Combating Shame About Sexual Pain | Counseling | Therapy

Combating Shame About Sexual Pain

For many people, talking about sex is an uncomfortable, even unpleasant, experience. Some people may feel uncomfortable talking about sex because of their upbringing. In their home, sex and intimacy may have been a taboo topic, something that is somehow wrong or dirty. Others may feel uncomfortable due to their perceived lack of experience, or because they simply find sex disinteresting. Still, others will feel uncomfortable talking about sex because their experiences have been, in some way, outside of the norm. While sex is often portrayed in media (and in the excited re-tellings of our peers) as something steamy, magical, amazing, and fun, what happens when it’s…not?

Somewhere between 10% and 20% of people will experience Genito-Pelvic Pain/Penetration Disorder, the medical term for painful sex, at some point in their lives. Under the large umbrella of Genito-Pelvic Pain/Penetration Disorder, there are a number of other diagnoses that someone may be given, whether the person experiencing painful sex has a vulva or a penis. Some causes of painful sex can be related to a person’s biology, such as a damaged nerve or a physical abnormality. Other causes may be psychological, relating back to a prior trauma or an unconscious anticipation of pain. For others, painful sex can be caused by a combination of biological, psychological, and emotional factors. Regardless of what is causing painful sex, the shame and embarrassment that some people feel about their experiences can cause them significant distress. If you or a loved one experience painful sex, read on; the exercises in this article will serve as a starting point for you or your partner on the journey to combating shame about sexual pain.

​​ First, let’s talk about shame. What exactly is shame? You likely already have some understanding of this emotional experience. Regardless of what someone is feeling shame about, it is a very intense emotion. Shame may be connected to beliefs that we are small, powerless, or a failure, and shame often lingers in the pit of our stomach, twisting our insides and gnawing at our sense of self-worth. Often, we can feel shameful or guilty when we believe that something about us is “wrong.” Guilt, which is another unpleasant and intense emotion, is typically tied to actions; we feel guilty when we believe we have done something wrong. Unlike guilt, shame is tied directly to our character and our sense of self. We believe that there is something about us, not our actions, that isn’t good enough.

Where Does Sexual Shame Come From?

We may have been raised being told that having sex is wrong or sinful, or our parents and teachers may have shushed us into wide-eyed silence when we asked questions about sex, telling us that “we don’t talk about things like that.” We may have been told that our first sexual experiences will be awkward, uncomfortable, or painful, and we may approach sex with feelings of apprehension and anxiety. Whether we were raised to believe that sex was a secretive, taboo topic and activity, or we were told talk sex is dirty, wrong, or scary, the seeds of shame were planted. We are taught to experience deep discomfort when we try to get accurate information about sex, when we try to have conversations about sex, and when we find ourselves engaged in sexual acts.

All of the information we receive throughout our life is incorporated into our sexual narrative. Our sexual narrative is the overarching framework through which we, consciously or unconsciously, view sex and intimacy, made up of the information we have been given by others, our own internalized beliefs, and our personal lived experiences. This narrative often provides us with our expectations about situations, impacts our thoughts and beliefs about ourselves, influences our emotional reactions, and can even guide us toward or away particular actions and behaviors.How our caregivers spoke about sex and intimacy (or how they didn’t speak about it) changes our sexual narrative and tells us whether sex is dirty or wrong, what we should and should not enjoy, and how we can and should communicate with our partners about our sexual needs and preferences. These narratives can contribute to our feelings of shame about sex in general.

How does this general sexual shame connect to shame about sexual pain? Maybe you read the last paragraphs and found yourself thinking, that’s not me! Some of us were raised in sex-positive households where age-appropriate, accurate information about sex was freely provided, with parents or caregivers who emphasized that sex in normal, healthy, and rooted in both consent and pleasure. For those of us who may have had a healthier introduction to sex, the shame of sexual pain can be confusing. Whether you are dealing with shame about sex in general and about sexual pain, or you are dealing with shame that seems to be exclusively about your pain experience, taking a closer look at your sexual narrative can help you in understanding and combating shame about sexual pain. So, how exactly do we do that?

Examining Your Beliefs And Combating Shame about Sexual Pain

When we have been struggling with feelings of shame, we often find ourselves playing a mental game of tug o’ war, finding ourselves pulling back and forth between an objective view of what we’re experiencing and an intense, subjective view. We can observe, from a distance, the reality of what is happening at any given moment and talk about it logically. That might look like, I experience pain when I attempt penetration, or I avoid penetration because it’s painful for me.

In addition to our logical, no-feelings-attached thinking, we often unconsciously expand our observations into judgment-laden beliefs about our self worth (or about our ability, or our relationships) which we play on repeat in the background of our minds like an old tape recorder. We hear the thoughts from these tape recorders playing over and over from ourselves throughout the day, and at some point, they start to feel true. These beliefs are both influenced by our sexual narrative, and influencing our sexual narrative.

If you can, try to tune into your tape recorder. Where does your mind go after you say that you experience painful sex? Some of the beliefs we’ve heard from individuals living with painful sex include, there’s something wrong with me. I’m broken. I’m not normal. I’ll never be normal. I won’t be able to have a happy relationship. I’m failing my partner if I can’t have sex with them.

The below exercise is designed to help you get to know your shame more intimately. Acknowledging and understanding our shame is the first step in combating shame about sexual pain.

EXERCISE PART 1: Exploring Our Shame (15-30 minutes)

Now that you have a sense of what you’re looking for, take a moment to get comfortable. I recommend sitting in a safe, cozy chair, but find whatever space and position is comfortable for you. If you’re able, close your eyes, and direct your focus to your body. Do your best to release any parts of your body that are currently tense, softening and relaxing them, before focusing on your breath. Notice the way your chest and belly rise as you inhale, and fall as your exhale. Don’t try to alter your breathing; simply pay attention to it, allowing your body to continue what it’s doing.

Now, gently bring to mind a memory related to your shame about painful sex. It may be a memory of a sexual experience where you had pain, a conversation with a partner, friend, or healthcare provider about your pain, or any other memory that feels tangible to you. As best as you can, tune into the thoughts and feelings associated with this memory. Explore these thoughts and feelings without judgment, without trying to change them. Our thoughts are experiences; they simply come and go. As you are observing these thoughts, direct your attention to the sensations in your body. What is happening in your stomach? Does it feel heavy, or cold, or twisted? Are you bouncing your leg, subtly rocking to self-soothe or anxiously wanting to run away? Whatever is happening in your body, take note of it. Some people find it helpful to label these physical sensations as the emotions they often accompany. You might say, my heart is racing and I’m feeling anxious, or you may only label the sensations, saying, my palms feel clammy and my breath is shaky. Either is okay.

Let yourself be curious about whatever thoughts, feelings, and sensations come up for you. Many us of fall into a space of judgment when we experience unpleasant thoughts and emotions; remind yourself that these are simply the thoughts that are visiting you. These feelings and sensations are here for now, and they won’t last forever. Do your best to get to know them; you may imagine yourself as an explorer, diving deep into a cave in some far-away land, or as a friendly neighbor who is getting to know the family that moved in next door. When you are ready, bring your focus back to your body and your breathing, and allow your memory to gently return to the back of your mind. Ask yourself about what you’ve found, and record it somewhere if possible.

If this exercise feels particularly intense at any point, I recommend that you refocus on your breathing. You can continue your exploration when you feel ready, or you can open your eyes and stop this exercise altogether. Your goal for this exercise is simply to get to know your shame, and bring the voice on your tape recorder to the front of your mind. The next article in this series will introduce you to an exercise that will help you begin to adjust your narrative and introduce more radical self-compassion in the face of shame about sexual pain.

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Experiencing sexual pain and managing related feelings of shame can be daunting. If you are looking for additional support in combating shame about sexual pain, you can schedule online with one of our therapists at The Center for Growth / Sex Therapy in Philadelphia or you can call us at 215-922-LOVE x100 (5683 x100) to help you determine which clinician may be the best fit for you.


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