You’re in the middle of enjoying something. A good movie, an out-of-this-world dessert.

Suddenly, a switch flips in your brain and you feel horrible about your enjoyment.

I don’t deserve this, you think. I’m bad and I don’t deserve these good things.

Where does this switch come from? For survivors of trauma, this is something called “pleasure shame.” 

You’ve come to feel so bad about who you are, that you feel you don’t deserve anything that makes you happy.

This is common for survivors of sexual abuse. It also affects survivors of other kinds of trauma, who have come to feel shame about themselves. You get told so often that you don’t deserve good things, and you start to believe it.

I feel this way sometimes, too. I’ll be doing something as simple as eating ice cream, and that switch flips in my head. The simple joy of the moment turns to destructive shame.

How do we stop that spiral and just sit with the enjoyment? I invite you to try this:

  • Stop yourself in that moment when you feel shame taking over. Take a step back.
  • As yourself, “Am I doing something harmful?”
  • Ask yourself, “Am I doing something bad?”
  • The answers to those questions is likely no. Remind yourself that you’re doing something that’s good, and you deserve to feel good.
  • If you feel the shame returning anyway: set a timer for a minute, and tell yourself you’re going to feel that pleasure for at least this one minute.

You can also look at resources to help you. Dr. Margaret Rutherford gives some insight about sexual abuse and shame spacifically. Psychology Today has an article about feeling bad about feeling good. Read for some more context. This can help you feel more control over your experience of pleasure shame.

Let me know in the comments: How might joy and shame be linked for you? Is there something you’re now able to enjoy completely, after tackling that shame?

By Matt Burton