The Ego, Shame & BDSM

Can humiliation lead to healthier egos and better mental health?

By Ena Dahl • 7 min read

— So, what kind of screwed up childhood experiences brought you here?

A friend in the BDSM scene asked me this question, with a wink, as we were getting to know each other a few years back.

— Ha!
 I laughed back at him while knowing there was a layer of seriousness to his question. Are you suggesting everyone in this community come here to deal with our issues? What if I’m just here because I like it? Do I have to be messed up in some way?

— Well, we’re all here for a reason, my friend continued. It doesn’t have to be all that dark, but there’s usually some explanation as to why someone enjoys being tied up, spanked, or humiliated, and why others derive pleasure from inflicting pain. If we weren’t confronting ‘something’, we’d be satisfied with plain-old vanilla sex, right?

I had to sit with his words for a bit, but after further thinking, I realized that yes, there are deeper reasons why I like what I like, and these can, perhaps, be traced back to how I was brought up, and some might spring from beliefs that have been ingrained in me later. Am I using BDSM as a way to confront internalized shame? I decided to take a deeper look.

I don’t buy the idea that there has to be anything wrong with me, or anyone else, who ends up exploring what’s commonly viewed as alternative, or even deviant, sexual practices. Still, it’s hard to deny that these aren’t excellent, and often eye-opening, avenues to venture down in our efforts to tear down walls of internalized shame and guilt.

We’ve come a long way in our understanding of BDSM since the beginning of the last century when Sigmund Freud described sadomasochism and BDSM as “the most significant of all perversions”, and “as diseases developing from an incorrect development of the child psyche.”(source)

Though the practices are still inexplicable to many, it’s generally accepted that sadomasochism and other expressions of (consensual) kink are not associated with mental illness, but rather common expressions of human sexuality.

On the contrary, current research suggests that kinksters may even be psychologically healthier. The widely quoted study by Journal of Sexual Medicine concluded that “practitioners of bondage, discipline, sadism, and masochism, or BDSM, score better on a variety of personality and psychological measures than vanilla people.”

The traits BDSM practitioners showed, compared to the general population were:

Higher levels of well-being, extroversion, and openness to new experiences. They were more conscientious and displayed more secure feelings of attachment in their relationships.

On the other end, they displayed lower levels of neurosis and anxious behaviors, less rejection sensitivity, and less paranoia about people not liking them.

The author of the study Andreas Wismeijer, a psychologist at Nyenrode Business University in the Netherlands, concluded that they “did not have any findings suggesting that people who practice BDSM have a damaged psychological profile or have some sort of psychopathology or personality disorder.”

Further, he’s not sure why BDSM practitioners might score better on certain qualities associated with better mental health but suggests to Live Science, that “they tend to be more aware of their sexual needs and desires (…) which could translate to less frustration in bed and in relationships. Coming to terms with their unusual sexual predilections and choosing to live the BDSM lifestyle may also take hard psychological work that translates to positive mental health.”

Since the conclusion of this study in 2013, The American Psychiatric Association has officially depathologized kinky sex — including cross-dressing, fetishism, and BDSM, in the publication of the fifth edition of its Diagnostic and Statistical Manuel of Mental Disorders (DSM-5).

It seems apparent that an attraction to BDSM and related activities does not stem from negative emotions or experiences, but rather that it can be an avenue through which to confront them, and more importantly, ourselves. Could the reasons why practitioners seem to score high on mental tests be that they’re more apt at dealing with our issues rather than suppressing them?

In his essay, Shame — a Road to Humiliation, bondage teacher and conscious kinkster Andy Buru writes about confronting shame through humiliation in BDSM and how doing so can aid us in altering our egos to become more humble.

Buru goes on to link the words humble and humiliation. We know humble as the state of not being proud or arrogant, but rather to be modest. And while the word has some negative connotations too, such as having feelings of insignificance and inferiority, we generally equate being humble to being courteously respectful.

The word humiliationthough it has a more uncomfortable association for most of us—simply means to make humble.

“Humiliation is the abasement of pride, which creates mortification or leads to a state of being humbled,” says Buru, “we want to be humble, and therefore we want to feel humiliation.”

By recognizing and admitting our shame, which is defined as “the painful feeling arising from the consciousness of something dishonorable, improper, or ridiculous” we can get to a place of peace. If we go even further and surrender to them by acting them out we can break down the intellectual walls that help us challenge our egos:

Most of us are not aware of what we are ashamed of. This is because our ego is doing its best to protect ourselves and therefore itself. Emotional and intellectual walls are built to avoid the things that make us ashamed, vulnerable and enable us to surrender. Intellectual walls make us physically avoid or intellectually dismiss things that might challenge our ego.

The concept and role of the ego are much discussed in our ego-centered society that has given rise to plenty of psychological disorders related to the lack of a healthy ego.

Opposites of that, we see calls to kill the ego; smash it, demolish it, or eradicate it. But, the fact of the matter is that the word ego is Greek and simply means I, referring to our core sense of self. We need it to survive, and thus, we don’t want to kill but maintain a balanced expression of it.

An underdeveloped ego is just as harmful as an inflated one, where the first is associated with a lack of strength and resistance resulting in sticking mainly with what feels comfortable and avoiding challenging situations. The latter is associated with a lack of empathy, dissatisfaction and always wanting more, an obsession with being right and needing constant recognition. Both of these are, in fact, results of fears and insecurities.

“Paradoxically, the bigger the ego one has, the weaker their ego-strength. In turn, the weaker the ego-strength, the more rigid the refusal to feel and to process the painful feelings, beliefs, and thoughts that are essential to break free of stuck places, which can put life on hold,” writes Psych Central.

So, what are the traits of someone with a healthy ego?

People with strong egos tend to take a learning approach to life that increasingly grows their strength and confidence. They have the ability to tolerate discomfort enough to regulate their emotions, and approach life with curiosity and readiness to explore and to master what strengthens them.

Further, they don’t personalize what others say or do and exude an overall confidence in self and others. (source)

Is anyone else seeing the obvious similarities between these and the positive traits found in BDSM practitioners Wismeijer’s test?

To connect all of this, someone with a strong and healthy ego is also someone who is humble; they are not proud or arrogant, but modest and respectful.

Humiliation, a way to make humble, is at the essence of BDSM, which practices encourage its practitioners to face their shames, surrender to them, and act them out.

Though everyone’s social conditioning is different, let’s think of the shame associated with letting go and relinquishing control. For many modern women who identify as strong, independent, and feminist, there’s taboo and shame associated with desiring to submit sexually; we’re not supposed to want that. Men who submit, on the other hand, have their own sets of stigmas to confront related to expectations around masculinity. Stereotypically, the man takes the active role; as the doer and the one who penetrates. Reconciling the urges to do the opposite can conjure enormous amounts of shame.

On the other end, there’s shame associated with desiring to dominate or cause pain; with confronting our own darkness and acting against what is socially acceptable.

To answer my friend’s question; my traumas didn’t lead me here. My own willingness and courage to face them did.

We all carry some kind of guilt and shame. Through humiliation, in its endless forms, be it verbal, emotional, or physical, through insults, worship, confinement, impact play, or other, we confront these and allow ourselves to be made humble.

In doing so, we can find ways to break down the walls created in order to protect the ego, in order to form a strong and healthy sense of self.


Ena Dahl | Writer for SPNKD

Multidimensional creatrix & muse
seeking to unite sexuality & spirituality,
instigate alchemical healing & ignite the wild (wo)man
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