Dear Suzie, About 18 months ago, I went to my best friend’s bachelorette party in Las Vegas. I got drunk and ended up having oral sex with one of the male strippers. I told my husband about it the very next day. He’s already forgiven me and begged me to let it go, but I just can’t seem to do it. I am the last person anyone would think would do something like that. I feel so dirty, so guilty, and so filled with self-loathing. Every time I think of what I did, I feel like throwing up. Now the shame and guilt has gotten to a point where it’s ruining everything in my life, my work and my marriage. I know I need to let it go, but how do I get past the fact that I did something so dirty?
Your situation reminds me of a story. One day, a woman called up a therapist on the phone and said “I don’t think you can help me. I really don’t deserve to be helped because no matter what I do, I can’t seem to stop sleeping with married men.” To which the therapist said…
“Thank you for sharing your opinion, but why don’t you wait to hear mine?”
“Well,” continued the caller, “when I was six years old, my older brother began molesting me, sexually used me like a sex object until I was seventeen. Every time he came into my bedroom at night, I would lay there frozen with fear. I felt dirty, inferior, inadequate, and ashamed. But I was too afraid to tell anyone because I knew they would know it was my fault. Every night while he was doing those things to me, I used to pray to God to send the Archangel Michael to save me.”
“But God never answered.”
“As soon as I could, I got a job away from home so I wouldn’t have to deal with it anymore. I hoped that having a job would give me back some self-respect. I got a job in a corporate office doing secretarial things like filing and typing. Soon after I began working there, I met one of the partners in the company who was several years older than me and married. Before I knew it, I was sleeping with him in the office after hours. At first, it was exciting and I felt wanted. But soon, it became shameful and I became frozen with terror on the nights I had to go to work. Eventually, it all got to be too much, and so I quit that job. But I still kept seeing the married man, even though I felt ashamed, inferior, indecent, and embarrassed. So then, I thought that maybe if I got a college degree, it would give me a feeling of self-respect, so I went away to college.”
“But the same thing happened again.”
“This time, it was married professors and the men who would hire me for part-time secretarial work. When I finished college, it became clear to me that even a four-year degree wasn’t enough to give me a feeling of respect. So I went back for a master’s degree. But that didn’t work either.”
“All throughout this time, I found myself in one extramarital relationship after another. Married man after married man kept propositioning me, and I never felt like I could resist. You would think that with all the screwing around I was doing, it was for the fun of it. But it wasn’t.”
“For me, sex is a horrible experience because I don’t like men.”
“I find them threatening. Their bodies are hairy and ugly. But even though I feel like filth, I still have sex with them whenever they ask me to. It’s like I have no will of my own. Once a man propositions me, I get helpless and weak and passive. Today, I can honestly tell you that I have never had a relationship with a man who wasn’t committed to somebody else. At this point, I feel like I don’t deserve anything else. I called you because it’s over the phone and I don’t ever have to meet you. I’m so ashamed and embarrassed.”
Here’s what the therapist said:
“So far, you’ve told me a very unhappy story. And yet, it’s not just the facts of your story that make it so unhappy. What makes it most unhappy is how fiercely you cling to it. You tell me that when married men proposition you, you can’t resist. You tell me that your resistance is weak. You tell me that you are afraid of men and find them ugly and threatening. By your own diagnosis, you say your problem is that you have a weak resistance, but I disagree with your diagnosis. I don’t believe your resistance is weak. I believe the opposite is true.”
“You have incredible amounts of resistance.”
“Think about it…
“In all this time, you’ve managed to resist healing. You’ve managed to resist changing. You’ve resisted letting go of your sad childhood story. You’ve resisted doing things that make you feel good about yourself. You’ve resisted opportunities to find and date available men. You also say you don’t get any pleasure in what you’ve been doing. I’m not so sure because as far as I can see, you have taken great pleasure in resisting change. This is why, in my opinion, your main problem is that when it comes to diagnosing your own problems, you’ve done it backwards.
“Your resistance isn’t weak. It’s STRONG.
“It takes a lot of strength and a lot of resistance to keep on doing things that make you unhappy. And it takes a lot of self-deception to pretend you’re not in control. For example, you know how to control your legs don’t you? You know how to move them up and how to move them down so you can walk. And you know how to open them and how to close them.”
“It makes me wonder…
“Why go out of your way to resist closing them at the appropriate times? And that also makes me wonder; what else could you go out of your way to resist doing if you really wanted to? For example, could you go out of your way to resist clinging to that sad childhood story? And how about going out of your way to resist dragging the memory of that pathetic brother around with you? And could you go out of your way to resist the pressure to remain passive?
“You say sex brings you no pleasure.”
“So, why not take your own pleasure in resisting the habit of feeling guilty, dirty, or ashamed when you’re in bed with a man? Why not take pleasure in controlling your own legs? Why not take pleasure in saying no? I’m going to hang up the phone now. I suggest you try and see if you can resist thinking about what I have told you. If you can resist doing that, then call me and tell me about it.”
He never heard from her again.
So, what was the point of that story?
Well, here it is:
The therapist realized that like so many, the caller was looking at her situation from the wrong angle. And her upside down way of looking had not led to a solution, but rather, had kept her stuck in the problem. So by helping her to “re-frame” or look at her situation from another perspective (showing her that her resistance is strong not weak), he was able to help her see new solutions.
I think when it comes to handling guilt and shame, a similar strategy is needed. Because you (like so many others) are also looking at the situation in a backwards way. And that keeps you stuck in the problem, rather than moving towards a solution.
What’s backwards about the way you’re looking at your situation?
Here it is:
You believe that your pain, shame, and suffering are being caused by the events that took place on the night of your friend’s bachelorette party. But I’m here to tell you, that’s not true. It’s not what happened that is making you feel guilty. But rather, it’s the story you have told yourself about why what happened, happened.
In other words…
It’s not the event. It’s the meaning (the story) you’ve created about the “event” that continues to cause your misery. At first, most people have a hard time grasping this concept (because most have it backwards). And yet, once they get it, it has a way of changing their whole lives.
So. how could the guilt be caused by the story and not the event?
To begin with, it’s important to understand the difference between “the event” and the “story of the event”.
Here’s a good example.
Let’s say that you’re driving along the highway. In fact, you’re speeding because you’re late for a key meeting. All of a sudden, you hear a loud bang and your car begins to shudder. You realize your car tire just blew out. “Oh, great!” you say to yourself. “This is just what I need! I’m already late! This is going to make me look like a complete loser in front of my client. Now I’m probably going to blow this deal! I can just imagine everybody laughing at me behind my back.”
Did you see it?
You probably noticed two very different things happened.
- Event: Tire blows out
- Story of event: Re-created and embellished to include what it means, what it’s going to cost, why it shouldn’t have happened
Here’s the thing:
The event was neutral. But the story of “why” and “what it means” was very personal, wasn’t it? And looking at it this way… ask yourself this: was it actually the event that created the misery? Or was it the personal interpretation (the story) of what the event meant? If you said the story, you’d be correct.
What is a story?
A story is an arrangement of words and images that recreates life-like characters and events. When we have an experience, a part of our mind recreates that event in story form. That’s the story we tell ourselves. (Of course, this version is usually more dramatic, colorful, and significant than the actual event ever was.)
Stories are the most powerful force in our society.
Think about it.
- Memories are stories about the past.
- Beliefs are stories about what is true.
- Vision is a story about the future.
- Ideas are stories about possibilities.
- In politics, the candidate who communicates the best story wins.
- Marketers and advertisers don’t sell products as much as they sell stories of what their product can do for you.
- What is a brand but the story of a product?
- What is a culture but a collection of stories?
And what about you?
Who would you be if you didn’t have a story? Would you have an identity?
In fact, if we scale it down to the very nitty-gritty, we could say…
Stories of Guilt & Blame
Everything is Story
Welcome to the human drama. Not just people, but every culture, has a story. Anthropologists have known that all cultures have what they call an “origin story”. For those on the African continent, the origin story is a “Great Mother” story. For those in the Middle East, the origin story is “Father Abraham”.
All stories fall into two basic categories: collective (universal) stories and personal stories.
Carl Jung was the first to point out that there are certain universal stories which unite us all. He called these stories “archetypal” stories. He observed that these stories exist in every culture and in every social system on the planet. (I’m a big fan of the concept of archetypes.)
Some examples of universal story archetypes:
- The victim story
- The child story
- The hero story
- The prostitute story
According to many leading psychologists, these four universal stories are woven into the fabric of our own personal stories. In other words, we all have our own version of the victim, the child, the hero, and the prostitute stories.
Side note: The prostitute archetype is not about buying and selling your body for money. It’s about buying and selling your principles (values) for material gain. When you hear people saying they feel like they “sold out”, they’re referring to the prostitute story. When you hear of someone marrying for money, that’s a prostitute story coming into play.
How does this connect to you?
For now, I want you to keep in mind the idea of universal or collective stories, because over the next few minutes, I’m going to demonstrate that “guilt” is another universal story. (In other words, you didn’t create it.)
Let me explain what I mean.
We’ve all heard the phrase “Based on a true story.”
This is a term Hollywood writers often use when they draw from real life events as the foundation for a movie script. But everyone knows that the events in the movie will be grossly exaggerated, trumped up, blown out of proportion, and probably overacted to create more emotional and dramatic effects than the real events ever did.
Well, that’s what most of us do when we make up stories about the “events” that happened in our own lives. The version we end up telling ourselves (while based on true events) will be grossly exaggerated and blown way out of proportion to produce (and induce) the most dramatic responses. By the end of this article, you’ll learn that the guilt you’re feeling is simply a result of this type of story.
What Exactly is Guilt?
Here’s a definition I find helpful: “Guilt is the emotion that arises when we believe we have violated either a social or a personal rule.” In other words, guilt is self-punishment for violating rules. Where do these rules come from?
There are three primary types of rules:
- Social Rules — These rules tell us what is acceptable and what is taboo within a certain group, culture, movement, or social setting.
- Personal Rules — These rules tell us our personal boundaries, deal-breakers, how to organize our values, and what to do to win at life.
- Natural Law — These are universal rules, limits, and systems we’re all governed by (like time, space, gravity, and motion).
Notice, of the three, only one is an actual law; the other two are simply rules. What’s the difference between rules and natural laws? Rules are mutable (changeable), while laws are immutable (unchangeable).
Consider the following example.
If you and I were to take a step off the top of the Empire State Building, we would both succumb to the same fate regardless of how we feel or what we believe in. This is because the laws of gravity aren’t personal or man-made. Both saints and sinners experience the same results.
Natural laws are impersonal, absolute, and immutable.
And because of their impersonal nature, no one feels guilty when they inadvertently violate the laws of gravity. For example, if you fall down, you don’t feel like it’s because you’re a bad person that gravity pulled you down to the ground. You just accept that’s how it works. But for most people, when it comes to violating social and personal rules, it’s a whole different story.
Social rules are man-made.
They are collective agreements about what is appropriate and what is not appropriate in a certain culture. As a group, we define our social rules, and these rules are fluid. They are constantly changing. For example, certain things that are considered bad manners in one generation or culture can be considered polite in another.
What happens when you violate social rules?
The group sets up the consequences. If you’re violating a social law, you may either get fined or go to jail. If you’re violating a social norm, you can find yourself quickly ostracized by the group.
Personal rules are self-made.
Your personal rules are made up of your own beliefs about what is right and what is wrong, what is appropriate and what is inappropriate, what is good and what is bad.
Examples of personal rules:
- Being late = being irresponsible.
- Women over 40 who wear miniskirts are desperate.
- Telling white lies is okay so long as you have a good enough reason.
But what happens when you violate a personal rule?
That’s where the guilt comes in.
You see, because it’s a personal rule you have violated, there’s no social police or Mother Nature to assign the consequences. This means, we give ourselves the consequences for violating our own rules. Often, those consequences are a type of self-punishment. And what’s the most common type of self-punishment? You guessed it. Guilt!
The typical version of the guilt story goes something like this:
People who violate certain social and personal rules are bad people. Bad people must be punished. That’s the only way they can learn how to be good.
This tells us three very important things about guilt:
- Guilt is rooted in the belief that mistakes call for punishment.
- Guilt is rooted in the belief that punishment leads to good behavior.
- Guilt is a way of punishing ourselves and others.
In other words…
When we feel guilty, we’re self-punishing in hopes of self-correcting.
The million dollar question?
Does it really work? Does self-punishment (guilt) make us do better or become better people?
I don’t believe it does. A classic example is dieting. Often, people on a diet will tell you that they feel guilty when they over eat or eat the wrong things. But that’s not enough to stop them from doing it anyway.
Here’s another example:
Many parents have admitted to me that they regularly feel guilty about the lack of quality time they spend with their kids. But does that guilt cause them to rearrange their lifestyle? Not usually. Isn’t it interesting that as we examine guilt up close, when it comes to preventing bad behaviors, we find that it’s usually a day late and a dollar short? In fact, guilt doesn’t stop us from doing anything, only from enjoying it.
Let’s look at guilt from a legal perspective.
Did you know that more than 75% of prisoners in the United States prison system are repeat offenders? It’s true. (Pretty grim statistics, if you ask me.) Ask any of these prisoners if they feel bad about what they have done, and most will tell you that they do. And yet, that guilty feeling will not be enough to prevent them from breaking the law again.
Therein lies the biggest deception about guilt. It’s a red herring.
Do you know where the term red herring comes from? It was originated when British fugitives in the 1800’s would rub a red herring across their trail, thereby diverting the bloodhounds that were pursuing them.
Guilt serves the same purpose.
It’s a diversion tactic.
It only gives the impression that it’s corrective, when in fact, it’s no such thing. A person can feel guilty all the way up to forever and still not correct a bad behavior.
Which brings us to another key point.
Guilt has no time limit.
Once you start punishing yourself… how will you know when to stop? How much is enough? When does the sentence end? And who decides? And since guilt does not automatically lead to correction, this means it very rarely (if ever) changes the problem. Therefore, we end up punishing ourselves over and over again, without any real change or value. Punishment without correction, in my book, is cruelty.
But what does this all mean to you?
Think about it.
On the night of the bachelorette party, it’s obvious you made a mistake. You crossed a line, and you violated your own personal rules… and now, you’re punishing yourself with guilt.
Remember one of the problems about guilt?
It has no expiration date. (And punishment without an ending is abuse, isn’t it?)
For the past 18 months, you’ve been punishing yourself. You’ve been telling yourself a myriad of different painful stories… all designed to inflict the appropriate amount of pain in order to make you suffer for violating your own boundaries.
Here are some good questions to ask yourself: Has it been helpful? Has it made you a better person? (Something to think about.)
I believe the best reason to stop doing something is when you realize it doesn’t work.
If you’re willing to be honest with yourself, you can see you’ve already proven way beyond the shadow of a doubt, that all this self-inflicted guilt just isn’t working. On that basis alone, it should be discarded. If this makes sense to you, then you’re ready to let go of guilt and transform your personal story.
Let’s begin that process now…
4 Keys To Ending Guilt After The Affair
Once we finally realize that guilt doesn’t work, we start looking for ways that do work. This process of finding out what works often leads us on a journey back to innocence. What follows are four key insights that will help you find your way home.
Resist turning your mistakes into a personal label. The truth is, one mistake cannot tell you who you are. This is because you’re far more than any one action, and you’re way more than a set of behaviors. This is why a key life skill is the ability to look at your mistakes and see them for what they really are — mistakes. Nothing more, and nothing less. And resist the urge to make up stories that turn “mistakes” into an identity badge that you try to wear for the rest of your life.
Keep in mind: Remorse and guilt are not the same thing. When you feel remorse, you look at your past mistakes as disappointments. But you don’t feel the need to punish yourself for them because you believe you can learn from them. When you look at your past with guilt, it’s because you’re punishing yourself for your mistakes, but you’re not focused on learning from them. Therefore, genuine remorse leads us to permanent correction, while guilt leads us to more self-punishment without any correction.
Shift your focus from self-punishment to self-correction. Learning success is what we experience when we correct the wrong thinking that led us to making the mistake in the first place. This means if you want to cancel guilt… you must be willing to learn from your mistakes. When you think about it, it makes sense. If guilt is self-punishment (and it is), then the antidote would be self-correction. And once we shift from self-punishment to self-correction, we’re rehabilitated.
We’re transformed. Think about it. If you knew beyond the shadow of a doubt that you would never violate those boundaries again, what would there be to feel guilty about? The answer: nothing. Oh, sure. You might feel some remorse for your actions, but not guilt.
Make your story about redemption — not guilt. Remember, the story you believe (accept and adopt) and tell yourself about what any event, circumstance, experience, or mistake means… can help, hurt, heal, or harm you. So, what if you were to create a new story? Why not rewrite a happy ending to replace the tragic ending? Instead of focusing on all the mistakes you’ve made, you can simply turn your story into a redemption plot where the heroine learns from her mistakes and goes on to live a better life and be a better person.
Would you be interested in learning how to do that? Then read on, because the time to rewrite your story has come.
How to Turn Any Guilt Story into a Redemption Story
The foundation of all positive recovery programs and many successful rehabilitation processes can be traced to one key shift in perception, and so can many of the world’s greatest books, movies and scripts. What’s this key shift in perception?
Here it is:
Mistakes call for correction, not punishment. (Please read that at least two more times.)
What this means is the way you respond to a mistake is far more important than the mistake itself. In other words, if you believe that mistakes call for punishment, then you make yourself a victim of your own mistakes, and your story becomes a victim story (in other words, it becomes a tragedy). But if you believe that mistakes are a call for correction, and you respond to your mistakes with a desire to learn and improve… now your story becomes about triumph, personal power and redemption.
This is not a new concept.
Think of any great book you’ve ever read or any great movie you’ve ever seen. Then you’ll realize this is exactly what the hero or heroine does. At some point, they were able to find a way to correct a mistake (either their mistake or someone else’s) — turning their story into a positive experience for them rather than a negative one (a happy ending).
This is good news indeed.
It means there’s no need to hold on to your guilt story. You can just as easily turn it into a redemption story. There’s no reason to be the victim of your mistakes… when you can easily become the hero. All you have to do is keep in mind:
Mistakes are a call for correction (not punishment).
Do this, and your story instantly becomes a testimonial instead of a tragedy. Do this, and you’ll be amazed just how much more powerful a redemption story is than a guilt and punishment story.
But I don’t want you to just take my word for it. I want you to actually try it for yourself and see if your next 18 months of life aren’t dramatically better than the previous one.
Are you up to the challenge? I know you are.
Until we speak again…
Remember… Love Wins!