In order to successfully understand your guilt you must understand the stages that we go through in the guilt process:
- Denial. We may be shocked and numb at first because the guilt is so uncomfortable. We may deny responsibility at first.
- Processing. Over time, we are able to accurately assess the harm done and legitimately assess our responsibility. Lessons are learned and emotions are neutralized by no longer looking at the situation with faulty thinking.
- Resolution. In this third step, we express appropriate grief for the hurt we have caused and make appropriate amends. We no longer feel the need for guilt and self-punishment. We are now able to truly think about and elevate others.
Healing is blocked if we get stuck in a stage we were before we are able to complete it. We can't heal from those things we choose to avoid. If we avoid thinking about the event, then fragments of memory from the affair will intrude into our thoughts. This is very important to remember, unresolved guilt continues to be replayed like a broken record. When we attempt to silence the guilt, we numb our conscience and sensitivity to the pain of others while becoming unable to connect emotionally with them.
Many times simply false ideas can enter our memories during the stress of the affair. During the affair it is typical to be so narrowly focused on ourselves, we do not see the whole picture. We can incorrectly assume an exaggerated sense of responsibility and not appreciate enough mitigating circumstances. Because of the intensity of the discovery of the affair and the aftermath that follows, these views are never effectively challenged, because you and your partner are in such a hurry forget the affair and just move on.
Without complete healing, many unhealthy ideas remain unchallenged. Shame is something that is experienced alongside guilt. Shame takes it further than guilt and says, "Not only did I do something bad, but I am bad to the core." Many people who experience shame after an affair, also experienced shame in their childhood.
For example, Pete was abused as a child, his abuse caused him to feel worthless. His abuse gave him a message that he was bad. But as a child Pete didn't think to question these messages of shame and how bad he was, as a result he remains vulnerable to intense amounts of guilt later in life when he has an affair.
Also, many unhealthy ideas can be learned and connected to the affair. If they are not confronted, they will retain their ability to disturb you in your affair recovery. This list below is just some of the thought distortions and hidden core beliefs that I have encountered in my work with couples. These distortions reveal unhealthy guilt at play in our affair recovery process.
- I don't deserve to have my spouse back. He/She is so much more deserving of what I can bring to the table.
- Looking back at the past with 20/20 vision. This just creates more guilt, and more critical self-talk.
- If I suffer enough, I can smooth everything out and make it fair.
- I am somehow responsible - even totally responsible for the affair happening to me.
- I am 100% responsible for the affair. I am not partly at fault for this.
- The guilt is so overwhelming I feel like committing suicide.
- I don't deserve to be happy because of what I've done.
- I shouldn't have been so weak to temptation.
- The more I punish myself, the more I show my partner I care.
- The more I punish myself, the more I will help my partner heal from the affair.
- If I give up my feelings of guilt, I will be disloyal to those who have suffered.
- There is absolutely nothing I can do to improve upon the past.
- There is something fundamentally wrong with me that would allow me to have an affair.
- There is something fundamentally wrong with me that would caused my spouse to have had an affair.
- I should have known better.
These false beliefs about the affair make affair recovery more difficult because they create further pain and keep the partner stuck in intense feelings of guilt as if they couldn't move forward.