How Porn Addiction Lies To You
March 8, 2016
Understanding Shame and Sex Addiction
March 8, 2016

Shame, the Master Emotion, Fuels and Maintains Sex Addiction


Shame, the most deeply disturbing experience of the self by the self, is certainly central to much that ails human beings. Shame strikes deepest into the human psyche: it is a sickness within the self, a disease of the spirit, a deep rupture within the self. It is the feeling of indignity, or defeat of inferiority and alienation. Shame is experienced as an inner torment. It is a wound made from the inside, dividing us both from ourselves and from one another.

Shame violates our essential dignity as human beings. It impacts not only our self-esteem, but also effects our very identity, our ability to engage in productive work and, mainly, impairs our ability to experience intimacy with another.

The principle cause of addiction is the experience of being unable to tolerate overwhelming negative feelings, shame included. The developing sex addict first of all becomes addicted to sex  to numb these intense shameful feelings.

In primary shame, the shame that that originates in childhood and precedes the development of addictive dependency, there is also secondary shame. Then there is the inevitable shame about being addicted to anything because of the experience of being out of control of your own behavior – of being unable to exercise choice in one’s life.

Sex addicts indiscriminately pursues sexual excitement, whatever the consequences. Such a person is driven to seek ever-higher levels of excitement, independent of the source. The experience of sexual arousal obfuscates the experience of shame. Intense sexual excitement masks sexual shame and allows for sexual activity. Sex and porn addiction makes sex so desirable that it over-rides shame.

How Addicts React to Shame

 The shamed person seeks some form of escape. This ‘fight or flight’ reaction results in:

  • Escapist behavior
  • Feelings of paralysis and lack of energy
  • Physical and emotional withdrawal from other people
  • Rage or anger
  • Addictive acting out

A deeply shamed person will not feel comfortable with others, so he or she becomes very solitary and private, fearing rejection because of their low sense of self-worth.  The result is the painful experience of alienation.

Sex Addiction Goes Hand-in-Hand with Shame

While not all people who feel deeply ashamed will become addicts,for the sex addict, sex temporarily ends the feelings of emptiness and desperation and somehow seems to provide an ‘answer’.

However, being addicted to sex doesn’t offer a permanent solution. The feelings of low self-esteem have not been dealt with, and so, as with other addictions, the victim keeps on returning to the source of the shame (sexual acting out) only to experience more shame.

Shame begets shame, leading to a vicious circle that may seem difficult or impossible to escape. And the shame, in turn, makes addicts reluctant to reach out for help, since this will mean confessing to their ‘shameful’ problems. They may become totally isolated from family, friends and community.

What Sex Addicts are so Ashamed About

Shame comes from negative experiences in which we find ourselves believing that there is something fundamentally wrong with us. Parents, teachers, employers, family members, peers and spouses, even we ourselves, are able to trigger shame.

Shame stems from the belief that no action on our part can correct something that is irredeemably deficient about us. Sex addicts are ashamed about a number of things:

  • The life situations and people that led them to believe that they have no worth
  • The ‘solution’ to getting shame-triggered by people, places and things is to use sex to mask the shame
  • Humiliation by feeling controlled by the addiction
  • A profound, discouraging sense of powerlessness
  • Internalized shame about sex from family, culture, religion.
  • Repeated return to the addiction makes the addict that he has once again fails to regain power over the addiction. He feels defeated. He may grow to hate himself, disgusted by his helplessness and what he experiences as a lack of strength or resolve.

Shame about Sex itself

The role of shame in sex addiction is most easy to understand when we consider the way in which society regards sex. On the one hand, it is a sought-after commodity that everybody thinks about, on the other, it’s a shameful taboo.

Just talking about sex without shame is something we rarely do. We feel embarrassed putting our sex-related thoughts into words. Since childhood, we’ve been conditioned to feel a certain shame about our sexual organs and function.

The reactions of adults from the time we began our early self-explorations to our physical behavior with the opposite sex are important. When adults do not handle these situations with sensitivity, shaming is the go-to strategy. Sometimes an adult can even cause shame just by seeming to be uncomfortable with a situation. But this is only one example of how children can become so ashamed about sex that they are at risk of addiction later in life.

The childhood origins of sexual shame can come from many sources. These include:

  • Sexual abuse
  • Sexual secrecy
  • Emotional abuse relating to sexuality
  • Exposure to pornography
  • Religious shaming
  • Parental shaming

Feeling deeply and unrealistically ashamed of sex and sexuality is not going to keep natural urges away. When a person like this indulges in sex or masturbation, they feel like a ‘bad person’, and may reengage in sexual activity just to relieve the feeling of being a “bad” person.  Eventually this may result in becoming addicted to sex.

Using Sex to ‘Prove’ Self-worth

Many sex addicts use sex to assert their status or to prove to themselves and others that they are attractive, and potent. This phenomenon is known as ‘contingent self-worth’ — self worth not generated from within, but from the actions of others.

A person who experiences this need to ‘perform’ to prove their adequacy do so because they feel inadequate as a person. They can become so absorbed with sex that they no longer enjoy it, but still feel compelled to use various strategies to once again become involved in sexual activity. They know of no of no other solutions.

There’s very real social condemnation of people who have no sexual boundaries. What many people fail to realize is that sex addicts are desperately lonely and troubled people who are afflicted with the disease of addiction, as millions of others in our society are.

Sex Addicts Need Sex Addiction Treatment, Not More Shame

What most people fail to understand, perhaps until quite recently, is that sex addiction is an illness. It is a compulsion rather than a choice. But with sex addiction so recently achieving recognition as a unique disorder, not even doctors are particularly well informed about its treatment. They will refer patients to a general therapist or a specialized sex therapist.

A sex therapist usually focuses on the sexual behavior rather than the addiction or its causes. A general psychotherapist may focus on childhood issues while ignoring current sexual behavior or addiction. Even a trained sex addiction therapist might look only at the behavioral manifestation of the addiction, thinking that “wellness” is being sexually sober for a long period of time. I believe their approach is superficial.

To treat sex addiction effectively, a number of elements should be addressed, namely:

  • Behavioral techniques to cease the acting out
  • Learning to manage urges and cravings
  • Completely reframing their beliefs and attitudes about sex
  • Addressing the underlying psychological cause of the addiction
  • Healing childhood wounds that resulted in having a shame-based identity
  • Learning to put off gratification in the service of an important goal; relinquishing the need for immediate gratification
  • Learning about healthy intimacy and healthy sex
  • Learning skills and abilities to counter-act shame(This will be the topic of another article and be sure to read the books cited below.)

Therapy for sex addiction must address healing shame by helping the individual to take actions and change attitudes to he can eventually live in relatively peace with himself. Total recovery means learning to move from having a shame-based identity to having a self-affirming identity and feeling worthy to once again be a contributing member of the human race.


Recommended Reading:

Healing the Shame That Binds You/John Bradshaw

Shame: The Power of Caring/Gershen Kaufman, PhD

Dynamics of Power:  Fighting Shame and Building Self-Esteem//Gershen Kaufman, PhD. and Lev Raphael PhD.





Dorothy Hayden, LCSW has 20 years of experience treating sex and porn addicts, love addiction, codependency, fetishes, sadomasochism, "kink friendly", crossdressers and their wives, partners of sex addicts. She has been interviewed on "HBO", "20/20" and Anderson Cooper 360. Ms. Hayden has authored the book "Total Sex Addiction Recovery - A Guide to Therapy"

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