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. 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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.