Rick Reynolds, LCSW
by Rick Reynolds, LCSW
Founder & President, Affair Recovery

Social Shame: Four Ways to Stay In It

Social Shame: A 4 Part Series

  1. Social Shame: Understanding the Paralysis of it
  2. Social Shame: Have you Been Dishonored?
  3. Social Shame: Surviving Infidelity Isn't Enough
  4. Social Shame: Four Ways to Stay in it

Untransformed shame leaves you forever tied to the pain, and pain that’s not transformed will always be transmitted. The thought of hanging on to our shame and the related pain may seem absurd, but tragically it seems to be the norm rather than the exception. What happens when you don't know how to deal with shame after infidelity? First let me summarize what we have learned about shame thus far and then I’ll answer the question.

There is a difference between guilt and shame. Guilt stems from doing something bad while shame is “the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging.1  Guilt is more likely to lead to healing behavior and shame is more likely to lead to hurtful behavior. When we feel guilt, the emotional distress of remorse causes us to examine our actions which creates pressure for us to confess, apologize, and make amends. Taking responsibility for what we’ve done makes us a better person, our marriages safer, and our community a better place.

As we’ve mentioned in our previous articles regarding shame, there are two types of shame. Individual shame / honor, which is based on personal achievement or failure, and social shame / honor, which is ascribed to us by those we are associated with. If someone we’re associated with does something shameful, we are dishonored and ascribed the shame associated with those actions. We experience either a perceived or actual loss of reputation, social standing, and value in the eyes of others.

When people feel ashamed of themselves, they are not particularly motivated to apologize or attempt to repair the situation, especially if their shame is the result of another person’s actions.

“Shame is not an emotion that leads people to responsibly own up to their failures, mistakes, or transgressions and make things right. Instead, they are inclined to engage in all sorts of defensive maneuvers. They may withdraw and avoid the people around them. They may deny responsibility and blame others for the shame-eliciting situation. They may become downright hostile and angry at a world that has made them feel so small. In short, shamed individuals are inclined to assume a defensive posture rather than take a constructive, reparative stance in their relationships.” 2

Now back to our original question:

What happens when you don't know how to deal with shame?

There are four likely responses a person who is unwilling or unable to deal with shame may experience after infidelity. You’ll see that the repercussions extend much further than the individual person.

1. Self contempt:

Attacking yourself and putting yourself down only deflects the shame, leaving it untransformed. We loath who we are and may even become suicidal, believing if others knew the truth we would have no value. People with self-contempt take responsibility for what happened, but fail to be responsible. When the women came forward accusing Bill Cosby of sexually molesting them 40 years earlier, people asked why anyone would wait 40 years before coming forward. Self-contempt is the culprit. To deflect the shame they experienced as a result of the molestation, they took responsibility for what happened and blamed themselves for being in that situation in the first place. Their shame prevented them from being responsible, doing their civic duty and exposing the offense. Dealing with the shame would've required being vulnerable, exposing what happened, and risking what others would think. In my opinion (and if indeed Mr. Cosby molested these women), one can safely assume that if these women had known how to endure their shame and expose what happened then others may not have been harmed.

2. Others-Contempt

The second way of maintaining shame is by attacking others and putting them down as a way of building yourself up and restoring your honor. While it may feel like seeing the other person as subhuman and worthy of nothing but disdain will transform shame, in reality it’s just the opposite. Laying your shame at the feet of another is about as effective as having your mate take antibiotics to heal your kidney infection. Shame can only truly be transformed by walking through the pain, not by transmitting that pain to another.

3. Withdrawal

When we experience the intense pain that comes from the belief that we are somehow damaged and no longer worthy of belonging, withdrawal may be your natural response to avoid the pain, but it leaves shame untransformed. I believe the best definition of courage is “wanting to live so badly that you don't care if you die.” Imagine being a soldier trapped behind enemy lines. The only way to survive would be fighting your way through the enemy lines. Survival would require wanting to live so bad that you're willing to take the risk of dying. Courage is facing that fear and doing what's necessary to save your life. Responding to shame by withdrawing robs you of life and leaves you disconnected from the relationships you so desperately need. It may hide the shame but it never transforms the pain.

4. Avoidance

Avoidance is the fourth approach that keeps people tied to the shame. Drug and alcohol abuse, denial, and thrill seeking are just a few of the ways people avoid addressing their shame. While shame’s sting may fade over time, the shame itself still festers just under the surface, waiting to break out. Ultimately, when avoidance is the coping mechanism for shame, you will need more and more of what doesn't work to keep your shame shoved down below the surface.

My dream for those involved with Affair Recovery isn’t only that people recover from the impact of infidelity, but that they also find a new and more meaningful life. It's about the restoration of dignity and once again having the good opinion of  oneself. This doesn't come if shame remains untransformed. Shame’s prison will prevent you from being authentic and vulnerable, thereby cutting you off from deep and meaningful relationships. Our next article on shame will begin to address how to restore the honor we so desperately want. If you need infidelity-specific help in your journey, I hope you’ll consider taking a courageous step and attend our EMS Weekend.



1, Brown, Brene. Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead. New York: Gotham Books, 2012.

2. Tangney, June, and Ronda Dearing. Shame and Guilt. New York: Guilford Press, 2002.




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I'm the betrayed stuck in shame

I am the betrayed in our relationship and we are 18 months past d-day. I have felt so stuck in making progress in healing from my husband's betrayal. The explanation of shame may be my sticking point, I am overwhelmed by shame. I have read all of Brene Brown's books and they have helped, but Rick's explanation of shame as it relates to infidelity speaks volumes to me. I plan to take this insight into my counseling and hopefully get unstuck from this lonely & painful place.

I've read the articles in

I've read the articles in this series as well as all the comments with great interest. I am so looking forward to hearing what Rick has to say regarding how a betrayed spouse's honor and dignity can be restored from "ascribed shame".

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