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

Social Shame: Understanding the Paralysis of it

social shame understanding paralysis

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

This week I’d like to take a closer look at a common obstacle to recovery: Shame. If you’ve been unfaithful, the appropriate question is probably not, “Are you dealing with shame,” but more aptly put, “How are you handling the shame of it all?” If you’ve been betrayed and your spouse seems extremely uncooperative or ambivalent, your spouse may be feeling imprisoned by shame. To be perfectly honest, it’s quite possible he or she may not even know it.

What Is Shame?

It’s easy to confuse guilt with shame. Guilt is that rock in your stomach when you know you’ve done something wrong. It’s not necessarily a bad thing; typically guilt means we are aware of our responsibility for an action we regret.  Hopefully when we feel guilty, we take responsibility for our actions and then work to make amends (when possible) with the offended party. Shame, however, is a far more entrenched mindset about ourselves. Shame says “I am bad” rather than “I’ve done something bad”; it changes your identity instead of simply accepting responsibility. We feel guilt for what we have done, but when we’ve done something we feel is shameful we take that on as our identity. Shame continues to instill the idea within which says, “I am not worthy.” Shame loves to instill feelings of inadequacy, self-contempt and a deep sense of inferiority.

The problem with shame is that it is completely self-centered. Shame continues to make everything about me and prevents recovery. When I’m dealing with shame and playing the “I’m such a horrible person” card, I can’t focus on the damage I’ve done to others and experience true empathy for them because my focus remains on me. It selfishly puts my betrayed spouse in the position of trying to build me back up and give me a new identity, or at the very least to curb some of their recovery to acquiesce to my needs. As long as the unfaithful spouse continues to remain paralyzed by his or her own self-absorption, their mate can’t truly heal. Shame doesn’t accept responsibility for the choices made, it is just another form of justification: “I can’t help my bad choices if I’m a bad person.”

Three Symptoms of Shame

Shame has a way of bringing out the worst in me, and I can always tell I’m in shame when I’m acting out of fear, blaming others for my actions, or when I’m disconnected from others.

  1. Fear: Shame is fueled by fear. When I’m in shame I’m terrified to bring things out in the open. I’m afraid of being considered inadequate, that if my spouse really knew me she would never accept me. Shame tells me that if I let my guard down for even a moment everyone will finally realize what a complete and total failure I am and I’ll face my ultimate fear: rejection.  When I’m allowing shame to make me fearful, I can never be fully known, and therefore I will always feel the need to hide.
  2. Blame: Shame by nature refuses to admit the truth. No one can make me feel shame; they can only trigger my already existing shame. As I said earlier, shame is a type of justification. Of course I do bad things if I’m a bad person, I can’t help it. It’s not my fault. This is the lie shame tells us and, quite frankly, it’s the cowards way out. I’m letting myself off pretty easy if I hold myself to such low standards. The problem is that my mate can never heal if I can’t take responsibility for my actions. If I’m playing my shame card to justify my actions, my spouse has no reason to believe I won’t make the same mistake again. Shame does not allow for safety in recovery. Once shame takes over, the pain expressed by the offended party often results in outbursts of anger from the unfaithful spouse because that shame has been triggered. It renders us incapable of being safe for our mate’s healing.
  3. Disconnection: Shame at its core is one of the main villains which rob me of my ability to feel compassion for my mate. Initially I may feel compassion for the way I hurt my spouse through my betrayal, but then something happens. It’s a small yet poignant shift as I encounter the pain of my choices. This pain I’ve caused feels like too much, like it’s lasting too long, and I pull back as though I can hide from my choices. We can’t process everything and fear creeps in, which then causes us to blame others and we find ourselves alone. Sometimes, for those still involved in the affair, the only one they’ll run to is the affair partner or addiction because that choice is easy. It requires nothing of me to sink deeper into shame. When I don’t feel worthy, I can’t connect with my mate and shame remains the primary voice running through my mind. It’s this disconnection that allows for a deep loneliness which separates me from the ones I love and need most. I’m isolating myself and blaming others out of fear. Unfaithful spouses swing towards shame frequently and it’s the primary component which blocks true connection and empathy for the betrayed spouse.

Hiding in Shame

The unfaithful are in many ways led to the slaughter through shame. Take for example the recent story by Samuel, one of our bloggers and survivors of infidelity, about his shame growing up:

My father and mother divorced when I was about a year old after he returned from the Vietnam War. My father would remarry a couple times till his death when I was 25, and my mother would also remarry. The first man she married was an older man, a former professional boxer and a wonderful man, in his own right. He had served time in prison and was a survivor from the streets. He had a big heart, but didn’t always know how to express it. When I was about 8, after growing up with him around more than my biological father, he left us. I think he just couldn’t adjust to life with a son that wasn’t his and a marriage with pressures, responsibilities and expectations. He eventually came back one day when I was about 10. My mom had warned me that would be coming over when I got home from school. After he left, my mom started working full time, so I would ride my bike home from school and be there alone till she arrived about three hours later. I didn’t hate him. More than anything I was confused and terrified of what to do. He had left and if I’m being honest, I think I felt like I caused most of it. I loved him and while he wasn’t my biological father, I think for his history and how he grew up, he really did his best.  Nevertheless, I was confused and for one of the first palpable times in my life, I remember feeling ashamed. I saw his car pull up and watched him get out. I immediately turned off the TV and any lights and made it seem as though I wasn’t home. I ran to my closet in our tiny house, and closed the closet doors and simply hid. It only took him a few minutes to walk through our house and try to find me. Eventually I think he was puzzled a bit and just left. I didn’t cry. I didn’t yell. I barely remember feeling anything. To this day, I can see the closet and I can feel the loneliness and surreal experience. I hid from someone who loved me and wanted to reconnect with me. I hid from a moment of possible restoration out of confusion, shame and misunderstanding. I wanted to run to him and hug him and welcome him back, but I felt paralyzed. I was in over my head emotionally and had no idea how that moment would mark me.

Looking back, when I made my horrible choices that led to infidelity, I wanted to hide in a closet of shame from everyone. Not just God, but my wife, my friends, any and all father figures and even myself. I felt alone and wanted to hide into my own cave as I felt like my life had been a mistake on so many levels.

Disempowering Shame

There is no quick fix for shame. It’s an identity issue. However, we are not without hope and shame doesn’t have to have the last word.  Like so many who have come out of the shadows of shame and found freedom from fear, blame, and disconnection, we do have the ability to find new life.

Shame thrives in secrecy; community is key. It’s one of the reasons I’m such a big proponent of small groups in recovery. When we can share our stories, gain a higher altitude of what we’ve done, and still be loved and accepted, we experience safety. This safety translates over time into love, acceptance, and a strong sense of belonging, all of which are powerful antidotes for shame. To the captive of shame, vulnerability is about as exciting as going for a root canal, but if done whole-heartedly, can lead to incredible freedom. When we can finally admit what we’ve done and be honest, and if we can accept who we are, it’s freeing. As long as I live a performance-based lifestyle it will remain all about me and how I am doing. It’s fueling the fires of self-deception and an inability to find compassion for my spouse. When we think we have the power to do everything right and when we think we have to be perfect, we will crumble every time.  Prisoners of shame in many ways can be performance addicts. We actually try and be like God and think we can do it all on our own. The cold hard truth is we will make mistakes. You must accept that you (and your spouse) will screw up sometimes, and find freedom in knowing that, accepting it, and loving each other anyway.

Don’t get me wrong, if you’ve frequented our Recovery Library, you know there is no excuse for infidelity. My response to life and to my mate’s struggles is my responsibility. Bad marriages don’t make a person cheat, bad choices do. I’m not excusing addiction or infidelity and I’m certainly not suggesting the unfaithful spouse get off easy. However, if we want to find freedom, healing, and (possibly) reconciliation, we cannot allow our spouse or ourselves to be imprisoned anymore. Wounding those we love by betrayal can be shameful, but it’s not what defines you. You need to accept what you’ve done and bring honor back to your name by now doing the right thing.

Victims of shame need authentic  humility. To conquer shame you must learn to embrace your weakness and come to a greater understanding of unconditional love.  As long as we’re only conditionally known, we’ll only be conditionally loved. Until we’re willing to be open and free, we’ll never experience the unconditional love that’s waiting for us both from a loving and forgiving God as well as possibly a loving and forgiving spouse. If you need a safe place to work through shame, I’d highly suggest Hope for Healing for unfaithful spouses. You can’t keep living in a fog; you have to do the work to recover fully.  Rest assured, healing and restoration are in fact possible.  

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Question...

Could this manifest itself as an unfaithful spouse deflecting their own performance-based mentality onto the betrayed? My spouse has done almost nothing to contribute to restoring the relationship, and I am accused constantly by him of forcing him into what he calls a performance-based relationship, where he can never be good enough. Meanwhile, I am not asking for perfection, but to simply see something. I don't feel I have seen remorse at this point, but rather regret in the way of what it says about him and a dislike for the consequences resulting.
What does a betrayed spouse do with this, if they see that their unfaithful is stuck in shame?

shame does not define a person

My wife often says she's not a bad person, but a person who just made a bad choice. That's a bit excusatory on the surface, but it is the truth. As hard as it is to do, a betrayed spouse has to be able to see beyond the affair, eventually. It’s just hard to disconnect the action from the person.

often the betrayed partner feels, in my experience, that the affair defines his/her spouse, but even more so...it defines marriage. The level of deceit versus the level of sacredness of the relationship play a big factor in how a betrayed mate feels it violated their marriage. That same factor...shame...distorts how we can feel about our marriage.

My wife is an incredible person. She made a mistake. I don't know if I can forgive her, and I believe it ruined our marriage...possibly forever. But I do know she is one of the best people I've ever met. She made a horrible mistake that she will always regret. But I'm glad to see her feeling better about herself and focusing on her own recovery.

Shame

It has been almost two years since d-day. Of course I suspected before that. During the months before d-day, my husband revealed to me a lie he'd maintained for 18+ years. I have since found evidence that indicates he could be considered a pathological liar. Shame a little? Reading this article opened my eyes a little more. I see that this is probably what his whole life is about. He has done well professionally, but I don't feel close to him at all. He keeps me at arm's length, and because I never know whether or not I can believe him, I do the same. He is a self proclaimed control freak also. He is not vulnerable in the slightest. He sees vulnerability as a weakness. He told me that I knew him better than anyone, and that scared him. He refuses to be counseled. Much like daughterofsarah77, I see no effort on his part to restore trust. He wants to pretend it never happened. We have problems.

Wish I had seen this sooner

For a long time, my unfaithful partner has been hiding in shame. I did not recognize it until today. Many times he would terminate further conversation by saying he was bad. I thought it was defensiveness and have operated from a place of not activating that defense. It is difficult to have a heart-to-heart when you worry about hitting a landmine. He often says that he needs my compliments, compassion or for me to be proud of him. I do not rely on him for bolstering, so I was confused by the very frequent requests. At least I am not confused anymore.

polygraph for shame

My husband, of 11 years, had a 15 month long affair with the SAME woman he cheated on his first wife with 38 years ago. They BOTH claim there was no sex this time, but the other woman just lives 3 blocks away and from the text it looks as though they were physically intimate. My husband "can't remember" anything of their 43,000 daily text, 2,000 phone conversations and 200 pictures. He has been sober 26 years and has great shame in his life from things he did years ago. He is wanting to take a polygraph to prove to me that there was no sexual contact. My question is... Would his shame sway the test or will the truth finally be told? He denies telling the other woman he loved her...she says he did. I need him to take the steps that will open him up to what he did. I'm tired of him saying it meant nothing and it was just a game they were playing. I know that's not true.

Really appreciate this

Really appreciate this teaching on shame. I can see where that has played a big part in our marriage for some time and how it has hindered us from being able to connect, heal and recover. How subtle shame can be at times, yet so destructive. I see shame now as my enemy, instead of my mate and choose to resist it, and pray for victory over it for myself ( the betrayed) and my mate!

I really love this article, I

I really love this article, I am the betrayed, but my spouse is not taking responsibility and he just lies on the couch and finds excuses for not doing anything.

Shame

I felt this was very interesting. Sent to my spouse that has has long going affair per him. No response. Though he admits remorse he is not able to provide me with the truth. I am aware of his affair for almost a year. Still spinning stories. He is unable to tell me the truth. Shame, hiding, or still I volved? I have always loved him, 25 yrs. His lack of honesty or action is telling me more of the truth than his spin, moving me towards divorce. When you can't be honest their is something else going on.

Shame

I heard that still small voice tell me how i wounded my husband and beat him into shame with unforgiveness. This article makes clear alot about his anger and depression. Thank you

Thank you for sharing. I'm getting better but a work in progress

I am the unfaithful and I have huge amounts of shame. I am doing better now and have been in therapy a year but it still haunts me and pulls me down sometimes. It is so very hard to get completely free- or it feels impossible at times. For instance, I know my husband is ashamed of me and ashamed to ever go back to our hometown since disclosure. Even I never want to go back there. He's not ashamed to be around people who don't know my past (I was promiscuous) but for people who knew me growing up- that brings us both shame to think about seeing those people. We'd rather just stay away, forever. I guess if I were healthier, the thought of going back wouldn't haunt me. Is that right?

Shame

I can appreciate this article. Its almost been one year since I learned of the affair and our separation. So much blame has been placed on me, I have decided to stop talking about it as we can't move foward. I have watched my spouse go through the "woe is me" attitude...seeking pity....while still pointing fingers. I've listened to how bad of a spouse/person I was (yet my spouse still is compelled to come around on a daily basis) After reading this article, I have seen the side of guilt and now im beginning to see the shame. My spouse has been stuck in a fog for a very long time now. The problem is, my spouse would NEVER admit or agree to even reading an article like this let alone have anyone make a suggestion about being stuck in shame. I will not share articles like this because I'm already perceived as a "judgmental" type, so I have learned to stop offering my opinions and suggestions as they are not received in a positive light. I have lost alot of respect because of the wrong choices made and the unwillingness to fully address the mistakes and any other parties that were involved. But great call out on identifying the difference between guilt and shame.

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