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Kink Psych: Understanding Embarrassment, Shame and Guilt as a Newbie

Sometime ago, an article appeared on Fetlife titled Kink Psych: Is There Greater Intimacy Within BDSM Relationships?

Within 24 hours, 255 kinksters "loved" the article and about 50 people left public comments. But, five private messages captured my attention. They were from members of our community who confessed that they have struggled, and at times suffered, within their relationships (or lack of) due to the fact they have felt ashamed, guilty or embarrassed about BDSM or their kinky fantasies. 

This article is dedicated to anyone who has felt shame, guilt or embarrassment about BDSM.

Welcome To The Family!

Ok, "Family" may be a stretch for some whereas "community" may feel sterile to others.  In short, we are a group of people who are interested in BDSM.

"For centuries, the community has always been the place where people congregate, and it is the place where social ties initially form. Years of social anthropological observation tell us that the majority of relationships in our social network were first established in some communities." (1)

BDSM practitioners are no different when it comes to forming and building communities.   Just because you recently discovered BDSM does not mean that BDSM is a recent phenomenon.  "The history of BDSM spans thousands of years across many different cultures. To truly understand the roots of BDSM, we need to look at the fundamentals of the way humans interact."

Here is a timeline of the origin of BDSM to give you some perspective:

Now that we know that BDSM has stood the test of time, is cross-cultural, seduces both genders and includes a limitless number of fantasies and fetishes."  But there "are those of us who have trouble swallowing the content of our desires, are confused or unsure about its meaning, and feel conflicted about our fantasies and fetishes."

You are not alone!  This article will walk you through 3 emotions that most new folks face when they first discover BDSM.

Let's Start with the Basics: Humans Are Emotional Beings

"Fundamental in the field of emotions is the question of how many emotions there are, or there can be. The answer proposed here is that the number of possible emotions is limitless. As long as society differentiates new social situations, labels them, and socializes individuals to experience them, new emotions will continue to emerge."

For purposes of this article, we are focusing a specific type of emotion called "self-conscious emotions."

What Are Self-Conscious Emotions?

They are "an emotion that condemns or celebrates the self and its actions when we are being evaluated by another person. This emotion is experienced either to hide some flaw or to expose some good quality."

There are numerous self-conscious emotions such as shame, guilt, embarrassment, jealousy, empathy, pride, and so on.  Tonight, we are going to discuss embarrassment, shame, and guilt and how they can affect your relationships.


Embarrassment:  The Naughty Alarm

Definition: When we are not behaving according to our standards, rules, and beliefs, our naughty alarm goes off in the form of embarrassment.

Purpose: "It makes us feel bad about our mistakes so that we don't repeat them, and one of its side effects—blushing—signals to others that we recognize our error and are not cold-hearted or oblivious."

Potential Problems: We withhold information about our truest self to avoid rejection.

Benefit: "Feelings of excruciating embarrassment may be crucial for your wellbeing in the long term. One theory is that it’s a natural reaction to the fear of being “found out.” The psychologist, Ray Crozier at Cardiff University, found that embarrassment typically involves the potential exposure of something private, even if it’s something to be celebrated."  Our sexuality, fantasies, and desires are a part of who we are as individuals so, celebrate!

Shame: The Quintessential Feeling Emotion

Definition: "The painful feeling arising from the consciousness of something dishonorable, improper, ridiculous, etc., done by oneself or another."

Purpose: "It gives us a feeling of control over other people's feelings and behavior" and "it protects us from other feelings that we are afraid to feel, and gives us a sense of control over our feelings."

Potential Problems: "If you are finding it difficult to move beyond shame, it is because you are addicted to the feeling of control that your shame-based beliefs give you - control over others' feelings and behavior and control over your authentic feelings. As long as having the control is most important to you, you will not let go of your false core shame beliefs."

Benefit: A study published today in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggests that shame is an emotion that helps buffer people from social backlash.“To say that shame is bad just because those things feel bad is a case of blaming a messenger of bad news,” says Daniel Sznycer, the lead author of the study and a postdoctoral researcher at Arizona State University. “The real problem with bad news is the news itself … Shame is a signal that things are going to be ugly.”The new research suggests that, much like pain, shame keeps people from making poor decisions in the first place."

Guilt:  The Wrong-Doing Emotion

Definition: "A feeling of responsibility or remorse for some offense, crime, wrong, etc., whether real or imagined."

Purpose: "Guilt usually serves three main functions, the researchers found: to maintain relationships, to exert influence and to redistribute emotional stress." How?

a. To help maintain relationships, "guilt is a big force to make people pay attention to other people."

b. "Guilt also helps people in close relationships control each other's behavior," Roy F. Baumeister says to influence their decisions.  (i.e.:  If you loved me, you wouldn't do THAT!)

c.  "Finally, guilt can redistribute emotions." (12)  When we admit our guilty feelings to each other, we are showing that we care.  This eases the pinned up emotion that we feel when we "do wrong."

Potential Problems: Guilt "occurs when we establish unreasonably high standards for ourselves with the result that we feel guilty at absolutely understandable failure to maintain these standards.  This kind of guilt is rooted in low self-esteem and can also involve a form of distorted self-importance where we assume that anything that happens is our responsibility; it may come down hard on anything perceived as a mistake in our lives and has the added anti-benefit of often applying to other people too, so that we expect too much from family and colleagues as well as ourselves."

Benefit: "Guilt promotes socially desirable behavior. It is an intrinsic punishment for socially or morally unacceptable behavior. It provides an incentive (in the form of a negative sanction) for working to become more socially acceptable by punishing us for being socially unacceptable. It reaffirms our feeling of empathy while reminding us to act from empathy."

When and How Do We Develop Embarrassment, Shame & Guilt?

Between the ages of 18 months to 3 years of age, toddlers start to learn about the "the concept of self" and thus, they start to develop such emotions based on their view of themselves, the "standards, rules, and goals of the people around him/her and their interactions with others."