Breaking the Cycle of Shame

porn and shame

“If we can share our story with someone who responds with empathy and understanding, shame can’t survive.” ~ Brené Brown

Recently, I was out to eat with a friend when her teenage daughter called several times in a row. My friend knew it was important or her daughter would not call repeatedly. She stepped away to answer and did not come back for quite a while. I found out the daughter had been on her father’s iPad in the basement at the same time her dad was viewing porn on his phone in his bedroom. Because the devices were connected, the daughter could see exactly what her father was looking at. She was devastated by her dad’s actions, called her mom in desperation, and was then furious to find out that her mother knew and had not “done anything.” This opened the door for a difficult and ongoing conversation, a conversation about porn and shame.

Many of my clients are addicted to porn or are connected to someone who is. Porn is rampant because of its accessibility. Porn is addictive because of how it affects the brain’s neural pathways. Porn is destructive because it erodes trust, damages self-worth and harms relationships. These days it is not a matter of if our loved ones will see it, but when. So WHEN any of us view porn, how will we react? How will we treat ourselves/others? How will we handle the shame that may accompany it?

First, let’s define shame. Oxford Dictionary defines shame as a painful feeling of humiliation or distress caused by the consciousness of wrong or foolish behavior. Brené Brown, researcher at the University of Houston, reports shame to be an intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging. This emotion affects all of us and profoundly shapes the way we interact in the world. We have all had those moments where we felt shame, but rather than turning toward love or self-care, we turn toward a behavior or a substance that only amplifies the toxic inner critic’s voice.  There is a difference between guilt and shame; guilt says I’m sorry, I made a mistake. Shame says, I’m sorry, I AM a mistake. Where shame is highly highly correlated with addiction, violence, depression, aggression, bullying, suicide, eating disorders, guilt is inversely correlated with those things. Meaning, guilt can lead to positive change, whereas shame cannot.  In fact, Jim Cress, a Certified Sex Addiction Therapist and public speaker, refers to shame as “SHAME: Self-Hatred At My Expense.” If shame is equated to self-hatred, there is no place for it in any of our lives–regardless of our circumstances or choices.

Is there a link between porn and shame?

There is an undeniable link between porn impacting our thoughts and behaviors and bringing a deep sense of shame. Porn isolates its consumer, it objectifies, and creates shame within the user. One study of pornography addicts showed that more than half of the participants spoke about self-disdain and self-degradation to the point that they stopped respecting themselves, and some acknowledged suicidal thoughts.  New research published in Frontiers in Psychiatry indicates porn addiction itself causes feelings of shame–irrespective of religious convictions.

Not only does watching pornography influence shame, but the reverse is also true: The more we experience shame, the more we will be drawn to pornography, or other similar escape behaviors. It is a vicious, isolating, destructive cycle. So how can it be stopped?

We tend to respond to shame in a few ways: By trying to cover it, by hiding it, or by shifting responsibility to someone else.  All of these options are just us attempting to run from shame. The problem is that the more we run, the stronger it becomes: Here’s why: Running from shame strengthens the internal messages that we are bad, unworthy of love and belonging, and that we are broken. Those false messages feel more and more true with every attempt we make to escape them.

A few years ago, there was an interview with Andy Casagrande–cameraman from Discovery Channel’s famous show “Shark Week.” Casagrande was asked what he does when a great white shark is swimming squarely towards him. He answered that he must do something counterintuitive: Swim directly at the shark with the camera!  This action triggers a defense mechanism in the shark because everything in the ocean swims away from this apex predator. Andy said, “The reality is that if you don’t act like prey, these sharks won’t treat you like prey.”  This statement has a lot to teach us about disarming the power of shame: WE SHOULD FACE IT.

To those who are personally facing a porn addiction, there is so much help available. There are infinite resources online–from blogs to hotlines to free chats to therapists to recovery groups and on and on. I have linked some sources below in my resources section. The key to overcoming a pornography addiction is to face the shame, head on. We need to have a desire to stop watching porn.  Be willing to try a different way. Get rid of any stored or saved porn. Block porn from coming in with filters. Reach outside ourselves and be brutally honest with another person. We need a friend and/or support to help us stay on track.  As much as unhelpful responses can deepen the shame of porn, nothing removes shame like the power of accountability to an ally who supports us!

To those who are hoping for or helping a loved one recover from a porn addiction, remember this: When we respond to shame with shame, it can deepen the hold that porn has on the life of our loved ones. This keeps them trapped in a shame cycle of addiction because shame discourages progress. The research is replete in showing that shame is not an effective way to motivate someone to change; researchers have found that shame actually predicts increased pornography consumption. My advice to this group would be to be kind, curious and brave. Let’s show love. We can help our loved ones by supporting them and getting them the help they need. And most importantly, we can seek help and support for ourselves! We need a village to surround us with love and acceptance as we love the addict in our lives. 

Back to my friend from the beginning of the blog–the parents spoke candidly with their teenage daughter about the father’s addiction. Because they were so open about the perils of this addiction, the daughter was able to see how real and threatening it is to everyone, while also seeing her parents united in fighting it. They are doing something. Now, each member of this family has awareness and accountability in helping the father overcome his addiction. There are no secrets and shame cannot thrive with that level of openness. They are a team to fight this addiction together and there is great power in that! Note: this example may not fit for everyone, depending on the strength of the marital relationship and the ages of the children. 

Brene Brown once said, “If you put shame in a petri dish, it needs three things to grow exponentially: Secrecy, silence, and judgment. If you put the same amount of shame in a petri dish and douse it with empathy, it can’t survive.”  Instead of letting the shame of pornography addiction grow exponentially, what will we do today to “douse it with empathy”? Remember, we cannot treat shame with shame as it will discourage progress. So let’s face shame head on–like a shark–and respond with love, empathy, kindness, and a little more love.

Melissa Cluff is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist based in North Texas, providing face-to-face and telehealth therapy options to clients in Texas.


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Melissa Cluff, MS, LMFT, CSAT

Melissa Cluff is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist based in North Texas, providing face-to-face and telehealth therapy options to clients in Texas.