“Trauma is any event or experience (including witnessing) that is physically and/or psychologically overwhelming to the exposed individual.” — Dr. Christine Courtois
Generally speaking, trauma is an incredibly complex area of psychology, with different people reacting differently to the same basic traumas. For instance, a fender bender might be much more traumatic for a new mother with her baby in the car than for a professional race car driver. Furthermore, traumas can manifest differently over time within the same person. For instance, traumas that seem to have been dealt with and/or forgotten can suddenly crop up unexpectedly, causing emotional and behavioral issues years after the fact.
For many people, trauma is chronic — repeated and/or layered over time. Chronic trauma is often referred to as complex trauma (because different and ongoing traumas interact and complicate one another). Complex trauma is especially traumatic when it occurs within the family. This is known as complex attachment trauma. Complex attachment trauma is incredibly common among addicts of all types — including sexual addicts.
Typically, victims of complex attachment trauma have experienced some combination of physical abuse, verbal abuse, emotional abuse, sexual abuse (including covert sexual abuse), physical neglect, emotional neglect, inconsistent parenting, lack of attachment, etc. Essentially, these individuals do not get their needs adequately or healthfully met in childhood and they come to believe that they — rather than the caregivers who should be providing validation, safety, emotional support, physical support and the like — are to blame. Over time, they begin to feel that they are defective and unworthy, and that they do not deserve to get their needs met in healthy ways. In essence, they develop a deeply felt sense of shame about who and what they are.
“Shame is the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging.” —Dr. Brené Brown
As mentioned above, addicts of all types almost universally experience complex attachment trauma in their childhoods. As a result, their early-life developmental and dependency needs are not met. Even worse, they tend to internalize blame for this, creating a story in which the poor parenting and other abuse that they’ve experienced is somehow their fault. In doing so, they develop a shame-based sense of self, where every problematic or negative experience serves as proof that they are not good enough, that they will never be good enough, and they will never experience true love and affection because they are defective and therefore don’t deserve to be happy. Typically, these shame-based individuals become highly self-critical, blaming themselves for events and circumstances over which they have no (or very little) control. In other words, they are individuals who’ve been wounded, usually repeatedly, in ways that leave them feeling, deep in their core selves, as if they are unworthy of love and happiness and this won’t ever change no matter how hard they try.
Sadly, shame is not a motivator for positive change. In fact, it actually destroys peoples’ belief that they can change for the better. Even worse, over time shame-based individuals begin to behave in ways that reinforce their shame — they believe they are unlovable, so they behave in ways that make them seem unlovable, thereby creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. As the above quote from Brené Brown states: “Shame is the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging.” And when the self-belief that one is flawed and unworthy is the message that a person hears in his or her head over and over, it is hardly surprising that he or she might want to “numb out” with an addictive substance or behavior (such as sex).
Sexual Shame and Sexual Addiction
Without doubt, childhood sexual abuse leaves victims both traumatized and shamed. Making matters worse, early-life sexual traumas are usually coupled with other forms of childhood maltreatment, including emotional, physical and/or psychological abuse and neglect — with all of these issues layering and interacting in potentially destructive ways (only one of which is the formation and/or exacerbation of sexualized shame).
Unsurprisingly, sexually abused children often begin to self-medicate the emotional discomfort they experience relatively early in life — most often during adolescence but occasionally even sooner. After all, shame about being looked at and/or touched inappropriately can begin very early in life, as can feeling uncomfortable with the level of affection and trust one is given (covert incest). Most of the time, kids who experience this decide to self-soothe with alcohol or drugs, potentially kicking off a lifelong addiction. Other times, they learn (or are taught) that they can also zone out with sex — usually masturbation to either pornography or sexual fantasy.
Sadly, the pornography and/or fantasy of choice is typically one that eroticizes one or more aspects of the original sexual trauma, and this exacerbates and reinforces the individual’s preexisting shame and emotional pain, thereby creating an even greater desire for escape. In this way, many sexual trauma survivors find themselves caught in a self-perpetuating cycle of sexual shame that is self-soothed with escapist sexual fantasies and behaviors that create an even deeper sense of sexual shame. When this is the case, the downwardly spiraling cycle of sexual addiction is an almost inevitable result.