How inner work helps subvert painful narratives

In a new book, Neha Bhat employs a unique blend of empathy, reflection and expertise to fearlessly tackle the intricacies of sex, sexuality, relationships, trauma and shame

GN Bureau | June 18, 2024


#Sexuality   #Health   #Society  
(Illustration: Ashish Asthana)
(Illustration: Ashish Asthana)

Unashamed
By Neha Bhat
HarperCollins, 240 pages, Rs 499
 
* How do I connect better with my partner?
* I’m queer–how should I help my family understand me?
* Why don’t I enjoy sex these days?
* What is a healthy relationship, really?
 
Do these questions sound familiar? In a society that often hushes discussions on the most fundamental aspects of human existence, Neha Bhat, the insightful mind behind @indiansextherapist on Instagram, invites readers to explore the uncharted territories of their own desires.
 
In this groundbreaking book, Bhat employs a unique blend of empathy, reflection and her considerable expertise to fearlessly tackle the intricacies of sex, sexuality, relationships, trauma and shame, while dismantling the stigma surrounding these.
 
A mix of engaging anecdotes, relatable case studies, self-exploratory exercises, journaling prompts and Bhat’s own experiences as a sex therapist, ‘Unashamed’ provides a roadmap for individuals seeking to break free from the shackles of shame and embark on a liberating journey towards self-discovery.
 
Written against the shifting backdrop of the modern Indian society, Unashamed is a celebration of diversity, self-love, and the profound beauty of authentic human connections. In the end, it will leave you self-aware, feeling empowered and, hopefully, a bit more at peace.

The author says, “I'm an Indian sex therapist, working in a realm of shape-shifting Indian psyche. Every day, I meet Indian people who speak of both mental and sexual health as ‘shameful’ topics, while simultaneously harbouring immense curiosity about the same. Part of my life’s work is to help people normalise their sexual and creative expression, in relation to their personal power, to heal from sexual shame and expand their understanding of sexual trauma for a more joyful, balanced life. Healing and self-study can help readers understand not only their own patterns better, but also others’, in their family and friends' circles. I have written ‘Unashamed’ as an invitation to readers of all age groups and backgrounds, to embark on a courageous path of self-learning, and I hope it offers readers a touch of gentle healing bravery to navigate a harsh world.”

The book has garnered high praise from many, including Amitabh Bachchan, who says, “Despite a dedicated effort over the last decade to produce much needed advancements in trauma and related issues, many individuals of our society are still uninformed or distressed. I applaud the author for writing ‘Unashamed’, a unique book that combines self-help and psychoeducation. It asks the reader a series of straightforward questions and challenges to help to reframe their views on relationships.”

Here is an excerpt from the book:

Inner work helps subvert painful narratives

My experiences have taught me that shining light on what’s buried brings up other people’s shame. Some people would rather choose insults, attacks and lose cherished relationships in their lives, rather than deal with their own discomfort.

When people use insults to express their feelings, they’re often reflecting their own psychological state. When we start to understand how much human beings project what they believe to be true onto others and create stories about other people based on their own experiences, we realize how much of a disservice we do to ourselves by believing people’s shaming insults as true. Shame is a fascinating emotion to look at closely, and healing shame allows us the liberation of not taking on other people’s negative projections as your own truth.

It is easy to emotionally react to people’s judgements at face value and easier yet, to believe that they are saying something that might be true about you. But it is harder to confront the judgement, sit with it and try and observe its origins. This inner work, although uncomfortable, can be very liberating. Once you allow yourself to feel the sting of the judgements and the labels instead of turning away from them, you practise discerning your truth from the many falsehoods that are projected onto you. When we look at the phrases ‘hypersexual slut’, ‘broken, damaged lady’, ‘homosexual sissy boy’, ‘weird loner’, ‘fat, intense auntie’ or any such aggressive abuse more  closely, we start to see how these labels speak more about the person who is doing the labelling rather than the person being labelled.

What exactly is shame? How does it show up in our sexual health?

People think shame is just one bad feeling that we feel—just like guilt, jealousy, greed or envy. We often put all of these in one big box labelled ‘negative emotions’. When asked to define it, most of my clients cannot really give this feeling specific words or even locate exact sensations in their bodies to make this emotion tangible.

We tell ourselves that the secret to a happy life is avoiding this ‘negative emotions box’ as much as possible and focusing on positive emotions. And we extend this binary way of thinking to the act of healing. We think that to heal is to remove, delete, erase, move on and avoid the negative. In urban India—a land filled with many methods, organizations and styles of inner work—the mainstream understanding of working on oneself through spirituality also gets reduced to fit the same binary view of good versus bad.

But deep down, our experience of reality is far more complex than that. With maturity, we realize that very few things in life fit the simple boxes of positive and negative emotion. However, our Indian social language keeps people stuck to old, outdated views and leads to shame persisting as a concept. Psychotherapists define shame as a mix of many emotions that have not been processed.

Shame succeeds by keeping people stuck in old narratives, some of which you may have explored in the post-chapter reflective exercises.

When you want to control someone, the easiest way to do so is to bring up the part of their lives that you know they feel the most ashamed about and use it to hurt them. Shaming people is a horrible way of getting them to respect you or listen to you, but it works precisely because shame as a mixed emotion is a powerful concoction that stems from our core fears. It can be imagined as a complex, large, heavy enmeshed mix of feelings, stories, triggers, core beliefs and unmet needs that lives in our nervous system.

If I had to imagine my shame as I write this, it would be a big, red, amoeba-like blob that sits somewhere between my heart and my lungs. It is a place where I am currently also sitting with some grief at present. I know how my body responds to shame, and what exactly shame does to my nervous system. Through my own therapy and inner work experiences over two decades, I now have tools and pathways to access it, locate it and gaze at it—and, on good days, when I’m feeling internally resourced, to even confront it and ask it what it wants of me.

I just wonder how much internalized, unprocessed shame the people who used those aggressive insults towards me had about their own sexuality, their own bodies and their own natural curiosities. As you’re reading this, does a similar shaming insult used for you come to mind? Have you experienced being sexually shamed? Have you ever shamed someone?

[The excerpt reproduced with the permission of the publishers.]

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