Herpes and self-sabotage

A common theme on this site, on the herpes forum and support I offer my coaching clients is that most of the roadblocks we encounter around herpes are actually self-inflicted; the way we feel held back has less to do with herpes itself and more to do about how we feel about ourselves having herpes. Yes, there is herpes stigma, yes, sometimes it stings to get a “you have what?” reaction to a herpes disclosure … but how we respond to the stigma or a herpes talk rejection ultimately comes down to how we feel about ourselves. Someone judging you about having herpes becomes more about realizing they are judgmental or have a negative association with herpes vs. you being a bad/dirty person. And if we feel ashamed of ourselves and guilty about our situation, we tend to self-sabotage. After all, the first roadblock to our happiness is more ourselves, less our life circumstances. This isn’t just about herpes. This self-sabotaging tendency applies to other things, too. Like our self-control around eating donuts, for example … Yes, donuts. How are donuts and herpes connected? Good question …

I ran into the youtube video below randomly, and it struck me how many parallels there are between the guilt, shame and self-judgment around any of the many things we do in our lives that we feel are wrong or make us into a bad person. This can apply to anything we have self-judgment about, whether it’s herpes, smoking, drinking and yes, eating donuts.

The donut study.

Synopsis: Participants in this study were trying to manage their weight and be more health-conscious. The study kicks off with basically forcing a donut on them (aw, how sweet). At this moment, I imagine that shaming voice in the back of their heads was having a field day: “You failed, you fatty. See, I knew you weren’t good enough to keep up with your diet. Clearly, being healthy doesn’t mean anything to you, you loser.” Recognize this voice? I know I do …

Note: Start watching at 16:20 for the setup to the study.

The designers of the study had a hypothesis: The shame and guilt experienced by failing the willpower challenge would actually undermine their potential in the future. So they gave half the participants a simple message in the hopes of getting rid of the guilt and shame that comes when people make a mistake (a let-them-off-the-hook message): “We realize that some people feel guilty after eating the donut. We want you to remember that everyone indulges sometimes and we asked you to do it. Please don’t be too hard on yourself about it.”

Next, all of these (supposed) health-conscious people were then asked to “taste-test” a smorgasbord of candy. Who ended up eating more candy? The people who weren't given the let-them-off-the-hook message ate on average twice as much candy!

The power of self-forgiveness.

The harder you are on yourself when you make a mistake, the more likely you will be to repeat that mistake in the future, and the bigger the mistake is going to be when you do. This seems to fly in the face of common sense: If I give myself a break and don’t punish myself for messing up, I’ll never learn, right? But many studies have proven otherwise. For example, problem drinkers or smokers who beat themselves up about drinking/smoking tend to feel so horrible that they need to be comforted by something, which loops them back into repeating the behavior they are trying to stop! So self-forgiveness is an important component to the herpes healing process. “I have herpes and I’m okay.”

So what do donuts have to do with herpes?

In general, the more compassion we can have for ourselves, the more resilient we will be in all areas of life. Thankfully, this isn’t just some woo-woo rose-colored glasses thing: It’s been proven time and time again in research studies. It’s like the self-judgment and shame and self-criticism acts like a drain to our life force, sapping us of our own will to live. Compassion and self-forgiveness seem to do the opposite: These acts of self-kindness give us the boost we need in tough times, much like your track-and-field coach who, after you trip and fall, says “You’re fine! Dust yourself off! Get back up! You got this!”

And, sadly, what I hear a lot of on the herpes forums and with my herpes coaching clients is  a deep self-resentment, a profound sense of “I did something wrong and I need to punish myself so I learn my lesson.” The good news if you fall in this category of self-shaming (and a lot of us do) is this: You can officially let yourself off the hook. Much like the participants in the donut study were told: “We realize that some people feel ashamed about getting herpes. But we want you to remember that (most) everyone indulges in sex every now and again … Please don’t be too hard on yourself about it.”

So the secret to healing and growing from this isn't to beat yourself up about it. Just the opposite, actually. Give yourself that soothing balm of self love.

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