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Secret Shame

As sexual compulsives, we live almost continually with shame, but often are hardly aware of it. We can act out repeatedly on this secret, pervasive shame, yet never even know it’s there.

Our secret shame manifests in many ways:

  • When we feel shy
  • When we fear we can’t compete
  • When we look for perfection in others or ourselves
  • When we’re inordinately upset by criticism
  • When our bodies and their functions disgust us
  • When we obsess about genital size
  • When we hold on to memories of being abused or ridiculed
  • When we need others to reassure us
  • When we feel invisible, or wish we were
  • When we abandon ourselves — physically, mentally or spiritually
  • When we want to run away

It can come as a shock to discover that the general malaise so familiar to us — the “hole in the soul” we felt we were born with — is shame. Shame for the addictive person may be a compulsion in itself: something one abhors but is unable to resist.

Shame should be distinguished from guilt. Many of us are willing to talk, sometimes obsessively, about guilt. But guilt is not shame.

Guilt has been defined as feeling you’ve done something bad, shame as feeling you are something bad. Guilt says, “I made a mistake.” Shame says, “I am a mistake.’’

It’s possible to learn from guilt, but shame only drives us ever deeper into self-hatred.

As long as we’re unaware of it, shame serves to heighten the sense of confusion in which we always seem to be floundering. Something feels fundamentally wrong: we don’t seem fully alive the way other people are.

Yet we shy away from facing the truth. The inadequacy we have always suspected in ourselves might prove to be real.

What if it turns out we’re even worse than we’d feared? And what if we can’t do anything about it?

A Family Disease

Shame runs in families. Many of us, in fact, seem to stumble through life bearing the burden of our parents’ shame as much as our own.

Sunk in depths of self-absorption and self-hatred that they themselves may have inherited, our parents were often incapable of realizing we were persons in our own right. We seemed mere extensions of themselves, existing chiefly to validate their lives.

Though often enthralled by the drama of parenthood, they were somehow unwilling or unable to do the work entailed, and the facade they presented to the world seemed more important than any meaningful family life they might create for themselves — or us. The essential thing was that their own inheritance of shame remain hidden: it must never be confronted in any way.

Too attentive to us and not attentive enough, they tended to treat us like “showcase objects,” meant to inspire the world’s admiration for them.

Such parents might consider us morbidly important, yet we seemed also somehow disappointing to them, and all too often our identities were formed in reaction to their feelings about us, or lack of feelings about us.

Even as we strained to remain loyal, we knew that with our parents there could never be any bonding, only bondage.

Compassion must be displayed for their unhappiness: ours didn’t count. Often they abused us as they abused themselves, allowing their true selves to die and creating an example for us that was all too easy to follow.

Our parents’ distortions and hang ups about sex affected us deeply, often without our realizing it, so that many of the physical dreads and obsessions we experience have nothing to do with our own desires and needs.

In families where boundaries are continually disregarded, incest is not uncommon. The most extreme form of ignored boundaries is actual sexual relations between adults and children, but many forms of abuse function as covert or emotional incest.

For instance, a parent who turns to a child for solace, as to a secret confidante or partner, is indulging in emotional incest. Such a weight of intimacy and responsibility is beyond any child’s capacity to understand or deal with — hard as he or she may try. In effect, it robs the child of childhood, and victims of this kind of abuse often pay a great price in later life.

Having grown up with an uncertain sense of boundaries or limitations, we are left with the pervasive feeling that the standards of the real world don’t apply to us. Also, that in some baffling, terrifying way, we do not exist.

Thus, unable to function as examples for healthy lives, our parents were role models for unhappy, compulsive ones. And we learned early the importance of secrecy and silence, of hiding what we feared we might be and pretending to be something we were not.

Growing Up Ashamed

As children we wanted to be liked by everyone. No one must perceive how loathsome we believed ourselves to be; no one must ever know what we were really feeling.

Compared to our unhappy selves, almost everyone seemed better off, and we feared we could never be liked spontaneously, the way other people were. We had to work for it, and work overtime.

We considered ourselves unworthy of any affection we got; nevertheless, real or imagined deprivations made us feel entitled to special consideration.

Making ourselves into models of good behavior — or bad behavior, if that worked better — we learned how to get what we wanted at any cost. We sought ways to outwit and outperform, and the need to be “as good as” soon became the need to be “better than.” But no matter how often we excelled, we always secretly felt that it wasn’t good enough, that we’d failed again. To our other miseries we added envy: yearning for what others had, even their identities.

We placed people in categories. Most seemed drab and beneath consideration. A select few were “perfect” — beautiful, brilliant, happy, ideal — and these we obsessed about, seeing ourselves as even more inadequate by comparison.

For many of us, our bodies were a source of continuing anxiety. We regarded their normal functions as embarrassing and degrading, and strove to feel detached from them. Sometimes even our natural gifts seemed shameful: having intelligence or talent made us different, and different meant inferior.

Many of us emulated the opposite sex, perhaps because that gave us an opportunity to “escape”, if only in fantasy, from being ourselves. Cross-dressing for some became a compulsive form of escape from the torments of childhood. It seemed to objectify our shamefulness. We could look in a mirror and see ourselves as despicable yet somehow “glamorous.” (Our shame over these remembered gender games can stay with us all our lives.)

Church services had seemed to some of us a form of magic, and often our early religious training held an uncanny fascination, deepening our puritanical disdain for physical reality. This hunger for the supernatural helped shape our adolescent lives, and especially our spiritual lives. Instead of seeking our holy of holies within ourselves, we turned to movies, or operas, or television, or sports. Such realms of fantasy were for most of us intoxicating. They presented us with images of the ideal that our shame-infected everyday existence could never match.

Building facade upon facade, we imprisoned ourselves in a kind of perpetual childhood, rarely allowing harsh facts to interfere with our secret inner life.

And then sex came into the picture, and attached itself to the processes of envy, fantasy, secrecy and self-hatred already in operation.

Acting Out Our Shame

Looking back, many of us feel that compulsive behavior in various forms was with us from an early age. It seemed almost inevitable that sex would be an addiction.

We were alarmed by our awakening sexuality’s strange power, its capacity to make us lose control. It brought on a jumble of anxiety-provoking sensations: fear, excitement, wickedness, fascination, a new depth of emotional need. Then, when we began to realize we were sexually “different” from the way we perceived other people to be, it seemed yet another proof of our wretchedness and inadequacy.

Some of us, convinced that our sexuality must be an evil thing, attempted again and again to control our natural drives. We tried to divorce ourselves from our sexual nature, and often equated being sexual with being bad. We lost the ability to imagine sex as healthful and life­enhancing. If it didn’t feel shameful, it didn’t feel sexual.

With our lives split in two, we became locked in a compulsive cycle of either totally denying our sexual side or recklessly abandoning ourselves to it. We hated and feared what was happening to us, yet the numbing rush of adrenaline each time we gave in was irresistible.

When we first gravitated to the dismal world of compulsive sex, most of us felt excited and sickened. And then we found ourselves sneaking back — again and yet again. It was as if we had at last found a place where all our inner loathing could come into play, so that in some way we were finally “at home.” For many of us the addiction was immediate.

We seemed to be playing out some inner drama, like an old story we were compelled to repeat over and over, hoping each time that the ending might change.

Often we felt afraid when we were attracted to anyone, and threatened when anyone was attracted to us. Unless we were continually reassured, we felt rejected. It seemed we had found a no-lose situation: being desired masked the shame; rejection brought a sickly satisfaction of its own.

Distaste for our bodies turned to disgust for ourselves and, overlaying envy on desire, we idealized people simply because they seemed unlike us. Partners were magic mirrors, revealing whatever we longed — or dreaded — to see. We wanted to become the people we were attracted to, or to absorb them into us, while our real selves grew dimmer. Often — especially while acting out sexually — we felt invisible.

We shielded ourselves from the reality of what we were doing, so that even during our most sordid episodes we inwardly felt untouched. But underneath our increasing hunger for sex, the anxiety intensified. Certain people, or acts, or places, we used as fetishes to ward off this anxiety. Sex itself became a kind of fetish. Our sexuality was a means to express anger at others and ourselves, and soon the giving or getting of abuse — physical or emotional — provided a major element of our satisfaction. We regarded humiliation, others’ or our own, with a sense of superiority and contempt.

Many of us surrendered to pornography as eagerly as we had to books, films, music. Its ambience of fantasy and illusion became a debilitating drug, and even while we recognized the sham of it, our hunger to escape the real world fueled pornography’s allure. Others, we imagined, were actually able to live these erotic fantasies, while we in some way had always been denied them. There was invariably something missing to lure us on, and no matter how desperately we besieged this land of phantoms, we felt forever locked out, trying to get in.

The shame that had at first seemed unbearable eventually became unnoticeable. Any notion of who we were grew cloudier, and we seemed to be watching our lives from a distance, as if they were happening to someone else. Isolated though we were, we became more and more needful of others. When we didn’t have an audience, we hardly seemed to exist.

It grew steadily more difficult, outside of sex, to reveal our deepening anger, and we kept trying to “package” ourselves to give the illusion that we were the nicest, the most accommodating, the best. Forever comparing and competing, we craved success to hide the growing emptiness inside.

And yet we feared success, often pushing it away. Invisible observers seemed constantly to be evaluating us, and we felt unable even to approach the perfection they demanded.

Venturing deeper into our double lives, we became more rigid and puritanical even as our standards sank. We scorned anyone who reminded us of ourselves, or did the things we did. In many of us openly or surreptitiously homophobia flourished. Our limited powers over life and death frightened us, and we tried to stand apart from the day-by-day cycles of existence, regarding the growth and aging process as a constant threat.

The more our compulsion damaged us, the more we required perfection in another, alternating sleazy episodes with giddy romantic extravaganzas that had little chance of survival in the shallowness of our real lives. It wasn’t an authentic partner we were seeking, but a role model, savior, symbol, pornographic fantasy — someone to worship or be worshiped by — a passport to a new identity, to obliterate the one we could not bear.

 The Healing Process

Accustomed to lives of confusion and vagueness, where obsessions could multiply unchecked, most sexual compulsives are fearful of simplicity. So at first we tend to be wary of the healing process in SCA.

SCA is not psychotherapy, nor a “get well quick” self- improvement scheme. Ours is a spiritual program that, with the help of a power greater than ourselves, gradually loosens the compulsion’s grip.

This word spiritual, conjuring up images of ritual, authority, and forays into the absolute, tends to dismay many of us at first. Yet if we look objectively at our compulsion, we find that what we were so desperately seeking was not degradation but an experience of wholeness, fulfillment, joy — in fact, a spiritual experience.

Some come into the program thinking of themselves as deeply religious; others have an ongoing resentment at religion that sometimes seems to fuel the addiction.

There were, for many of us, elements of ritual about our compulsive behavior itself. Members report episodes of abandon and self-loss that felt religious in nature; others seemed to need to inflict shame and humiliation on themselves, so that they could then seek absolution. And certainly our romantic obsessions had all the trappings of idolatry. Such escapades seem, in retrospect, an effort to attain spiritual results without paying any requisite spiritual price.

But just as “sobriety” ruins any imagined delight in compulsive sexual behavior, it makes it ever more difficult to settle for the bogus in our spiritual life. In the same way each one of us takes on the responsibility of creating a sexual recovery plan that will work specifically for him or her, we have to find our own personal interpretation of SCA’s second step A “Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.”

The idea of a higher power guiding their lives makes many new members scoff; yet the experience of being dominated by a lower power is, for most sexual compulsives, all too familiar.

In beginning sobriety, our most vivid and immediate experience of this higher power at work is at meetings. How often we have witnessed transformation in ourselves and others as a result of merely “bringing the body.” This is the kind of power greater than ourselves that can help us reshape our lives.

In SCA we’re not required to “believe” anything. It’s more often the case that we stop believing — believing that by applying the right kind of pressure and will power, we can somehow pull our lives together on our own.

SCA defines sexual sobriety as abiding by a sexual recovery plan. The plan outlines boundaries for sexual behavior. Each person devises his or her own plan.

In sobriety, some of us decide to give an earlier religious discipline a fresh try; others take a whole new approach to the subject. But while most SCA members gain a deep respect for the wisdom of the world’s faiths, most of us are content to settle for sanity rather than sanctity, and a higher power works as effectively for agnostics and atheists as for believers.

With the help of the program and our higher power, we take an honest look at ourselves. Shame has obscured some of the defects we most need to work on. The more we risk exposing them, the more they lose their negative power.

It’s amazing, when recovery begins, the levels of emotion we uncover. Slowly we learn to recognize genuine feeling, and to trust it.

It’s a mirroring process. To receive loving attention heals shame. To bestow it does, too. Giving somebody else a hug means getting one yourself. But unconditional affection can be a frightening thing, and sharing our deeper feelings always seems dangerous. We’re ashamed at first to let other SCA members see them.

We’re troubled by the enormous investment we seem to be giving up. Coming to terms with shame can mean abandoning the identity we brought with us to SCA. Our lives, dreams and personalities have been built upon a false foundation. What will happen if it’s pulled away?

The more we participate in SCA, the faster we heal. But for most of us, sexual sobriety is very foreign territory, and much of the time we’re like blind people trying to make their way. We’re not used to believing we can make our lives work. The old negating voices in our heads have to be replaced with new messages of approval and self-assurance. Little by little, we stop trying to “reform” the frightened child inside us, and learn to love it instead. But our true identities, as we begin trying them out, can take getting used to.

Slips in SCA can make every particle of shame come rushing back — worse than before. We try to recognize that a slip is a cruel but priceless lesson our disease is teaching us. As we grow in the program we give up any illusions about attaining perfection, including “perfect sobriety.” Success in SCA means learning to live contentedly with our sexual identity, not transcending it — much as many of us would like to.

We begin to accept that our sexuality should be no more an excuse for self-pity than for self­blame. We renounce any sense of gay “exceptionality,” and come to terms with homophobia, our own and other people’s, and the damage it’s done us. We accept that we’re human beings like everybody else, with the same rights, the same privileges, and the same responsibilities.

The spiritual awakening we experience in SCA has no set time frame. Other members often see the healing process working in us before we notice it ourselves. Often, in fact, we’re the last to realize how much the program is doing for us. We’re aware of the progress others are making, but are so used to thinking of ourselves as failures that many of us go on despairing about never getting well, even as we’re getting well.

As we work on the defects fueling our addiction, we may find them subtly changing into assets, and it is not uncommon in SCA to discover that the same intensity and passion with which we once surrendered to shame is now impelling us, in sobriety, to create for ourselves ever richer, more rewarding lives.

Forgiving The Past

One of our hardest tasks in sobriety is making peace with our original caretakers. An abusive childhood can leave ongoing resentments that blight every chance at happiness.

We try telling ourselves that our parents too were damaged, but it doesn’t always work. Some of us remain unable to accept the ways our role models hurt us: it’s still too painful. We go on perceiving them from the viewpoint of vulnerable children, as if in some way they were still in charge of our lives — even of our recovery itself! And so we stay angry, as if being angry enough, for long enough, will somehow remake our childhoods.

Many SCA members manage to get on better terms with their families, with or without the families’ cooperation, and some even enjoy the satisfaction of truly making peace with them.

Others try valiantly, only to be frustrated, newly embittered and ashamed. Other members, in their enthusiasm for the new life they find in SCA, make a sudden dramatic decision to “come out” to their families. Still others choose to stop seeing them.

Some of us have to deal with resentments over parents who don’t wish to speak with us, or who are no longer living.

It’s best to work out these situations as lovingly as we can, making no impossible demands of parents or of ourselves. A deeply affectionate relationship with our families may no longer be possible, or even desirable. Perhaps the time has come to look elsewhere for this kind of intimacy.

We strive to be honest, and fair, and loving with this difficult part of our recovery — then we turn it over. The important relationship now is not with our parents, but with our higher power and ourselves.

 The Next Step

We learn the truth of our stories by telling them. First we discover what our needs and feelings are, then we seek ways to express them. In trying to shape a happy and healthy sex life for ourselves, we have many choices to consider.

Abstinence is a discipline that appeals to some members.

Accepting it as a kind of vocation, if only for a time, they feel it enriches their lives.

Most members, though, prefer to reach out sexually to others, and here too sobriety offers many options.

For some of us, a committed relationship seems the most desirable goal. We see that for all our romantic obsessing, we had always fled from any possibility for a genuine partnership with another human being. Either we aborted it before it had a chance to grow, or suffocated it with expectations no relationship could ever meet.

Other members prefer to remain unattached, but strive in their erotic endeavors to embrace the principle of sexual responsibility.

Trying to grow up sexually presents special challenges for people recovering in SCA. We were in the habit of only envisioning sex with partners who were in some way unavailable or unreal: in many ways we ourselves were unavailable and unreal.

Still tending to perceive sex as something bad, we confronted a dilemma with any partner we respected. “Normal” sexual experience seemed too commonplace to satisfy us; at the same time we feared any intense sexual arousal must drag us back to the nether-world of compulsive sex.

We realized that, in relationships or out, we had never been genuinely sexual. With the help of our higher power, we began to experiment with authentic sexual expression, gradually learning to truly surrender ourselves instead of acting out the charade of self-abandon we were accustomed to.

If we veered towards a dangerous path, the program (and our sponsors) soon made us aware of it. Sobriety enabled us to learn from our mistakes instead of endlessly repeating them.

Whichever route we selected to a richer sexual and emotional life, it felt to many of us as if we were going back to adolescence and starting all over again, learning for the first time to grow through our doubts and fears instead of trying to manipulate our way out of them.

After negating ourselves for so long, it’s not easy to reverse the process. It often feels that we’re making a dreadful mistake, and the rage and fear that boils up can be terrifying. We were never able to deal with such emotions before, but now we have the fellowship of SCA to support us, and help us face anything we have to face.

Slowly we bring the techniques of recovery into our daily lives. We learn to treat ourselves as patiently as we would a child, affirming our values even when we’re not always sure we have them. We begin to establish boundaries, and that helps us accept both our limitations and our true potentialities.

We realize that we’re never going to have all the answers, for us or anybody else. And we decide we may just as well accept ourselves one day at a time — for the recalcitrant, complex, lovable people we are.


SCA sponsored a three-part seminar on shame in spring and summer of 1990, attended almost entirely by gay and lesbian members. The notes taken at these sessions were then reworked and revised over a period of six months by an SCA literature committee. This pamphlet is the result.


© 1991 International Service Organization, Sexual Compulsives Anonymous.