Shame is a painful experience of the self as failing, due to a perception of insufficient effort, inadequacy, inferiority, unworthiness, or character defect. Those who suffer intimate betrayal—abuse, infidelity, deceit, being forced to walk on eggshells in their homes—are doubly wronged by the almost inevitable shame that follows the betrayal.
Our susceptibility to hidden and irrational shame after betrayal owes largely to the pattern-matching process of the brain, which constantly tries to match present perceptions with emotions and motivations from past experience. When suffering emotional pain, pattern-matching becomes more general and less accurate. The effect is like opening a jack-in-the box labeled, “rejection, failure, mistakes,” at which point the shame that goes with those past associations leaps out at you. In other words, the brain tends to run lots of rejections, mistakes, and failures into implicit memory, if they seem remotely relevant to whatever is happening now. Since everyone has at least a little shame around past attachments, shame, both hidden and overt, is almost certain to occur after intimate betrayal.
It’s Motivation, Not Punishment
Shame is an effective form of social control when emotional or social bonds are strong. You can get family members to do what you want by making them feel bad about themselves, which is what abusers do to spouses and desperate parents sometimes do to children. A nation can exhort its young people off to war by calling them unpatriotic, cowards, or traitors if they don't comply.
The aversive reinforcement aspect of shame leads many people to view it as a punishment to be avoided (usually with anger, resentment, or substance abuse), rather than a motivation to succeed or become adequate or worthy. In fact, shame never tells you you’re bad. But it’s confusing, because when you felt shame in the past, people probably said you were bad, thus confounding their personal agenda with the adaptive motivation of shame.
The adaptive motivation of shame is to reevaluate, re-conceptualize, and redouble your efforts to pursue success in love, relationships, work, or whatever area you have perceived failure. The experience of shame in and of itself never means that you’re a failure; rather, it's a signal to stop doing or thinking what you had been thinking or doing and try something more likely to succeed. If we follow the adaptive motivation of shame—instead of short-circuiting it with resentment, anger, alcohol, workaholism, or whatever—it will lead to healing, improvement, and, ultimately, a solid sense of core value.
Shame and Inflated Ego
When enhancement of self-esteem is a primary motivator, the ego inflates to unrealistic levels, where it is highly vulnerable to the disconfirming, shame-invoking impressions of others, when they see through us. The inflated ego construes shame as punishment inflicted by an unappreciative world. The inflated ego becomes defensive and fragile.
Characteristics of an inflated/defensive ego:
- I have to be right; others have to be wrong
- I have to be more; others have to be less
- I have to be respected more than others
- It's not my fault; everything bad is everyone else's fault
- My way or the highway.
One example of how the ego undermines the adaptive motivational function of shame in relationships is what researchers call the “demand-withdrawal” dynamic. That’s when one partner wants more engagement than the other can tolerate. The withdrawing party experiences guilt for his inability to meet the emotional needs of his partner and chooses an ego defense against the guilt, usually blame (“You’re too needy”) or anger (“You’re smothering me!”) or avoidance (“Not now!”). The demanding party feels the shame of rejection, and is apt to use similar defenses of blame (“You’re a cold, intimacy-avoider!”) or anger (“You’re abusing me!”) or denial (“I know you really want to be close, it’s just your childhood issues getting in the way!”). As long as they interact on the level of ego defenses, resolution of this painful standoff is impossible.
Shame vs. Compassion for Self and Loved Ones
Compassion is sympathy for the hurt, distress, or vulnerability of another, with motivation to help. Self-compassion is a sympathetic response to your own hurt, distress, or vulnerability, with a motivation to heal, repair, and improve. At heart, they are simple appreciation of the basic human frailty we all share. The experience of compassion for someone else makes you feel more humane and less isolated and shame-free. Failure of compassion is shame-invoking, although the shame is usually masked by anger or resentment.
Replace “Why” with “How”
To take advantage of the self-healing and self-correcting features of shame, avoid dwelling on its possible causes. Such ruminations are likely to exacerbate it, for reasons that have nothing to do with the original stimulus of the shame. (Mental focus on anything amplifies and magnifies the object of the focus.) Amplifying pain puts too much attention on its alarm component and too little on its motivational element. It’s like reacting to the piercing noise of the smoke alarm rather than putting out the fire.
A more important reason to focus on healing and improvement rather than causes is another fact about emotional pain that is often ignored in self-help books: The causes of injury-related pain are not what sustain it. For instance, a piece of broken glass may have sliced your skin open, but the severed and inflamed nerve endings in the flesh sustain the pain. Preoccupation with why you cut yourself will not help to heal the wound. Similarly, your partner lying to you, cheating on you, or abusing you caused your pain. Preoccupation with why he did it runs the risk of making you live inside his head at the cost of your own healing and growth. The pain is telling you to restore self-value now, through your own positive actions, and that is the only thing that will eliminate it.
When clients are referred to me because they’ve gotten stuck in the thorny aftermath of intimate betrayal, they are invariably preoccupied with why their partners did it to them—or worse, what they might have done to make their partners betray them. That breaks my heart. Not only does focus on the betrayer’s motivations distract from healing, but speculation about a partner’s motives is utterly fruitless. We can never know why someone betrays an intimate bond.
For example, suppose you decide, like most of my clients do at some point, that your partner lied, cheated, or abused you because she was depressed, anxious, deluded, stressed out, drank too much, exercised too little, or experienced any of a multitude of possible contributing factors. The fact is, most people with those experiences do not betray their loved ones. At best, speculation about your partner’s motives may yield possible preconditions for the betrayal, but you’ll never accurately identify what caused the choice to betray you.
Rather than speculating about what might have caused your partner to inflict your pain, it is far more to your benefit to concentrate your attention on the internal message of the pain, which is to heal, repair, and improve.
Free webinars on Living and Loving after Betrayal