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Letting Go: The Shame of HPV

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Shame is the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed, and therefore unworthy of love and belonging (Brene Brown, 2012).

We all have known and have experienced the discomforting wash of shame at some point in our lives.

Under our shame often lies our rooted beliefs and experiences that tell us we are bad. Shame differs from guilt in that our guilt tells us we did something bad, our shame tells us that we are bad. Shame is intense and can lead to secrecy, silence, and judgment.

STI’s and Shame

From a young age, we have been taught to fear sexually transmitted infections (STIs). Sexual health education, media, and society have all painted the picture that STIs are dirty and disgusting – by that logic, if we catch one, we must be dirty and disgusting, too. 

Because HPV is an STI, we often feel ashamed of our diagnosis. 

Holding onto shame can prevent us from living a healthy life, and can contribute to stress and unhealthy behaviors that impair our immune system. Letting go of the shame associated with HPV may be foundational to our healing.

In this article, we share a few ways you can reframe your narrative to understand that HPV isn’t something to be ashamed about. By releasing our shame, we make space to empower ourselves and others.

How to Let go of Shame

To let go of the shame of HPV, it is important to clarify a few things about the virus, how it is contracted, and how prevalent it is – with this information, we can begin to change our narrative.

Creating a new narrative: the truth about HPV

HPV is a virus. 

As humans, we are naturally exposed to viruses and other pathogens that live in our environment – this is a part of life. Strains of the HPV family have an affinity for skin tissue in and around the genital or mouth areas. The virus is passed on through skin-to-skin contact with an infected individual.

HPV is so common that an estimated 80 percent of women will contract a strain of HPV in their lifetime. 

Once infected, the virus makes a home within the human tissue cells. In most cases, the immune system will identify and suppress the virus activity over time leading to no symptoms or complications. In some cases, the virus may proliferate and slowly cause cellular dysplasia that can lead to cervical cancer over many years. Given the large number of HPV strains and high transmission rate of the virus, the best way to avoid exposure includes abstaining from sexual activities or limiting your number of sexual partners.

Sexual activity is a significant part of the human experience. 

Asking you to suppress your sexuality would be like asking you to stay in your house for the rest of your life to avoid catching a cold. We can aim to prevent infection by avoiding risk factors, but we don’t want to miss out on life! Instead of staying at home, our body has an innate system called the immune system, which we rely on to support and protect us from infection and disease. We can take preventative action by making sure this system is up and running efficiently to protect us against viruses.

Now that we understand a little more about the virus, it is time to foster a little empathy.

Fostering empathy for yourself: If the root of our shame lies in our feelings of being unworthy of love and belonging, letting go of shame requires a healthy dose of empathy. Empathy involves showing compassion and kindness to ourselves, which can feel unnatural and uncomfortable at first.

Imagine talking to yourself like you would talk to a young child or a close friend. How would you speak to them in a similar situation? I would imagine it is different from how you talk to yourself, because we are often harshest to ourselves. Remind yourself that you are not to blame, you are not unworthy, and you are deserving of care. Self-compassion and empathy is a continuous practice. 

Are you ready to respond to HPV?

Name it to tame it

One of the most powerful tools we can use to reduce our shame is to talk about it. When we can name our shame, we tame our shame. 

So many women suffer the HPV diagnosis in silence but find that when they do speak up they can connect with so many others who are experiencing the same thing. Speaking up about our shame is a vulnerable and emotional risk. With that risk lies the power of vulnerability – it creates space for others to feel less afraid, less alone, and less ashamed. When we don’t talk about these things, we can unintentionally breed shame.

Try opening up to someone you trust. Turn to a trusted friend, family member, or counselor – someone who can hold space for you and just listen. We know that talking to a partner can be scary and intimidating, but have found that many who have opened up about their sexual health with their partners often find it brings them closer. Speaking your truth also allows for a chance to practice being your most honest and authentic self.

Shame has a powerful weight on each of us, and we all experience it at some point. Often, the shame associated with HPV is rooted in our misunderstanding of the virus and the narrative we have created around contracting sexually transmitted infections. 

Remember that shame also does not help you and it does not help others. Be kind to yourself and show yourself compassion – your vulnerability can give others the courage and strength to let go of shame as well.

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