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

The Antidote for Shame: Understanding the Unfaithful

This week I’d like to share with you actual material from our Hope for Healing Course for Unfaithful Spouses. It’s 17 weeks of insight and instruction for those who’ve been unfaithful and want to heal themselves and quite possibly even their marriage. I hope you enjoy this sample from Hope for Healing, week three:

Have you ever wondered if the unfaithful was just consumed with their ego? Perhaps they’re struggling with shame and have no idea how to break free?  Could it be that there is in fact hope to break the cycle of self-absorption and shame, while creating a new pathway for them to find self-forgiveness and freedom? To some of you it may sound crazy, but it’s not. I assure you.  

When seeking to understand infidelity, the wayward spouse must inevitably be willing to confront their ego. It’s a safe assumption that in many ways, the unfaithful spouse has made life all about their  ego and how they are perceived by others. At the core of ego is a sense of emptiness that we continually try to fill in life. Ego is driven to find ways of filling our inner void for love, acceptance, security, respect, significance, and assurance. In today's world the ego goes about filling that void by puffing itself up to obtain the validation and affirmation it so badly craves in order to have our relational needs met. It lives in fear of being judged and found insufficient or ‘wanting.’

That's the problem with ego. Even if I accomplish something today I continue to judge myself and put pressure on both self and others to continually stroke my ego. Self-focus and ego drive me to continually prove that I'm significant. The higher I inflate the self the further I can fall into inferiority if I’m deemed inadequate by self or others.

Self is competitive by nature. It's continually trying to prove it’s superior by comparing itself to other people. In the book Mere Christianity, CS Lewis points out the competitiveness that is at the very heart of pride.

Pride gets no pleasure out of having something, only out of having
more of it than the next person. We say that people are proud of being rich,
or clever, or good-looking, but they are not. They are proud of being richer,
or cleverer, or better looking than others. If everyone else became equally rich,
or clever, or good-looking there would be nothing to be proud about.1

 

"Shame" is no different than pride or superiority. It is still based on the ego’s competitive nature, trying to meet the needs of our ego through the comparison of self against others. In the case of shame, we've been judged either by self or others and found wanting. The net result is an ongoing attempt of self-improvement in hopes that my ego will finally be gratified by the acceptance of others.

Marriage is one of the primary places a self-esteem cycle of this caliber plays out. My ego looks to my mate for validation and affirmation. I want him/her to serve as a vanity mirror, which reflects my image and allows me to feel secure, special, and whole. However in marriage my mate tends to be more like a magnifying mirror, revealing all of my blemishes and flaws. As a result the self isn't validated and my ego is wounded. What I need from this relationship is driven by my sense of who I am. For instance if I see myself as a failure I may need constant affirmation from my mate to feel good about myself. Marital expectations determine what I want from the relationship. For instance if I believe it's my mates responsibility to make me happy and we get in a fight, I’ll feel a much deeper rift than a one who takes responsibility for his or her own happiness; or if I believe I’m responsible for my mate’s happiness and they are miserable then I’ll feel a void of love that comes from my mate’s lack of positive response.

There is a bit of good in the worst of us and a bit of bad in the best of us. I believe marriage is a people-growing machine and it’s in the less-than-ideal circumstances that we have the opportunity to examine ourselves and change how we respond to life. We have all been betrayed and we have all betrayed. What you’ve done may not be the same magnitude as infidelity, but we’ve all wounded others. How we respond to relational pain, whether we are in the role of betrayer or betrayed, is largely determined by whether or not I understand it’s not all about me, that life is hard, and that I am not in control.

If I see life as being all about me, I feel entitled to abandon my commitment to my mate and look elsewhere to sooth my wounded ego. I’ll seek validation though things such as affairs, power, control, alcohol, drugs, shopping, porn, etc. Even though I feel justified in seeking fulfillment through these other venues, I’ll still attempt to hide these behaviors out of a fear of judgment and a loss of esteem.

These behaviors can successfully meet my needs for validation, but only for a brief moment or season. They come at the cost of my ego when my behaviors are discovered and I’m judged for my behavior and seen as a failure. Now, because of my failure, I shift from pride to shame as I compare myself to others, but it’s still not about a concern for others. To overcome my shame I begin working on my self-engineering. I work on my self-esteem, my self-control, my self-image, my self-concept, all in an attempt to once again feel good about myself. Once my self-esteem is reestablished I again look to my mate to meet my needs and affirm my image of self.

When my mate falls short of providing the level of validation I need to salve the wound to my ego, I’m once again tempted to abandon my commitment to my mate to seek whatever is necessary to fill the hole in my soul. In this cycle, self is far more important than others. 

“The antidote for pride is humility. Humility is not thinking less of yourself, but thinking of yourself less”.1 Instead of thinking of all the ways I’m superior (pride) or inferior (shame) to others, I begin to realistically look at my life and recognize I’m no better or worse than others. That we’re all people and each has equal right to be here. It’s accepting the reality that I’ve probably been much more difficult to live with than anyone that’s ever irritated me. Humility is about letting go of the belief that I know what’s best. It’s accepting the reality that what others think is as important as what I think. Humility isn’t about shaming one’s self; it’s about getting outside of self to bring life to others so you can legitimately feel good about who you are.

The antidote for shame is self-forgiveness and self-acceptance. Instead of beating yourself up with whatever is on today’s agenda you accept yourself “good enough, as is, just the way you are”. You have to forgive yourself for being a disappointment in your own mind. You have to quit striving to be good enough and let who you are be enough. Overcoming shame requires destroying the power of shame by continually exposing it to safe people. As you get beyond the shame you’ll find an amazing ability to have compassion for others.

If you’d like to participate in an upcoming online Hope for Healing group, please register now. Our EMS Weekend typically sells out a month in advance, so register now for an upcoming EMS Weekend. If you’re uncertain about your marriage, our weekend will not only help you find hope but will also provide insight into whether or not your mate is safe for couple’s recovery. Over 98% of our attendees say they’d ‘highly recommend our weekend for couples in crisis.’ This is a safe place for your recovery and vulnerability.

 

1Lewis, C.S. (1952). Mere Christianity. New York, NY: Harper Collins.

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Shame

Beautifully written

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