being caught, the embarrassment and remorse they carry for the behaviors they engage in, the guilt for the consequences their behavior brings, it is all wrapped up into a big ball of shame. 

What Does the Shame Look Like?

Lost values: As the addict continues to fall deeper into the addiction they grow further apart from friends and family, hobbies, other interests. Their actions time and again go against their value system, which only exacerbates the level of shame they carry. 

Avoiding- People also become so skillful at avoiding their shame because it is too painful to face. So they do everything they can think of to not go there. Whether its distracting themselves with their work, or engaging in other excessive behaviors (spending, drinking, working out, etc). 

Masking: To face their shame means to become vulnerable, that is the last thing someone who struggles to face the reality of their sexual behaviors wants to do. So instead they will mask it with false emotion, or isolation. 

Isolation: The more he/she isolates from others, the more opportunity that is there for more acting out. Often the shame is so well hidden that it looks like whatever the individual is allowing others to see (i.e, successful job, spouse and kids, etc).

Self-consciousness: The deeper one falls into their addiction, the more sensitive one becomes about how he/she is being perceived by those around him/her. This usually involves constant self-criticism, self-blame, questioning of choices and behaviors, seeking of approval and validation by others. It’s an exhausting spiral. The individual grows fearful his/her behaviors being found out. There is a common misconception that to expose one’s vulnerabilities means one is is weak. The addict does everything in their power to hide avoid vulnerability in order to not be perceived as weak. 

Letting Go of Shame:


The beginning steps of letting go of shame includes understanding the difference between your actions, versus who you are, and the fact that these two things are very much separate from each other. As well as learning how to identify and challenge your negative thoughts which tend to fuel the shame spirals. Most importantly, learning what triggers your shame so you can begin take proactive steps in retraining your thinking and developing alternative behaviors. The longer the individual continues engaging in unhealthy sexual behaviors, the further away she/he has drifted from their true authentic selves. Shame is a very serious barrier in recovery. Until the individual can address and begin to work on their shame, the recovery process will be challenging. Successful recovery from a sex addiction and shame requires true vulnerability. It requires one to be open to expressing raw emotion, demonstrate honest reaction, and to be open to honest feedback from others. The first step in letting go of shame and beginning recovery is talking to about your sex addiction. Once one can begin to identify and discuss the negative emotions associated with his/her behavior (Before and after) the work towards recovery and the development of a recovery plan can be established.

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